Awards
Complete Institutional Web Sites: Virginia Tech - Bronze Medal

Category 10A: Web Sites – Complete Institutional Web Sites
Virginia Tech (www.vt.edu)

Contact: Michael Dame, director of Web communications, University Relations, 101A Media Building (0109), Blacksburg, VA 24061, Phone: (540) 231-8508, e-mail: mdame@vt.edu

Description of Project: In fall 2005, Virginia Tech initiated a Web redevelopment project to coincide with its new “Invent the Future” branding initiative. The offices of University Relations and Information Technology partnered on the project, which was led by a newly established Web Communications group within University Relations. The university contracted with an outside firm, Blacksburg-based New City Media, to assist in developing a new design for Virginia Tech’s Web presence.

Planning and objectives: In the years preceding this project, Virginia Tech’s Web presence developed in a very decentralized and unstructured fashion. Literally hundreds of Web sites operated independently, which naturally led to inconsistencies in design, content, and usability. There had been no guidance or standards, either from the IT community or from the public relations office. Moreover, there had been a history of turf battles between the organizations. With layoffs and lack of resources, the university Web development process drifted into what could be best described as a gentle free-for-all.

University relations management convinced university leadership to invest new resources for personnel and outside help. University relations took the lead to pull together the Web community, enlisted the aid of IT leadership, and created the harmony necessary to begin a process that required involvement from literally every corner of campus. With that environment as a backdrop, the university embarked on a comprehensive Web redevelopment project.

Phase I was a redesign of vt.edu and selected sub-domains. Among our goals:

  • To make it easier for site visitors to find desired information;
  • To improve the quality, accuracy, and timeliness of information;
  • To incorporate the university’s new brand standards, and establish consistent branding and navigation schema;
  • To establish a user-centered approach to Web development at Virginia Tech; and
  • To unify the most visible areas of the website within a “family look and feel.”

We chose the university’s highest-profile sub-domains as Phase I participants:

 

Why the design was chosen: Before beginning any design work, our redesign team spent two months analyzing usage statistics for each Web site, interviewing key audience members (current and prospective students, faculty, staff, parents), and consulting with an advisory committee comprised of representatives from every college and major administrative department. Based on our findings, we developed a “mental model” for each audience group. Finally, for each Phase I Web site we identified and charted key things visitors were trying to find or do when visiting. With all this data in hand, development proceeded as such:

  1. Develop site architecture and navigation schema.
  2. Develop wireframe concepts and test with target audiences.
  3. Finalize primary, secondary, and tertiary wireframes and main navigation.
  4. Develop design concepts (colors, fonts, graphics, etc.).
  5. Choose final designs and share screen shots with university community.

Much of our initial focus, of course, was on development of the vt.edu homepage and navigation. To guide our decision-making, we continually referred to our mental models, paying close attention to the words audience members used during interviews.

The dominating visual element in our home page design is the “Spotlight.” This element is the visual manifestation of our Brand Promise of Quality (Achievement), Innovation, and Impact. The Spotlight contains three rotating features – a new one is posted weekly – opening multiple windows to our Brand Promise. Branding is all about telling consistently messaged stories. Without a bit of explanation, the reader won’t understand the strategic significance.

The bulk of the rest of the homepage is devoted to elements that change frequently. We know that, if we want people to frequent our site and stay with us (stickiness), we need to present fresh content. Thus, we post both marketing and news information and update regularly.

Mental modeling drove our decision to group similar links both in the left navigation and in the center of the page. We also created an area for a “topical” promotion midway down the page, allowing us to highlight important events or messages.

Finally, in another extension of our branding process, we tapped into a palette of complimentary colors because we know that our school colors – orange and maroon – can be difficult to work with. You will note that the complimentary colors are the dominant colors on the website, because the poor readability of orange and maroon is even more pronounced on the Web. Yet, we remain true to those who believe that university colors must be on every page.

Once we had our design, we built a “sneak preview” mini-site to inform site visitors of the upcoming changes and solicit feedback. The sneak preview was posted six weeks before our redesign launch, ensuring time to make changes suggested by our audience.

The redesign of vt.edu and other Phase I websites launched in late July 2006.

Audience: The audience for vt.edu and its sub-domains includes prospective students and their parents, current students and their parents, faculty, staff, alumni, friends, donors, and the general public. With our redesign, we repositioned the vt.edu homepage more as a resource for external audience members – particularly prospective students and their parents – and less as a portal trying to be all things Virginia Tech to all people. Our strategy was, and is, to establish and market My VT (www.my.vt.edu) and VT News (www.vtnews.vt.edu) as primary resources for faculty, staff, and students.

An easily overlooked niche audience, however, is the community of Web developers within the university. To engage that audience and encourage their ongoing participation in the Web redevelopment project, university relations:

  • released a Web Development Toolkit (www.unirel.vt.edu/web), which includes guidelines, standard university templates, cascading style sheets, redesign graphic elements, and a plethora of best practices and related development tools;
  • held the university’s first Web Development Symposium;
  • started a Web Development Blog (www.ee.unirel.vt.edu/index.php/webcomm/); and
  • began teaching a Faculty Development Institute course to instruct developers on how to implement standard university templates.

Use of available resources: The university budgeted $90,000 toward our redesign project. New City Media won the redesign contract after an RFP process. The project included a content audit, audience interviews, site analysis, site architecture development, wireframe production and validation (user testing), development of visual standards, template production, and development of requirements for a Web Content Management System (CMS). Staff resources used on the project:

 

University Relations / Web Communications staff:

Michael Dame

Director of Web Communications

Bruce Harper

University Webmaster

Elaine Oliver

Web Developer

Kimberly Haines

Web Producer

Information Technology staff:

 

Russell Fenn

Applications Administrator

Jan Gibb

Web Application Programmer

Administrative offices staff:

Russell Holbrook

Undergraduate Admissions

Patrick Gray

Financial Aid and Scholarships

Stephen Rosebrough

University Bursar

 

Note: For most of the Phase I sites, University Relations staff took on the task of preparing and producing content for the redesign.

Plan for evaluating the program: The university has established metrics to track the effectiveness of our Web presence, using unique visitors and page views as the primary gauges (see attached charts). As an office, university relations also is tracking time spent and pages per visit to measure the “stickiness” of the Web site.

We just completed the seventh month of our redesign implementation, and with Web site traffic data in hand, we are preparing to conduct follow-up interviews with our audiences to help us determine if we are achieving our goals. We also have established a Web Advisory Panel, comprised of a cross-section of 50 audience members, to review concepts as we continue our development, which includes:

  • Conducting scheduled website maintenance and content development;
  • Purchasing and implementing a CMS (project Phase II);
  • Building a central file repository to facilitate content sharing (Phase III); and
  • Migrating sub-domain websites to the CMS (ongoing).

Our goal is to see the majority of vt.edu sub-domains implementing our new “family look and feel” and/or migrating to the CMS over time.

Response/Results: As evidenced by the attached before-and-after screen shots, our Web presence offers much more consistency in form and function. Results of a post-launch online survey revealed a very positive reaction to our new design, and an appreciation for our common navigation schema. Audience growth can be seen in the attached charts.

One unexpected but powerful outcome was the sense of community fostered among the university’s Web developers. Frankly, they were suspicious at first. Before our redesign effort, the vt.edu domain was a motley collection of unconnected fiefdoms rather than a cohesive, consistent, and integrated unit. As of February 25, our new templates had been adopted by 20 departments, and another 30 had downloaded the templates with the intention of adoption this year. Our first Web Development Symposium last November was literally a standing-room-only event.

Most recently, we finalized CMS requirements and issued an RFP. We are in the process of reviewing proposals and plan to have the CMS installed and in operation this summer.

Our motto: Our work will never be complete; we are in a state of perpetual beta.