What makes a good university homepage?
1. Clear pathways to further information
2. An uncluttered interface that serves only the users, not the wishes of every group on campus with a website that wants a link.
3. Clear and consistent branding
4. Pleasing graphic design that appeals to the largest target audience group of the page without alienating other groups completely.
Designing a university homepage can be seen as a thankless task. No matter what the design there is always going to be someone who is unhappy. Generally those unhappy will be within the University itself. And that's not such a bad thing.
The main audience for a University homepage are those outside of the University: potential students, potential staff, people from other universities, media, the list goes on.
This is not to say that those already within the University will not use the homepage. They will but it will be merely a gateway to another site that caters directly for them. In our case we have the MyUni portal and the staff intranet.
The page will also act as a gateway for those outside the university. The difference is that these people will not necessarily know where they are going. They need clear paths to useful information described in language they can understand.
So how do you design a homepage to cater to this multitude of audiences while serving the strategic needs of the university and wrapping it in a pleasing graphic design?
1. Identify your audiences and place them in a hierarchy of importance. For example, if the main goal of the University is to attract new students, then 'Future Students' should go at the top of the list.
2. Develop a clear idea as to why these audiences are coming to the site and prioritise their tasks. Using the Future students example: finding an appropriate course would be near the top of their requirements. Placing a clear pathway to course information should be a top priority for the front page. There is not going to be enough space on the page to serve the needs of all audiences. In some cases, especially where there is a whole site catering to an internal audience, a single link leading to that site will probably suffice.
3. Reflect the strategic goals of the university while illustrating an image of the University. Look at creating areas of the page which serve the main goals of the University. In the case of our new design (yet to be launched) we have included 'Learning and teaching' and 'Research' explicitly. We have also included news stories. The news gives the page a more dynamic and vibrant feel. They will change constantly so return visitors will be given the feeling that the University is moving, not static and staid.
4. Wrap it all in a graphic design which appeals to your largest user base, while not alienating other small user groups. This may mean ignoring what a lot of internal people have to say about the design. Ignoring them is a good thing, they are not the primary audience and often would have little idea about what the primary user group needs or wants.
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