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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.


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference University homepages: a thankless task?:

» On University Homepages from Institutional Knowledge
Georgina Hibberd hit the nail on the head. Go read the full article for yourself, I’m sure it’s what most of us are thinking these days. To quickly summarize: Keep it simple Know your audience Keep it un-uglified You can’t pleas... [Read More]


I really like the uni Web page the way it is. I've gotten used to it over time and I can navigate to whatever I like with a few clicks of the mouse.

But I look forward to seeing the new design. When will it be released?

My main worry is that you'll change the font. I personally think that Verdana is THE best font for online content, and would hate to see something as awful as Arial taking its place.

Yes, time moves on and so do websites. It's the nature of the web, you can't stand still for too long.

I can't give you a definite launch date Matt, sorry. And in regard to the font, I really don't know what it is! I did the layout etc but graphic design was left to someone else. I just made sure it was easy to read, I didn't nominate a particular font.

The Melbourne Uni home page, and most of the pages linked directly from it, is very much a gateway. Most visitors spend less than 30 seconds on the main Uni web site and then move on to other subdomains or subsites within the University.

The central site also seems to form a 'crossroads' for internal users (that is, current students and staff): people pass through the central pages en route from one subsite to another, eg faculty/department, then Uni central, then library, rather than jumping directly from department to library.

The main challenge for universities is that we have so *many* different user groups -- and correspondingly many internal stakeholders who think their constituency deserves a home-page presence. Balancing actual user needs/expectations with marketing requirements (which try to *create* user needs/expectations) is all part of the fun... ;-)

Yes, I guess you could call it 'fun'. It only becomes fun though when you learn to let go. One of the most valuable lessons I learned was that you can only control things so far. You can't become too emotionally involved, it's just a website after all. When people start to become too emotionally involved in websites they start to try to exert inappropriate control (especially those who work outside the web design sphere). It's a fine balance between asserting your expertise and letting go when necessary. Pick your battles...

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