TOWSON, Md. (Feb. 1, 2006)—If Web sites can be thought of as institutional “front doors,” then Towson University’s front door just got larger, more attractive and—most important—a lot easier to open.
The revamped site, launched Wednesday with a campuswide party at the University Union, represents a dramatic leap forward in terms of accessibility, says Ellen Stokes, TU associate vice president for university marketing.
The old site, left to develop on its own for the past four or five years, had grown unwieldy. “A village without zoning,” as one observer put it.
By 2004 it had reached an astonishing 100,000 pages.
“Imagine trying to navigate something that huge and poorly organized,” Stokes says. “People couldn’t find what they needed, and that affected their perceptions of the university.”
Fortunately, President Robert L. Caret recognized the value of a good Web site and threw his support behind the makeover. “He understands the role it plays in achieving our 2010 goals,” she adds. “He made it a priority.”
Stokes initiated the redesign about 18 months ago with research conducted by TU’s Office of Technology Support and the Student Government Association. While OTS staff studied Web site traffic and information architecture, the SGA surveyed students, collected their opinions about the site, noted the improvements they wanted to see, then shared the findings with Stokes.
“It was a self-education process,” she says of the project. Preliminaries involved collecting data on who visited the site, where they went and what proved hard to find. OTS staff checked for broken links and eliminated redundancies, a junk-collection project they dubbed Sanford and Son after the ’70s sitcom.
Some findings were a revelation, says Stokes. “We discovered that 500,000 people per month were visiting the site, some homing in on parts we hadn’t known existed.”
Last April a free-lance information architect joined an existing ad hoc team of TU professionals from OTS, the Design Center, University Marketing, University Relations and Cook Library.
“The redesign required a paradigm shift,” Stokes says. “We invented personas—current and prospective students, parents, alumni, researchers, faculty, staff, etc.—and role-played so we could create an organizational structure that addressed their needs.”
Once that structure was in place, the task of developing a new look and generating new or revised content occupied TU graphic designers, writers, editors and photographers for months.
“The transformation is amazing,” Stokes says of the new site. “You can find remnants of the old site, but overall it’s much more inviting and usable. We’re especially pleased that all new pages comply with federal standards for accessibility for the blind.
“A Web site should always be under construction,” she stresses. “We can’t afford to let our site atrophy—it provides an indelible first impression of Towson University.”