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Design Rationale
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Brad Mehlenbacher
6 July 2002

Historical Context for the 2002 Redesign Project

To fully understand the challenge of redesigning the NC State home page, it is first useful to note that various projects, committees, and organizational units at NC State talked about, met, and sometimes even worked on redesigns as far back as 1995 (see Building the NCSU electronic door: a brief history). So the February, 2001, release of the first redesign of the NC State home page was long overdue, given that many prospective college students complained that, on average, university and college websites didn't provide the information they need [Gueverra, J. (2001, June). How Are Dot Edu's Using the Internet? The Technology Source].

The latest redesign of the NC State website comes one-and-a-half years later and draws on the strengths of the existing home page while simultaneously addressing the shortcomings of the design. The greatest improvements to the current NC State home page are the new home page's

  • streamlined look, resulting in much faster download speed;
  • new search engine that uses Google technology to ensure efficient and effective search results
  • textual news items that change daily;
  • multi-column second-tier page design that all but eliminates the need for scrolling;
  • graphic emphasis on NC State's Bell Tower, students, and faculty, and;
  • retention of the information architecture established in the previous home page design.
Web Development Team's Methodological Approach

The web development team followed redesign processes used at other top institutions and companies, for example, IBM's Ease of Use Group [in addition to following approaches described in detail in Dumas, J. S., and Redish, J. C. (1994). A Practical Guide to Usability Testing. Hillsdale, NJ: Ablex; Landauer, T. K. (1995). The Trouble with Computers: Usefulness, Usability, and Productivity. Cambridge, MA: MIT P; Nielsen, J., & Mack, R. L. (Eds.). (1994). Usability Inspection Methods. NY, NY: John Wiley & Sons; Nielsen, J. (2000). Designing Web Usability. Indianapolis, IN: New Riders, and; Rubin, J. (1994). Handbook of Usability Testing: How to Plan, Design, and Conduct Effective Tests. NY, NY: John Wiley & Sons].

In short, we:

  • Continued performing competitive analyses of peer institution websites;
  • Maintained high-order usability goals including usefulness, effectiveness, learnability, and satisfaction ratings from various audience types, and;
  • Responded quickly to feedback and continued to test and refine the existing home page (through pluralistic walkthroughs, focus groups, contextual inquiry, field observations and, importantly, performance testing).
Principles Driving the 2002 NC State Home Page Redesign

The list below defines each element or usability principle operating in the new design in more detail:

1) Existing information architecture and audience categories have been maintained: The home page categories are clustered into four basic information "types" -- audience oriented (e.g., for students, for faculty & staff, etc.), programmatic information (e.g., academic programs, research, etc.), administrative information (e.g., chancellor's office, administration, etc.), and search-for features (e.g., search, directories, campus map, etc.). Clustered content is easier to scan and search (see Mehlenbacher, B., Duffy, T. M., & Palmer, J. E. (1989). Finding Information on a Menu: Linking Menu Organization to the User's Goals. Human-Computer Interaction, 4, 3, 231-251).

2) Download speed tested and increased significantly [Sears, A., Jacko, J.A., & Borello, M.S. (1997). Internet delay effects: How users perceive quality, organization, and ease of use of information. Proceedings of the ACM CHI '97 Conference: Human Factors in Computing Systems].

3) Links placed across audience categories: Placing content in more than one category (e.g., links exist that both future students and current students would find useful) [Rosenfeld, L., & Morville, P. (1998). Information Architecture for the World Wide Web. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly & Associates].

4) Popular NC State structures emphasied, for example, the Bell Tower, students, campus buildings, athletics [see "10 Critical Design Factors of e-Loyalty].

5) Font size selected in response to research: The HTML typography size for the second tier is font size = 2 [Baumel, B. (1999). Understanding Cross-Platform Text Size Differences].

6) University address prominently displayed: Serves as an anchor element at the bottom of the page and gives users information important for contacting the university.

7) 2nd tier designed in multi-column format to reduce scrolling dramatically: Users are now able to see all of the sub-categories at a glance and scrolling is reduced to a single sccreen [strongly recommended by Nielsen, 2001].

8) Media available but not intrusive: video and photography on the 2nd tier make this level of information more interesting. All video is brief, with an option of using either Quicktime or RealMedia software.

9) Designed for universal usability (ADA accessibility): [Shneiderman, B. (2000). Universal Usability. Communications of the ACM, 43 (5), 84-91].

10) Usability methods built into our design process from the beginning: we have continued to perform competitive analyses of peer and private university home pages, built heuristic evaluations into every development cycle, and integrated usability and focus group feedback into our design efforts at every stage [Nielsen, J., & Mack, R. L. (Eds.). (1994). Usability Inspection Methods. NY, NY: John Wiley & Sons]. When users send us feedback via homepage_feeback we respond and revise the NC State website according to their user preferences.

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