The Swarthmore website is undergoing a complete overhaul; after two years of hard work, the new-and-improved website is on track to go live in April.
While it may be hard to imagine, only ten years ago, there was no college website. In 1995, all that existed was a crude student-built page displaying the Swarthmore logo and a recorded voice saying “Welcome to Swarthmore.” The year 1996 brought the first institutional website, which featured a leaf design. Director of News and Information Tom Krattenmaker recalls this first site as being “greeted with skepticism and outrage by the students running the ad-hoc website!” The current website has been up and running since 1997, and its newest incarnation has been in the planning stages since fall 2004.
The 20-person-plus committee in charge of the new website brought in Pentagram, the consultants Swarthmore used in the redesign of its admissions viewbook. “Our goal was to make the site more reflective of the personality of Swarthmore,” says Krattenmaker.
While most colleges have “directory-style” front pages, with a logo, a few links, and no need to scroll down, Swarthmore has always had a more content-based strategy; at the moment, it features links on the left side, press releases in the center, and links to “special features” such as Daily Gazette articles, student blogs, or even New York Times articles on the right. Pentagram liked the content strategy and felt that it was a good reflection of Swarthmore’s personality, but the new website will, according to Krattenmaker, “take it to the nth degree!”
The new website flips the current content strategy inside-out, bringing special features to the center column and pushing press releases to the right. “We want to get away from the anonymous institutional voice of press releases,” explains Krattenmaker, ” and to develop new kinds of content for a greater mix of content.”
The website is also more visually appealing. Instead of plain garnet, the top bar of the website will now feature a picture of the amphitheater. This picture will change in each area of the website; for example, the “Athletics” portion will feature feet pounding on a track. Instead of a static picture in the center column, there will be a manually-controlled slideshow.
In another move designed to bring out Swarthmore’s personality, every academic department website will be linked to the front page. These links will be placed prominently in the left column, and different sections of the website will be linked to the top bar. Most of the sections–“Admissions,” “Alumni,” “Athletics”–will be the same as the old sections, with one big difference. The “Student Life” section is being dropped because, according to Krattenmaker, “we can take that message to other locations.”
Since the academic departments will now have such a prominent place on the website, one of the major goals of the computing staff is improving the department websites. There is a huge demand for such sites to be redeveloped, but “we ask for people’s patience,” said Director of Academic Computing Eric Behrens. “Our strategy acknowledges that we cannot do forty pages at once, but we will be going to some of the neediest departments and trying to help them to get something together for the launch.” Furthermore, stressed Behrens, “our ability to address these additional sites will be dependent on the readiness of the departments.”
The effort to improve departmental pages is not about getting them all to conform to the same style. “Dance and engineering have different audiences who need different information,” explained Krattenmaker, who stressed that the resulting pages will “not be uniform in look, but uniform in high quality.”
On a nuts-and-bolts-level, this will be possible because the website will now be based on Ingeniux, a content-management system that allows anyone to create webpages without using code. “When we used Dreamweaver,” explained Behrens, “we would build sites for departments, but once we handed over the site, it would fall to somebody in the department who would become daunted down the road… they would forget how to use Dreamweaver, and nothing would be changed for months. Now, it will be easier for end users to update pages without worrying about the design aspect.”
Behrens stressed the bottom-up nature of the new website. “You can write a feature and have it bubble up to higher levels of the site,” he said, “and so one piece of content can be used in many places. Content will bubble up instead of being forced down.” For example, an article written by the dance department about a performance could “bubble up” to appear on the home page.
The new website has also undergone extensive use-ability testing, for example, with prospective students and parents at the admissions office. “We want to win people over because they find what they’re looking for,” said Behrens. While the testing “confirmed that the navigation structure we had envisioned holds,” explained Behrens, “we revised some keywords and restructured the admissions website a little bit. We’ve been more thoughtful in putting all of the information about the application process at your fingertips–there are deadlines, a checklist, the application, and interview information all on the same page.”
The Swarthmore community can look forward to seeing all of these changes in mid-April.