Swarthmore’s new website: engaging, user-friendly, and a sort of “pale cream”

Crowds of hungry students drawn in by the lure of free pizza also served as a test audience yesterday for the unveiling of Swarthmore’s newly-designed website, slated for a mid-April release.

ITS’ Eric Behrens ’92 led the session. Behrens, who is the head of academic computing for ITS, was temporarily reassigned to implement the new website. He began by going over the current page and stressing its strengths and weaknesses: while our current page has more information than marketing (“None of the ‘Swarthmore is…’, then three adjectives,” commented Behrens), most of the information comes from press releases which are generally “flat”.

This is all changed in the new website. While there is still a section for press releases, it consists of headlines only and is tucked away in a column on the side. The center column, the “main” section of the page, is more “features oriented”. Found here are articles written by students, staff, faculty, and alumni. According to Behrens, there will be some sort of mechanism for students to submit stories or story idea; such a system has not been designed yet. However, he hoped that it would become sort of “the blog of Swarthmore.”

Also in this center column is the picture. Instead of a static picture the new website has a slideshow. Behrens explained that photo shoots will be happening constantly, capturing campus events, sports contests, and other happenings for the website. The pictures, which will be updated frequently, also have captions to identify the context.

Another big change is the left column of the page. The current links for “academics,” “administration,” etc. have been moved to a bar on the top of the page, right under the Swarthmore banner, while links to the new “dashboards” and department listings take their spot. According to Behrens, this change is to increase usability, especially for prospective students. The three dashboards (for students, faculty & staff, and visitors respectively) are revamped Portal pages, streamlined to provide fast access to important content for the three groups (more on the student dashboard later).

Because of their prominent location, departments are being strongly encouraged to update their own website. While ITS is only specifically taking on the worst sites (“Triage,” joked Behrens), templates will be made available to all departments to make the process quicker and the sites themselves easier to maintain.

Aside from the main page, Behrens quickly flipped through some of the other sections (academics, alumni, giving) to demonstrate the “unified in some ways, but diverse enough to keep you snoring” structure. The emphasis on feature-y content also continued throughout the sections.

Behrens ended the presentation with a look at the new student dashboard. While it still contains quick access to Swatmail, the directory, the weather, and Daily Gazette news, it also has the current Sharples menu, a transportation schedule listing the next departure time for the R3 train and TriCo shuttle, and a few “reminder from the Deans” section highlighting important dates to remember. However, the most change to the dashboard is the movement of the link lists to the center of the page. The lists have been cut and expanded according to usage statistics and are designed to provide quick access to the most visited pages.

Student reactions to the website were generally positive. Many complained that the dashboard (which is now sans photo) was too flat, and another significant group strongly disliked the green-yellow background of the main page (though according to Behrens, the color was distorted on the projection screen and is actually “pale cream”).

ITS plans to release the website to the Swarthmore campus only on April 3rd for a two-week preview period. Assuming all goes well, it will be released to the world on April 17th. Because the website is still unfinished, some details may differ.


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