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Campus Computing News

About the new UNT home page

By Kenn Moffitt, Director of University Online Communications

Actually, I was tempted to just title this article “FINALLY!”  The new UNT home page launched last Wednesday, January 11, quietly between semesters. Once the new home page has been published, I am usually so tired of it that I try to block it out completely. One thing always brings me back…. Feedback. So far the feedback has been positive and the site seems to be heading in the right direction. So I wanted to take the opportunity to try and communicate some of the major points about the purpose and the process.

Technology

Since I can safely “geek out” here in Benchmarks Online, the CITC newsletter, I can start with the technology. The new home page is completely valid XHTML and relies on CSS style sheets to control the design and layout. There has been a movement the last few years to rescue the web from 1 pixel images for placement, convoluted tables for design, and non-standard coding. Basically a full-on web revolution compared to the way that we all learned web design in the nineties. It has taken a while for most of the majors browsers to reliably handle these standards.

The core concept of the web standard movement is to use standard compliant markup for HTML, CSS, DOM, and ECMAScript technologies and to completely divorce the content and information on the pages from the visual design elements. This creates pages that works equally well on ALL modern web browsers (IE, Netscape/Mozilla/Firefox, Safari and Opera) and provides interoperability for future browsers as well.

Using correctly structured and standards compliant markup allows the modern browsers to focus on displaying pages correctly without having to write bloated code that has to attempt to correct poorly written markup. Without the bloat, the browser programs can be smaller and require less memory.  Browsers can focus on a smaller set of adopted behaviors and on rendering the page correctly and consistently.

Separating the design from the informational content on the page has the following benefits:

  • Easier web management - If a site uses a single CSS style file for the display of the whole site, design changes and adjustments can be made in the single file and once uploaded can influence the entire site. Need to change the font size on every page? Change it in the style file and every page that links to it will now use the new size.
     
  • Safer and easier updating - Separating the design from the information allows web page content authors to adjust the information quickly without having to worry about making a mistake and ruining the design.  The CSS file handles the display characteristics of fonts and other formatting options so the web page editor can add plain text and be assured that it will be presented correctly and that the style in consistent across the site.
     
  • Optimized findability in search engines - Since search engines ignore the style sheets, they can consume the page and be presented with just the informational content. Search engines don’t have to wade through convoluted tables and tiny images that hold no value.
     
  • Increased browsing for people with disabilities - Web accessibility software such as screen readers for the vision impaired can access the information on web pages and ignore the visual design information in the CSS file.
     
  • Faster browsing for handheld and wireless devices – As more and more people use their cell phones, PDAs, and other wireless devices to access our web pages, the stylesheet can be ignored by the devices. The information can be downloaded quickly and if the page is designed correctly, the information can fit in the wireless viewport without the person having to scroll from right to left.

Content strategy on the home page

The new home page was designed to showcase UNT achievements and highlight critical resources and functions essential to UNT’s missions and goals. The homepages uses content strategically to distinguish us from other universities and to reinforce our initiatives such as research, recruiting and academic achievement (among others). Unfortunately, not everything can be showcased on the main UNT home page.

Departments call our office and ask for their event/award/web site/announcement to be featured on the home page. They are proud of the accomplishment and need promotion. Sometimes we can accommodate and sometimes there are better alternatives. The decision about whether to feature information on the home page is not personal or capricious but has to do with the nature of the web site itself. Someone has to be a gatekeeper or the home page becomes overwhelming and unusable.

Pssst. Here’s a secret … a university home page is not the end-all-be-all web destination for visitors. No really. Compared to the quantity of information and services available at UNT, it has very little virtual real estate. A home page is simply a starting point for the different audiences that visit. It is more like the lobby of a movie theater. People enter through the theater’s lobby and the lobby directs the moviegoers to their destination, the movie that they came to see.

Most visitors spend an average of a few seconds on the home page, searching for clear navigation to direct them to information and resources. In those few seconds, we have an opportunity to tell them about UNT.  Who we are. What’s going on. Why they should choose UNT. Anything that we NEED them to know about UNT and our story.

Selecting content for all of the UNT audiences (current students, future students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents, etc.) is a balancing act. The more material we add to the UNT home page, the more difficult it becomes for ALL of the visitors to find what they are looking for.  Each additional feature or link competes for the limited attention of the web visitor. That leaves it up to someone to be a gatekeeper of the home page and try and make informed decisions based on audience research and University initiatives. It also means that someone has to say “no” from time to time.

There are often better solutions.  For example, if a department has won an award and wants to promote the achievement, there is a news section on the home page where we can feature the item for a short time. News changes quickly so the item is often short lived. For the award or announcement to be noticed by more visitors in the long term the department’s site is often a better solution.   When an audience member leaves the UNT home page to visit the department’s site, the visitor has demonstrated intent and has narrowed their focus to a particular topic area. Though the visitors to a smaller site might be less in numbers than those visiting the UNT home page, these visitors have visited the site because they are genuinely interested and the subject is relevant. And since the smaller sites generally have less news, the item can be showcased for a longer time.

There are additional alternatives in addition to a department’s home page.  If an event needs to be promoted, it can be added into the UNT event calendar. Events added to the calendar can be featured on the UNT home page the day of the event.  The information is featured on the second level pages of the site for a week before the event.  The second level pages often are visited by a particular audience segment, so events are showcased on the appropriate pages. For example, the “athletics” page features athletic events, the “registering and attending classes” page provides academic events and deadlines for current students, the “faculty and staff page” shows training opportunities, and the “alumni” and “community” pages contain events that are of interest to the general public.

Events on the calendar are included in reports that are provided to the UNT Police, Risk Management and the media.

Homepages and portals

Sometimes I get asked about the differences between the UNT home site and the My UNT portal. People want to know if we will continue to have both or if the portal will replace the home page.

I don’t see the portal replacing the home page because they serve different purposes. A home page or web site is public and provides general information to all. Being public, the content can be freely indexed by search engines and increases our findability across the web.

The My UNT portal is fundamentally different. A portal requires users to log in and authenticate in order to access information or services. Once the visitor logs in, the system understands the visitor’s role and the software shows content or services that are specific to the visitor’s role or relationship with the university. A portal is meant to aggregate core services from our institution in one place and allows a visitor to gain specific access to all applicable services with a single log in.

Since access is restricted to accounts, we can communicate directly to various audience groups even if the communications are a bit sensitive in nature or not entirely appropriate for the public. Services and information can be more targeted and relevant.

The My UNT portal and portal technologies are in their infancy compared to the web. The My UNT portal is just beginning and is a major accomplishment.  Just researching, installing, maintaining and providing the core services have been a monumental task. It has taken numerous dedicated individuals countless hours of dedication to create the environment. Many other universities have not committed to a step like this or are just starting to investigate portal benefits.

That being said, the portal still continues to be a high priority and will not remain stagnant.  New strategies are being developed and new services considered to help reach its potential. 

Any comments or questions about the new homepage can be e-mailed to Kenn Moffitt at moffitt@unt.edu.

    


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