Your Home Page: Main Entrance to the Virtual Campus

Several colleagues and I were chatting about the goals of a campus web redesign when one tossed in a thought-provoking question: what purpose should a home page serve?

If you accept that your web presence is your virtual campus, then the university or campus home page is its main entrance. You want to make an excellent first impression on visitors to draw them in, but you need to do it without hindering traffic. More importantly to the visitors, the main entrance must guide them up the drive easily toward their destinations.

Balancing Beauty and Utility on the Virtual Campus

Here’s a little exercise in absurdity for you: a generous alum with a passion for Renaissance art has donated an exact replica of Michelangelo’s David for the main entrance to the university’s art gallery. University officials are thrilled. The statue will become a showpiece on campus and stimulate interest in the fine arts programs. Students will have a blast accessorizing him for homecoming week.

The statue arrives and installation begins. That’s when a minor problem arises: Dave — for so he’s been nicknamed — is blocking the front entrance to the gallery so that the doors open less than halfway. Visitors resemble so many Winnie-the-Poohs stuck in Rabbit’s hole as they attempt to squeeze inside. Officials shrug as complaints roll in; people can tough it out or use the side entrance. Dave is of paramount importance to the university’s image, and he’s not moving.

This is utterly ridiculous, right? Nobody would ever make a call in favor of blocking the doors. Yet it happens all the time on the virtual campus.

On the web the blockage is in the form of excessive download times. Those giant background images, slideshows, custom fonts, JQuery doodads and social media feeds come at a cost, one that administrators and sometimes the web professionals are unaware of because downloads within the campus network are so much faster than they are through the average household’s Internet connection.

Yes, your home page looks magnificent, but it takes 50 seconds to download. Your visitors got impatient and moved on long before you can dazzle them with it. And while visitors like being dazzled, that’s not the primary purpose of the site, which is to serve their needs. What they need is fast access to the admissions application, class schedule and registration dates.

Prospective and current students, their parents and community members do not go to your home page to sit around and admire its beauty for hours on end. They’re there to do business.

Considering Navigation Tools as Virtual Signage

The single most important feature a university can offer isn’t a slideshow or a Facebook Like button but a clear, logical navigation scheme that delivers visitors to the top destinations in one or two clicks. The second most important feature by the narrowest of margins is the search engine — the virtual campus information booth.

Navigation is one area where universities may err in the opposite direction from what you might expect. They’re trying so hard to make everything easy to find that they put five or more different navigation schemes on their home page, sometimes giving different names to the same destination.

The absence of important links is frustrating, but redundancies are confusing. If the university’s web presence undergoes frequent changes it can be incredibly difficult to maintain as well.

On the physical campus, putting several different signs on the same corner pointing to the same destination doesn’t make it easier to find. They merely clutter the landscape. The same goes for the web. When mapping out a navigation scheme, universities could do worse than to start with a philosophy of “a place for everything and everything in its place.”

Fitting Secondary Sites into the Virtual Campus Scheme

Small universities may have only one web site and thus the one entrance. Medium-sized institutions though, likely have multiple sites; large ones can’t get by without dozens, even hundreds. Then the question becomes: where do the home pages of these college, department, program, center and other sites fit into the picture?

I visualize each site as a building on the virtual campus, and each site’s home page doubles as the building’s main entrance and a side entrance to the campus. Indeed, if you have a decision maker who can’t grasp the nuances of web interrelationships without visual aids, you could get a bunch of Monopoly hotels, set them out on a piece of poster board and draw the navigational connections between them as little driveways and signs.

Secondary home pages, too, need to make a positive first impression, but they generally need to be even less about show and more about getting straight down to business. This is hard for college deans to accept because they view the college web site as a primary destination in itself (which may be true, depending on the size and prestige of the college). A lot of virtual Daves are planted firmly on college home pages.

Evaluating the Usefulness of the Main Entrance

Future posts will help universities assess the utility of their main entrances without being biased by the visual elements. I’ll also explain how to look for the Daves hindering access to the virtual campus.