The New Smith.edu: New Features Improve User Experience

As was announced last April, a totally new smith.edu—featuring a visually engaging design, simplified global navigation, improved usability and search, and a layout optimized for vertical scrolling and mobile devices—will begin rolling out later this spring and throughout the year.

A lot has changed since Smith’s last website redesign. Website visitors, particularly prospective students and parents, have grown increasingly sophisticated, and expect a college’s online presence to quickly and successfully tell the story of what distinguishes it from other institutions. They are task-oriented, looking for specific content, and expect the information they seek to be organized in a clear and logical way that quickly addresses their particular questions. And they expect a website to be accessible and easy to use, whether they’re viewing it on a computer, a tablet or a phone.

Top Site Features

  • A new site-wide navigation system and menus allow more information to be accessed quickly.
  • Content is organized around the topics and themes that visitors—especially prospective students—most often seek, rather than around the way Smith is organized.
  • Top interests of prospective students are addressed on the home page.
  • Responsive pages adjust automatically for desktop, tablet or phone.

A working group representing College Relations, Admission, Development, Alumnae Relations, ITS and other offices, was convened by John Eue, associate vice president for public affairs, in early 2015. The group has partnered with Primacy, a web strategy, development and design firm, in extensive efforts to gain input from stakeholders, work with focus groups, conduct usability testing and review best practices and websites of peer institutions. The process kicked off with several days of stakeholder interviews with groups representing the faculty, admission, alumnae, development, student life and other site users. More than 900 students, alumnae, faculty and staff, and 1,100 prospective students responded to surveys. Design focus groups and usability testing sessions with more than 30 participants were conducted with current and prospective students, faculty and staff.

What emerged from that research was that visitors felt the current site does not convey the richness and variety of the Smith experience. Too much information is presented in long pages of text, rather than through images. The content most sought by visitors takes too many clicks to reach. And the site is organized the way the college is structured, rather than around topics and themes where visitors, particularly prospective students and families, expect to find it.

The New Smith.edu

Among the changes you’ll immediately notice on the home page is the message “Empower the Whole You.” This theme, which emerged from surveys and focus group testing with prospective and current students, alumnae and others, expresses in a nutshell the idea that a Smith education extends beyond what a student learns in the classroom to encompass her entire Smith experience. The new home page will expand on this idea by presenting the six topics in which prospective students were most interested: the intellectual rigor and depth of Smith’s academic program; the college’s emphasis on global learning; the broad range of opportunities, scholarly achievements and powerful networks that transform women into leaders and change agents; and the campus community and what it’s like to live at Smith. Pages on each of these topics will expand on the content and link to relevant information.

A global navigation system provides a search function and links to content and audience areas. Topics provide content relevant to prospective students: the academic program, living at Smith, our global community, Smith success stories and more.

Below the Topics area, a section for news carries important announcements and events, and for the first time, embedded video. Thanks to the modular nature of the site, which is designed for vertical scrolling, additional content areas—photo galleries, student profiles, video—can be added as necessary.

The vertical concept carries through to the rest of the site. What are currently many small pages may now be presented as one single page, eliminating another layer of navigation. There is greater emphasis on photography, graphics and multimedia. Accessibility considerations for visitors with disabilities are built into the system. And pages will automatically adjust to fit any size display. On desktop displays, you’ll notice that pages are much wider than the current site’s, to take advantage of larger monitors. If you’re viewing the site on a smaller display, tablet or phone, pages will scale down for optimal viewing.

A goal of the new site is to make information easier to find, with fewer clicks required to reach it. A new global navigation at the top of each page carries links to the main content areas of the site, as well as the opportunity to search the site, and provides tailored content for different audiences—including current students, parents and families, faculty, staff and alumnae. A new feature of the site, drop-down menus, permits visitors to get a look at the content of each section, as well as go directly to content without having to click through multiple pages.

Drop-down menus, accessible throughout the site, preview the content in each area and allow direct links as well.

Drop-down menus, accessible throughout the site, preview and allow direct access to the content in each area.

Rather than navigation buttons, links to more information are displayed as blocks that reveal the content beneath.

A new global footer, at the bottom of every page, offers another opportunity to search, as well as quick links to commonly-used pages: the college directory, email, dining menus, the course catalog and more. Links are provided to the college’s chief social-media venues as well.

A global footer provides another opportunity for search as well as direct links to commonly-accessed content, like the course catalog, and tools, like the college directory.

What’s Next?

The new design is being developed in the Drupal content management system. In March, staff in College Relations will begin building out the top “tier” of pages. A specific date and plan for launch will be determined at that time, as well as a plan for migrating content not currently in Drupal to the new system. Information on training, governance and support will be rolled out this spring, as well.

By the end of 2016, we hope to have a significant portion of the Smith site in the new system. Migration of existing academic and office sites will include rethinking content in the context of the new “vertical” page orientation and simplified navigation, as well as paring away redundant or outdated content. A peer college which recently went through a similar process went from 19,000 pages to 4,000, greatly improving clarity and ease of use for visitors.

ITS is developing a training and support program for everyone, including academic assistants, who have responsibility for maintaining and updating Web content. An interactive style guide, with design standards, editorial direction and how-to instructions, is also being developed to help admins keep their sites consistent and appealing to visitors.