FEATURE : Websites we love

Every year we visit and evaluate hundreds of college websites. In this issue of Cram, we consider three websites that exhibit innovative navigation techniques: Pratt Institute, Brown University, and the University of Hawaii’s School of Architecture.

College website navigation has become very predictable these days: top left corner logo (which serves as a link to the homepage throughout the site), left-hand links, right-hand search engine. Designers based this template on how the human eye takes in the computer screen. However, colleges are finally using websites as the marketing powerhouses they are, and those institutions are realizing that they need to do something different in order to stand out from the competition. Pratt, Brown, and UH’s School of Architecture are differentiating themselves with innovative website navigation.

Pratt’s homepage features flat-level navigation that is refreshing and intriguing to behold. According to Michael Gee, Director of Pratt’s Web Group, the Institute’s website needed to accomplish two main goals: to present information in a concise, easy-to-navigate manner, and to allow content to be published quickly and easily. The solution was to feature expanding columns of information on top of the homepage, which stays in the background until you get to the third level (three clicks deep). The site relies on large images for visual interest while keeping streaming video, flash animation, and other technical devices to a minimum. Such a minimalist approach keeps the site clean, fresh, and easy-to use. Admittedly, some links were not working properly, and we were unable to open the student and faculty portfolio section. Some links to student blogs were not working either. These technical glitches were a clear disappointment in an otherwise intelligently crafted site.

Brown University’s homepage looks so different from all the other college websites out there that it’s memorable—and easy—to explore. There are ten folder-type tabs that expand when rolled over. Each tab contains three to five links to take visitors deeper into the site. Although each department has created its own look, the main homepage maintains a strong identity for the University.

UH’s School of Architecture has similar tab-type links on its homepage, although to proceed into the site, you click the photograph rather than the text. There are also icons to help guide visitors toward three categories of information: place (a reddish-brown palm tree), program (a golden silhouette of two buildings), and people (a green abstract bust of a person).

Before you take the plunge
It’s probably safe to assume that it took some time and effort to get everyone at these institutions on board with such innovative website navigation. Before your college takes the plunge into new navigation territory, consider these three questions:

  • Is the proposed navigation still intuitive? That is, can audiences figure it out?
  • Does the resulting website still answer important audience questions?
  • Does it work on most browsers/operating systems?

Usability testing is key. Make sure that the site works, that each page includes an easy link back home, and that there’s a search engine available.