'Extreme Makeover:' Web site edition

Topic: Administrative

September 24, 2007

Beginning Sept. 25, it will be a very different face of Ball State greeting the millions of visitors to the university's Web site home page each month. But overall changes to the site - to become apparent in succeeding months - are more than merely cosmetic.

"If we only wanted to change how things look, we could have been done 15 months ago," says Nancy Prater, university Web coordinator. "Instead, we have 're-architected' the site, so now it has a fully planned information architecture or behind-the-scenes structure for building out all of the site. That's why we're calling this a 're-launch' of the Web site rather a than simply a re-design, because it's a lot more extensive than just looking different."

The job of substantially updating and enhancing Ball State's Web site started in the spring of 2006, Prater reports. Another two years or so are needed to complete the transition process for the more than 220 accounts contained within the university's previous content management system (CMS) that is now gradually being replaced by a more advanced product known as Sitecore.

The pending "soft launch" of several key sections of the new Web site, however, promises an early look at how both new design concepts and information architecture have been applied in revitalizing Web presences for "Admissions," "Academics," Campus Life," "Giving" and "Financial Aid," as well as "Telecommunications" - the latter "our first sample treatment for an individual department," notes Prater.

A link enabling the curious to preview the new look and feel of the university's Web site will be available from the existing Ball State home page on Tuesday, Sept. 25. After a week during which Prater and members of her team hope visitors will contribute their feedback on the new site's organization, presentation and user friendliness, the revamped bsu.edu goes "live" on Monday, Oct. 1.

"They should find it much easier to navigate," Prater predicts of past users checking out the new site upon its debut.

First-time visitors at Ball State's new electronic front door also should find it more inviting.

"One of our over-arching goals was to make the experience much more user-friendly," says Prater. "Evidence shows in all of the usability literature, if you can make your site friendly and usable for those who don't know you, you make it even easier for those who do. That is how we went into this process and that is how things have turned out, it seems. The site has done very well in all of our early audience testing."

The university's Web presence is often the first introduction people have to Ball State, observes Mary Barr, director of marketing and communications.

"Its look, content and ease of navigation all help create a positive Ball State brand experience," Barr says, "especially to those just learning about Ball State, like prospective students and their families."

Been there, done that

Probably one of the first things that most people will notice about the new site is its expanded use of photography, says Prater, who - together with Julie Tuttle, Web managing editor - already has overseen the preparation of more than 5,000 new or revised pieces of content for the re-launch.

"We heard from many of our focus groups that they wanted to see wider use of newer, fresher photographs," Prater explains. "We've really worked hard during the past year or so to build up a good inventory of dynamic and colorful new shots, and our partners at mStoner Communications have come up with a great design that makes excellent use of them."

What is making this transition process move so smoothly, meanwhile, is the expertise of Kyle Parker, distributed systems programmer, and his colleagues in University Computing Services (UCS), contributes Barr. "Our many Web content editors from around the campus have been very helpful, too, especially regarding the selection of our new (CMS)."

Ball State was one of the first universities in the nation to adopt a CMS and use it to help create and control an integrated Web presence embracing the entire institution, says Prater. She adds that familiarity, coupled with the university's extensive experience in many other areas of communications technology, should help speed the campus community's transition to Sitecore and a new Web site.

Already it has influenced how - and when - Ball State is developing other sections of the new site beyond those included in the soft launch.

"One of the main differences in our approach is we consider departmental sites equally important - or more so - to the home page, because we know that prospective students are more likely to Google search for something like 'biology programs in Indiana' and end up at a program or department page," Prater says.

Visitor data supports this course. According to Prater, while the university's home page registers an average of 2.5 million visits per month, total visits to the Ball State Web site come to more than 11 million a month.

"So, next we'll be working hard to get our departmental sites into the new system quickly," says Prater, noting that a Web queue is being established and alerts scheduled to make other departments and programs aware of when they will become part of the new site.

At the same time, the University Marketing and Communications office will be working with various campus groups to develop new content, train on Sitecore and determine "whether we're effectively conveying our messages to the right eyes and ears."

"The Web site is our key communications vehicle for connecting with all of our audiences," Prater says. "It has a major role supporting many of the goals of the strategic plan, which is why you'll soon be reading more Ball State stories about immersive learning, our increasingly vibrant campus, students and faculty who are truly making an impact, and successful alumni like David Letterman.

"We have a long way to go yet, but it's definitely going to be worth it."

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