Georgetown University provides an educational experience that ranks among the world’s finest. With its rigorous academic excellence and Washington D.C. location, Georgetown provides a superior education at undergraduate, graduate, and continuing levels.
The experience is enriched by the values of Georgetown’s Catholic and Jesuit heritage, following the Jesuit commitment to educating the whole person and an open-minded, inclusive approach to ideas and interdisciplinary thinking. The real-world application of Georgetown’s research contributions, together with a nationally recognized Division I Athletics program (Go Hoyas!), and a range of curricular opportunities, fosters passionate, lifelong relationships for all members of the Georgetown community.
The Old, Conventional Approach
Georgetown’s existing site displayed classic symptoms of higher education web design challenges. First, content was buried deep within the site, rather than surfaced in logical places. As a result, cross-linking became a necessary panacea to the inability to find things. Several pages, even at high levels, were “link farms,” with no context for the meaning behind all the links. Where was the amazing story detailing the history and impact of the Georgetown community? At best, it was hidden behind text heavy press releases and in great video content siloed deep within the experience.
Second, Georgetown’s approach to content on the site was along the traditional lines of creating two menus: one structured by naming categories of content (Student Life, Athletics, etc.), the other structured by self-identifying into a particular audience (Current Students, Prospective Students, Alumni, and so on). This widely adopted menu approach is problematic: Where does content actually live? What if content, such as event information, is of interest to more than one of these audiences? The approach also creates additional page and mental clutter.
Breaking the Rules the Right Way
Our approach with Georgetown was intense and far-reaching. We kicked off the project with no less than 60 members of the staff engaged in two full days of workshops and activities designed to help us better understand what makes this place so special. Focused on identity, message, interface design, content strategy, and development requirements, these meetings laid the necessary conceptual architecture for us to build a vision for a new site that all necessary parties could get excited about.
Georgetown University’s web presence had to convey Georgetown’s identity by successfully telling the stories that communicate the essence of Georgetown and its extended community today, whether these are about people, events, or the application of knowledge through practical research. The new site also needed to serve those who currently study, teach or work at Georgetown.
To test our vision, we engaged in a series of participatory design exercises with different combinations of those key audiences. Rather than simply conduct interviews with alumni, we invited alumni to spend time with faculty, students, and staff, and help us better grasp how to convey who Georgetown is by defining the connective tissue that ties all audiences together. Understanding what draws people to the university, what the most rewarding challenges are, and how alumni maintain a lifelong connection helped us to define the key themes of the story the website needed to tell, and subsequently build a web-appropriate structure to support that story.
The Content Behind The Story
To help us tell the story, we partnered with Tara Shioya at Epigram to develop a robust content strategy for the new site. Tara’s work included defining key attributes of Georgetown’s identity from our research, and then selecting the best types of content vehicles for conveying those attributes effectively. To make sure the content of the site stayed fresh and on-target long after our engagement, Tara worked with Happy Cog to build an editorial style guide directly into our information architecture, and provided training workshops to several staff members of the university in writing and managing web content effectively.
An Unconventional Footer
Happy Cog decided it was time to abandon the traditional category/audience navigation approach, and worked with the Georgetown web team to develop a fresh take on the external vs. internal audience dilemma. Rather than try to build two competing navigation structures, we took advantage of newer conventions outside of higher education to provide a smart footer, fixed to the bottom of the screen. This approach was becoming increasingly common in news sites such as MSNBC or Cnet, but had not been applied in an academic context.
The footer encourages visitors to self-identify once and remembers their choice, serving event information, key web pages, and other audience appropriate content. The experience is contained, small, and follows the visitor through out the site, so audience-appropriate news and information is always a single click away, and never competes with the primary navigation structures that tell Georgetown’s compelling story.
A Groundbreaking Appearance
Happy Cog spent as much time exploring interesting ways in which we could execute the visual design as we did the content and architecture. After collaborating with the Georgetown team, we arrived on a home page design and overall visual system that balances the classicism of Georgetown’s campus buildings with the modernism of its ideas. Subtle references to the ornate touches of the institution’s architectural history play against typography choices that evoke a strong connection to both the past and the present. Classic blue and gray are combined with warmer tones to add a humanizing feel to the color scheme while the occasional red accentuates actions the user can take within the experience.
Narrative photography, video, and audio provide additional warmth while furnishing an intimate glimpse into the Georgetown community. Photography throughout the site portrays the values and ideas of the Georgetown community, and takes a journalistic approach to art direction (versus the more conventional “students posing under trees”).
Content Management System and Development
Georgetown University selected Fatwire, an enterprise level content management system, prior to our engagement. As a result, every aspect of our traditional process had an extra layer of review and accountability to make sure anything we proposed would work (and work well) within the Fatwire system. Information architecture documents were double-annotated to indicate specific business process expectations and content sources. The design was broken into modules to account for Fatwire system constraints. Working in concert with the Fatwire team, we reviewed every page against Fatwire implementation requirements, so that by the time the designs were completed, there was an implementation and testing plan in place to make sure they worked flawlessly. During the Template Build phase our team delivered code early and often to validate our markup within the Fatwire system. Adjustments were made as needed and our work was completed well in advance of the site’s planned launch.