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University redesigns website home page

| Thursday, November 1, 2018

The University of Notre Dame’s home page went live at 7 a.m. on Oct. 17 after undergoing almost a year’s worth of major changes in content and design made to better represent the University’s priorities and promote more University-centered storytelling.

The changes were overdue, as the previous version of nd.edu had been launched six years ago in April 2012.

“Six years is a long time in the web world,” Andy Fuller, Notre Dame’s director of strategic content, said. “Technology improves, trends change, things like that. And it’s actually been kind of a long time at the University as well.”

Planning for the website’s redesign started in November 2017 as a collaborative effort between the strategic content team and the marketing and communications team, two branches of the University’s media team. These teams then reached out to communicators in different departments all over campus for feedback on what changes to make and what content to include. The entire project, including planning, development, design and content elements, were done by the University’s in-house teams.

“It was an overall campus effort, and I think the site’s better as a result,” Fuller said.

A core theme while redesigning website content was showcasing the University’s “pillars,” or key strategic priorities: research, internationalization and faith. On the older version of the site, research and internationalization were not represented at all, while the content for faith was outdated and failed to represent all the faith-related administrative changes that have occurred since the website’s last update.

The new site has a menu bar on the top right corner with links to each of these pillars, called “Research,” “Global” and “Faith & Service.” Another entirely new section in the same menu bar is “Campus Life,” which aims to provide visitors to the site with easy access to a holistic view of what the undergraduate living experience is like at the University.

“You think, ‘Most university websites have [sections on campus life], what’s the big deal,’” Fuller said. “Well, we didn’t have one.”

From a design perspective, developers and designers had three priorities — balancing news storytelling and the Notre Dame brand, making the website identifiable as the University’s public front in the digital space and creating more accessible webpages.

On the prior version of the site, the home page featured a large picture of the golden dome, a traditional symbol of the University. When designers decided to shift the site to a more news-based direction, they abandoned this model entirely.

“The home page was totally redesigned, scaled back from what it was before,” Fuller said. “We think lending more real estate to a few key items really gives more prominence to them.”

The new home page opens with a leading news story about the University. To further enhance storytelling features, webpages were designed to lead the eye from one item to the next using larger images and more white space.

Multi-platform designer Taylor Packet also said the Notre Dame brand, the universal aesthetic that makes websites identifiable as belonging to Notre Dame, also underwent some fine-tuning. Nods to tradition remained in details like the types of serif fonts chosen, but the overall aesthetic was changed to be more contemporary.

“It’s tradition, but modern,” Packet said.

The site transitioned to a more external-facing site for University communications. Fuller said his team’s data scientist, using Google Analytics, noticed the campus community was using the nd.edu site to try to access internal resources, such as campus email or Sakai.

“We felt like nd.edu is our primary external-facing communications tool digitally, and we wanted to move away from doing the job an internal-facing site would do,” he said. “So we got rid of those links and are now encouraging people to go to inside.nd.edu for all those things.”

Finally, accessibility was a top design priority for the current iteration of the website. Erik Runyon, the technical director in the marketing communications team, spearheaded an effort to ensure the Notre Dame site would be accessible for those with visual impairments or disabilities. For instance, color contrasts for the website had to reach the AA level, a visual accessibility status designated by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), “an international community where Member organizations, a full-time staff and the public work together to develop Web standards” according to its website. AA level web design should be accessible enough to compensate for the loss in contrast sensitivity experienced by those with 20/40 vision, which is “commonly reported as typical visual acuity of elders at roughly age 80,” according to the W3C.

Another accessibility feature added to the site was alt-text for all images. This is a short piece of text that concisely describes the image it is linked to, and it can be read by screen readers to give visually impaired users a sense of what the image is. A final accessibility feature is the ability to navigate the website using just the tab key, which eliminates the need for a mouse. This is useful for those with motor impairments whose limited range of motion makes it difficult navigate a mouse, and for those with visual impairments who cannot see where to click with a mouse.

“We’re adding to the big conversation about how this campus needs to be more accessible,” Packet said. “So [these changes] are a big win for us. … We’re doing it because we believe everybody should be able to access a website.”

Overall responses to the new website have been positive, Fuller said. In coming years, the University hopes to use the nd.edu site as a template for other University websites, including those for specific colleges, as well as the sites for each major and program under those colleges. The goal of this second phase, which has no projected date yet, is to expand the level of visual consistency across all Notre Dame sites.

“The new site will allow us to give a more attractive front door to stories,” Fuller said. “Our structure and the way we go about [telling stories], and frankly, the quality of our work, sets us apart from other institutions.”

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