When you log on to the JHU home page next Monday, be prepared for a surprise: The top-of-the-page multicolored boxes will be gone, as will the static photographs of the institution's founder and the now-familiar typography and format. In their place will be a crisper-looking, more dynamic home page with new navigation tools, designed both to better represent the university and to make the information easier to access.
The changes represent the first of a two-phase redesign of JHUniverse, whose current format appeared in February 1998.
"It's not the end of the process; it's barely the beginning," said Dennis O'Shea, executive director of the university's Office of Communications and Public Affairs, about the makeover being unveiled Oct. 30. "We'll use this as a jumping-off place for a lot of further refinement that will draw on the input of the entire community."
Although the university has known for some time that its site needed revamping because it was created "generations ago" in Web years, O'Shea said, it was only recently that funding was put in place. In late spring, Carton Donofrio Interactive, a subsidiary of Richardson, Myers & Donofrio, a Baltimore marketing communications firm, was hired to begin mapping the project, and in late July, an assessment of the current site began.
Lee Watkins, director of research and instructional technologies for Hopkins Information Technology Services, said the university had met with several companies, and "CDI's proposal was the most thorough and compelling, and [the firm] had worked with SPSBE and was currently working with the School of Public Health." In addition, CDI understood the university's time constraints.
Since the site's last design, "the Web had become the rule rather than the exception, and our old technology was too simple. Our users had a frustration with navigation and with disconnectedness," Watkins said. "We had an urgency to make visible changes--and to make searching and navigation easier and more responsive" as soon as possible. The second stage will make a lot more use of the technology that is now available.
The first goal in trying to update the site, Watkins said, was "to make it more graphically appealing without changing the current technology--which is very hard to do." Any changes in technology, he said, would be made later, after extensive research. In addition, the site's architects wanted to make it more intuitive in a way that would be more useful to users.
According to Trevor Villet, client services representative at CDI, 25 percent of today's Web users search a site rather than navigate it. Accordingly, the revamped site has a search feature displayed prominently on the home page, along with links to "Advanced Search," "JHU Directions" and "Search Hopkins A to Z." It also offers a one-click link to Johns Hopkins Medicine--a recognition that patients and others come to the site for medical information, Villet said--and, most important, a top-of-the-page navigation bar.
"With the universal navigation bar, we're trying to triage audiences quickly," said Peter Quinn, the CDI designer responsible for the new face of Hopkins. "We need to determine who the users are and what they need." Graphically, he said, the redesign "has to do with the strategy of taking what we had and creating a more portal-type site."
This cross-cutting method will give students, faculty and others another way of getting the information they need.
Added Lee Watkins, "We're all trying to get into the mind of the person using the Web site."
The navigation bar will offer users four new routes to information housed on the Web site; they can click onto it through "Undergraduate Students," "Grad Students," "Faculty, Staff" and "JHU Life." Choose "Faculty, Staff," for example, and you'll find information of interest to both internal and external audiences. A professor could use this path to find links to academic councils and committees, resources for researchers, the Johns Hopkins Credit Union or the university holiday calendar; a non-Hopkins user could choose this route to access employment opportunities, faculty home pages or a list of Nobel Prize winners with Hopkins affiliations.
Similarly, prospective and current graduate students could use the navigation bar to find sites devoted to academics, financial aid, campus services, career planning and other pertinent matters.
The home page's basic building blocks--"Information About Hopkins," "Schools, Centers and Affiliates," "Student Information and Admissions," "Academics," "Alumni and Development News" and the like--still have a presence front-and-center on the page, but their structure has been rethought.
"The categories haven't really changed," Watkins said, "but the information is more 'chunked up,' more modularized. To reach what you're looking for, "you'll use more clicks, but you'll get lost less." And your trip will be faster.
To that end, users will find it easier to remember their path of navigation. That is, you'll be able to figure out how you got from there to here. At the top of each page, you'll find a color-coded "route map" that shows all the turns you've taken. The exception is when you link to a page that resides outside JHUniverse.
Ultraseek, a new search engine that's "aeons ahead of the old one," according to Watkins, should be fully operative by Monday.
To invigorate the site visually, CDI's Quinn developed for the left corner a dynamic photo grid using four elements: locations and landmarks, objects and abstracts, people, and wild cards; the right corner shows pathways and roadways around the campuses. Each time a page is loaded, a random combination of the elements will appear.
Recent photography was used for phase one, though the Web's architects hope to draw on new images for phase two.
The first wave of site changes was based on knowledge of both the industry and what is current. The next stage will be based on consumer research. "We have to have good data, both qualitative and quantitative, not anecdotal," Watkins explained. Data will be collected through interviews with various constituents, including prospective and current students, faculty, alumni and friends of the university.
"Needs will differ in constituencies," Watkins said, "and we'll [decide how to] make the best compromises."
The first phase includes easy-to-use comment boxes so that users can register their reaction to changes and suggest what else they need.
Under its contract with HITS, CDI also is working with the Milton S. Eisenhower Library, the School of Engineering and Enrollment Services to update their Web presence, providing examples of how the sites of individual units can be more connected and in tune with the university's umbrella site.
One of the frequent criticisms of the current Johns Hopkins University site, Watkins said, is that it lacks cohesiveness because the various divisions, departments and offices create their own pages.
In phase-two study, developers will examine the feasibility of establishing common approaches and of offering templates and support services. "We will try to set up some design recommendations we hope will be adopted," Watkins said, "and we are looking for a common approach to managing content."
To accomplish this, Stephanie Reel, chief information officer and vice provost for information technology, has proposed establishing a university-wide Web Oversight Committee. This group would establish a procedure for the various components of content management, including submission, approval and putting pages on the Web.