Virtual University becomes more user-friendly

Jake Kapsner

A more beautiful U — one that hopes to attract and guide a broader audience — comes to the World Wide Web today.
The University is debuting new home pages on the Internet in hopes of better informing and recruiting in the information age.
Icons that guide people to sports, arts, news and weather figure prominently on a new, visually livelier Twin Cities page. People can answer trivia questions to win prizes and view updated images of Northrop Mall from a campus camera mounted on Coffman Union.
Tony Mommsen spent more than six months programming the new home pages, which act as navigational tools for sites maintained by various colleges and departments.
The top three layers of University’s Web site serve as a “portal” to the rest of the University’s pages, said Jim Thielman, who updates the University News portion of the home page.
Regardless of whether computer users are looking at the site “from Fergus Falls or France,” designers wanted to offer a clear impression of the University and its resources, said Tom de Ranitz, director of marketing and communications for institutional relations.
De Ranitz said the team from institutional relations also gathered input from across University colleges and campuses to make the site more user-friendly. Advice from Disability Services, for instance, ensures that people who are visually impaired can use a screen reader to glean the site.
The Twin Cities campus Web site had 31,000 hits in December, de Ranitz said. So spending $5,000 to produce a friendlier, flashier front door to the virtual University seems to be a relatively cheap recruiting tool.
Admissions figures prominently in the new home page, de Ranitz said, but it’s only a small part of the purpose of redesigning the site.
Whereas “elegant and simple” were the guiding principles behind early Web design, studies show that computer users want more choices. And in case they miss their desired link, more redundancy in the choices, de Ranitz said.
While www.umn.edu previously had six links, now it has 22.
The first University home page went online in 1995 and has continued to morph as the Internet and the number of people who use it continue to expand.
The added links also offer new resources, like a service to help businesses recruit University students and pages that highlight research achievements and opportunities.
One drawback to the site, de Ranitz said, is that incorrect information, like outdated material, reflects poorly on the whole University.
“But it’s an occupational hazard of the World Wide Web, especially at an institution this size,” de Ranitz said.