CMC’s Website Redesign: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

This piece initially ran on Kevin Burke's personal website the day after the new cmc.edu website posted.  Please note, some technical changes have been made to this site since he wrote the article.  These changes include fixing differences in the menu bar on different pages and making the website compatible with all versions of Windows Explorer. Claremont McKenna College recently redesigned its website. Here are my thoughts on the redesign. Note that I don't have any data, and I haven't conducted any tests on users, so the stuff I'm writing here might be totally bunk. But if no one has any data, we might as well go with my opinion, as I've read the entire back collection of articles on useit.com, as well as Steve Krug's Don't Make Me Think, and CMC's Public Affairs Office probably hasn't.

The Good

The new "Quick Links" bar.

CMC quick links bar This has a good list of places that I visit most often. This should probably be contextual based on the page you're currently on, so the "Faculty" page would have different quick links than the "Students" page, but again they should be testing this on actual users.

Contact information on most pages.

cmc contact info Most pages have phone numbers and addresses listed in a prominent location. This is an excellent step and something I've called for.

The footer.

cmc website footer

On a site like CMC's where users have a diverse set of goals, you want to get people to where they are trying to go as quickly as possible. The footer makes this possible with a ton of deep links to pages you probably want to visit.

Much more readable faculty profile pages, as well as an acknowledgment that social media and student websites exist.

The Bad

Horribly small default font size.

small font size on cmc website

The default font size is 11px, which is fine for people under 40, but really difficult to read for people over 40, especially because users don't know how to change the font size in their browser. In addition, a small font size makes a link more difficult to click on because the target is so small - see Fitts Law. The small font size makes it hard to distinguish text in low contrast environments as well.

cmc website small text

 

Not changing the color of visited links.

cmc visited unvisited links On a Google search results page, I can see at one glance which links I've already visited, because they are purple. No such luck on CMC's site, which displays every link in blue. This violates rule #3 of Jakob Nielsen's Top 10 Mistakes of Web Design, and has been shown in tests to disorient users, and cause them to visit the same page over and over.

 

The menu bar text shows up inconsistently.

missing menu text The menu bar is the series of grayish-red boxes, which as you can see contain no text. This photo was using the latest version of Chrome on a Mac. Props to CMC for trying to use Cufon but they need to work out the bugs and test in all browsers.

No mobile version of the site.

Mobile devices should load an alternate stylesheet that presents the main content without the fluff, to save bandwidth and optimize the information presentation for a smaller screen.

Clicking on the logo doesn't take you back to the frontpage.

When you click on the logo in the corner of every page you are taken to cmc.edu/discovercmc, instead of the homepage. This violates a well known usability convention: if the logo is clickable, it should take you to the homepage. I challenge you to find a top 500 website where this is not true.

No Analytics.

This means that Public Affairs isn't collecting data about which pages are popular, which keywords users are searching for to find our site, and which links are being clicked on, which implies they don't really care about how users use the site, and will hurt their ability to iteratively improve the site navigation in the future.

No caching site resources or minifying Javascript.

Page load times are slow; CMC scores only 63/100 in Google's Online Page Speed tool. Because no images, scripts or stylesheets are cached, they have to be reloaded every time the user reloads a page. This is costly in terms of speed and bandwidth. Fortunately this is easily fixable in Apache.

The Ugly

The homepage.

cmc frontpage

Holy cow, this is a mess. Some of the problems:

  • No search bar. This is stupid - the search bar exists in the page's source  but is hidden from the user.
  • Fourteen links to other pages. On a page whose goal should be to get users as deep within the site as quickly as possible, having this few links is unacceptable.
  • Incredibly small link targets make the links hard to click.
  • No skip links for disabled users.
  • The "Discover CMC" link looks like an ad, and I missed it the first six times I visited the homepage
  • There's no way to determine at a glance what separates CMC from every other university. One of the boxes has some bland text below a "Why CMC" header but the page has to do better.
  • It's not clear where you should click to find any of the items described here:University Website
  • No meta description or keywords, which are essential for search engine optimization (SEO).cmc no meta

Fortunately, if my search habits are at all typical, most people use Google instead of the homepage to find resources on CMC's site. But the new homepage is the flagship, and it violates most usability guidelines. It reminds me of flash intro sites from the '90's that used to load when you went to Nike.com or Boo.com. Those flash intros looked really cool when they were presented to management, but loaded slowly and caused loads of usability problems, which is why sites don't have flash intros anymore. The homepage is a huge step backwards from the old page.

Big Images that Convey No Information

Here's the homepage for current students:

cmc student gateway

And here are the parts of that page that are actually clickable:

cmc student gateway links

The prime real estate on the page is taken by an unclickable infographic telling us that upperclassmen return to campus on August 28. Here's the same information, in a more compressed format:

"8/28 Students Return"

The image on the page is 465 pixels wide by 290 high, or 134850 pixels of screen real estate. My compressed version is roughly 150 pixels wide by 18 high, for 2700 pixels of screen space, a 4900% improvement in information density.

More generally, big images take forever to load (especially important on mobile devices) and don't contribute anything to the page. User test after user test shows users ignore filler images, and that visual bloat is annoying.

The SEO strategy/URL's are still awful. To illustrate CMC's nonexistent approach to search engine optimization (SEO), I'll use the faculty page for my thesis reader:

ananda ganguly The page looks OK - the email link is a little wonky but it's fine. Now, what are the keywords we'd like to use to describe this page? The biggest one is the name of the professor - Ananda Ganguly. The second biggest is his department, Accounting, and then maybe we want to also have CMC as a keyword.

URL Contains No Keywords

Let's look at the page URL, which Google uses as part of its PageRank formula to determine what's actually on the page:

http://www.claremontmckenna.edu/academic/faculty/profile.php?Fac=519

This URL does not contain any of our relevant keywords, making the page tougher to find in a Google Search.

Nondescript Page Title

Let's look at the page title, which shows up in the browser bar, and is the bright blue link text when the page shows up in Google results, as well as a large component in the PageRank formula:

ganguly page title The page title is "Academics," which tells you zero about the page content. Since this page title is so non-descriptive, Google had to use its own algorithm to give the page a descriptive title in search results:

ganguly google title

Generic Meta Tags

Let's look at the page meta description, which shows up as the black text below the blue text in a search result in Google:

ganguly meta description The meta description is "Academics and research at Claremont McKenna College," which is generic enough that Google has to try to find better text on the page to use. The result isn't optimal:

ganguly google text

No H1 Heading

Pages should have exactly one h1 heading containing information about the primary subject of the page text on the page. There's a perfect candidate - the professor's name, Ananda Ganguly. This text does not have an h1 heading - in fact, there's not a single h1 heading on the page.

No Alt Text for Images

There's a nice image of Professor Ganguly on the page. Images can't be crawled, it's important to provide an alt tag so Google knows what's in the image, as well as for blind users or users on slow internet connections. However, the image does not have an alt tag, so Google doesn't know the subject of the image.

Those are some really, really basic SEO optimizations. Figuring that stuff out would make CMC pages more prominent when researchers from other schools search for work done by CMC professors. I haven't done a thorough examination but I'm not confident that the rest of the site does much better.

Conclusion

I have the following questions for the CMC Public Affairs Office:

  1. When deciding what to emphasize in the site redesign, did you interview a single user of the site? Did you ask any students, prospective students, faculty members, staff members, alumni members, or parents, about how they use the CMC website?
  2. How does the redesigned site address the complaints raised by users in question (1)?
  3. Could you explain how the new frontpage does a better job of conveying CMC's brand than the old frontpage? When you showed the frontpage to prospective students for 30 seconds and asked them to say what set CMC apart, what did they tell you?
  4. What metrics are you using to determine the success of the site redesign?
  5. What was the decision making process during the design of the site? Was evidence from user testing ever presented to inform design decisions?

 

CMC's website hasn't been that great for years and it's good to see that it's finally getting more attention and resources. But while the new design is flashy, it's not clear that it became more usable, which is disappointing.

 

Do you have any suggestions for the new cmc.edu makeover? Please post your suggestions, comments, criticisms below.