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On Design

March 19th, 2010 by Bob Crisler

I thought long and hard about what to call this post; what to title it. Well, “long,” as in “long by the standards of the abbreviated attention span of life on the ‘Net.”

So for now, as I write this, it has the beguiling, slightly ponderous title ‘On Design,’ as if it’s going to reveal to you some big truths about design. If you were misled by the title, this is where I tell you to hit the ‘Back’ button; you simply must learn to use your time more wisely.

As a formula, “Design by Committee” is thought by most designers to be the one true path to blandness, lifelessness in design. And most of them have a lot of personal experience to back it up.

The UNL.edu site is itself a product of committee, though we try to make that a good thing. It’s an accumulation of best ideas from the members of the UNL Web Developer Network, dragged through a sometimes-merciless process that chips away at egos as much as it does at designs. At times, the steering wheel is grabbed a little more sharply than at other times by University Communications, but at all times we (UComm Internet and Interactive Media and the UNL Web Developer Network) try to be focused on evaluating and implementing the best solutions to problems no matter where they come from.

So before recording here the flurry of notices lately on the 2009 design of the UNL site, I need to nod to past history; the 2006 version of the UNL templates was developed under the design leadership of Aaron Grauer (then of University Housing, now of Firespring); that template was featured in the eduStyle Guide to Usable Higher-Ed Homepage Design, published in spring 2009, a few months before the 2009 version of the site was launched. It was a strong foundation to build from.

“Usable,” in most cases involving university websites, means that the site would be usable if only there were any consistency on the site. At UNL, we have the rare privilege of developing and evolving a higher ed site that is consistent in its major interface elements from stem to stern, mostly because our campus leadership believes that the site represents a singular entity, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, rather than a loose collection of boutiques. Even if a user doesn’t like what we do, they can be assured at least that once they learn how to use the interface we present here, they won’t have to learn a new mode of use or navigation at every turn on the site.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln was slotted in at No. 2 on a list of the top 11 best-designed university websites from The Bivings Report. The Bivings Report is a publication of the Bivings Group, a Washington, D.C.-based Internet communications company that lists Sony, Toyota, Peace Corps, HP, Humana, and Pickens Plan among its clients. Their commentary includes: “This is the most ‘Web 2.0′ looking of the sites, which isn’t a bad thing given the level of execution.” Hrm.

As I write this, a colleague tells me that one of our favorite publications, Smashing Magazine, has published an article this morning that places UNL.edu within a ‘Showcase of Academic and Higher Education Websites.’ “A simple color scheme and clean, grid-based layout give the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s website a polished and sophisticated look,” they say.

The UNL website also ranked in the top one percent of university websites globally (77th out of 8000 analyzed) in a recent ‘webometrics’ ranking of world universities by the Cybermetrics Lab of Spain’s National Research Council, that country’s largest public research body. That project measures open access to scholarly information, and so is at least as much a measure of the egalitarian leanings of this university as it is the access to that information provided by our website’s template.

And though ‘Noteworthy’ doesn’t sound like much, it’s actually one of the things that means the most to us in UComm and UNL WDN, because it isn’t given from a single point of view but from a cumulative opinion-gathering process involving the higher ed web development community. Only 24 sites per year from hundreds (thousands?) submitted are highlighted as ‘Noteworthy’ by eduStyle, the homepage for higher ed web design. UNL.edu was selected as a Noteworthy site for October of 2009, the second time it had been so honored (the first in 2006).

Thanks, kudos and hosannas to all who have participated in the UNL Web Developer Network over the years, those who have worked on the site coding and/or design itself, and those who continue to push the site forward. Thanks, even (especially), to those who don’t like something about the site, as long as you tell us about it so we can continue to improve.

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