Fine tuning for branding & clarity
The Continuing Education at the University of Utah (CEUU) web site has a lot going for it and is consistent with other similar college web sites I have visited. The color scheme -- red and black -- is classic, simple and tasteful. The photographs on the site are of quality and all but a notable few are full color. The images (including photographs) are properly processed to an acceptable format and quality-to-file-size ratio. The site also employs DHTML menus -- like many modern sites -- which drop down for easier navigation through the site. The site also employs an online shopping cart to simplify registration, the only education site I've seen to do so.
However, there are some features that can be improved to make the site considerably more effective and successful.
There are a few things that are required for every web site. One of them is immediate recognition of the site identity, in this case the University of Utah. Unfortunately, this identity is not immediate or complete on the site for Continuing Education at the University of Utah. Only two places on this site's page identify the site as belonging to the University of Utah -- the page title and the page footer -- the two least-read portions of a web page. At no point in the copy on the home page does University of Utah appear. Instead, it is shortened to be simply "the University."
The full name is used on some of the pages deeper in the site, but it should also appear on the home page as often as reasonably possible, as well as on all pages in the site. This will improve search engine results for surfers trying to find out about continuing education in Utah.
The page banner, currently a red rectangle with only a large white 'U' -- for University, I believe -- and some small black words -- which recede into the red rectangle due to low contrast and disappear almost entirely for color blind visitors -- does not identify the site as the University of Utah (unless one is already intimately familiar with the University of Utah).
This red rectangle should include the University of Utah logo at the very least...like the logo in the footer at the bottom of every page. Inserting the entire logo would expand the banner only slightly and not require any redesign. This banner is the first place new visitors look to confirm they've come to the site they've intended, so it is imperative that visitors immediately understand this site is related to the University of Utah so they don't immediately depart instead.
What is it? Where to next?
Another thing required for every successful web site is clarity. The site for Continuing Education at the University of Utah is sometimes considerably unclear. For example, Introduction to Creative Writing page does not identify the class as an independent study, but the registration information at the bottom of the page assumes that the class is an independent study. So no shopping cart option is available. Other courses also follow this pattern. In this, the site is consistent, so this should be an easy problem to resolve.
As I browsed class offerings, it would seem that only non-credit classes can be registered through the shopping cart...if so, this should be made as clear as possible at the top of each course page or similar technique.
As a first-time visitor, I was excited that I could register online for courses as if I were making a simple purchase. But as I browsed the site, I became disappointed that the cart wasn't available for all courses. Bummer! Still, the shopping cart feature is a nice addition. Based on FileMaker Pro, the cart works as expected (I did not test the check out feature) and accepts American Express, Visa, MasterCard and Discover for your education purchases.
CSS & load times
A third thing required for a successful web site is appropriate load times. CEUU takes longer than expected to load, even though it is not particulary graphics-heavy or complicated. I am on broadband cable, so the wait becomes annoying after a few minutes of even light surfing. Broadband folks like myself have sacrificed patience for convenience.
Load times could be decreased by about half, I believe, by converting the site from a table-based layout to a CSS-based layout. The site already moderately relies on CSS to define text sizes, colors, etc. in DIVs; this layout might be converted to pure CSS easily enough (see kochbullion.com for a pure CSS site). This conversion alone will make the site "snappier" for most visitors and prepare it for future W3C standards. If conversion to CSS is not feasible, then simplifying the pages' tables may possibly improve load times. It is also possible that server load is impacting the site's load times; this possibility should not be dismissed.
Is there anything not needed?
There are also a few other features that do not function and/or are gratuitous. As a point of reference, I browse using the latest releases of Mozilla and Safari on the latest release of Mac OS X.
On the CEUU home page, the three images in the middle of the page appear to be links, since the cursor changes to a hand when atop the images, but nothing happens when they are clicked. This occurs in both Mozilla and Safari. The logo on the home page also exhibits the same behavior.
On the subpages, the long line of 12 thumbnail photos beside the continuing education banner only increase load time. They are not used to navigate the site and are not an integral part of the site design or identity, and so serve little or no purpose, and are therefore unnecessary.
Removing them will decrease connections to the server and the number of files to be downloaded, and slightly reduce the site's load times.
The features discussed above are but improvements to a site with a strong foundation. The site, in all honesty, will get along just fine without the noted improvements, but the user experience would be greatly improved if the site were absolutely clear about course offerings vs. shopping cart and presented a clear university affiliation for those unfamiliar with the "U"; if the pages loaded faster due to improved file sizes or server response; if all functions performed consistently across browsers and platforms; and if all gratuitous elements were removed.
The site for Continuing Education at University of Utah is already on par with many similar college sites. These few small enhancements would help it rise closer to the top of continuing education sites.
WebDesign & Review comments:
Excellent observations, Mike! Thanks for your help.
While CEUU is doing a respectable job for its readers, I'd like to comment on one more aspect that bothers me. The site lacks a certain polish found in professionally developed sites.
At the page for the Sandy site, we see several typical features of the site in general which should be given some time. I've taken a quick capture of that page and added notes. Pay attention to margins. Holding your content further off the edge of the white page helps consolidate the message. Also make white space which separates an image from it's copy tighter (less), and more where separating unrelated content. Be aware of alignment. Look down the left side of the content... nothing lines up. This gives a chaotic look to the page. Make your tables (divs) flexible so the page compresses with the browser window. Be careful of margins of floated elements -- they can break the margins of the divs which contain the element.
I'm compelled to ask if the gray box with the Dreamweaver caption shouldn't be on the right-hand side to mirror the navigation box above? In its current position it seems to interrupt or contradict the overall message of the page -- callingattention to itself -- making itself more important. If it is more important than the other two courses, leave it there. If not, move it to the right.
These are all small 'tweaks' in the CSS, but taken as a whole will lend a more finished look to the pages. Most will be remedied by simply changing measurements in the CSS sizes.
Once a site has been finished. Returning to consider and implement subtle refinements can carry the polish to a higher level. These tweaks don't seem overly important -- the viewer may never be aware of them -- but they give a professional finish that leaves the viewer with the impression of credibility and competency. [Fred]
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