YU Hits Refresh on Official Website
Visitors to Yeshiva University’s official website, www.yu.edu, on Tuesday, December 13th likely did a double-take, as a new, made-over version of the site became available to the public. In place of the old site’s oft-ridiculed clumsy layout, the new site’s homepage welcomes the viewer with an edge-to-edge artful photograph of a YU student, along with a user-friendly display allowing for efficient navigation to the also-redesigned informational pages about everything that YU has to offer. Perhaps more importantly, the site loads almost immediately, which is a big step up from the infamous delay of the previous website. These major stylistic and pragmatic renovations provide an entirely new feel to the university’s webpage.
According to Dr. Paul Oestreicher, Executive Director of YU’s Office of Communications and Public Affairs (CPA), it had long been known that YU’s website needed to be overhauled. The website had last undergone major changes in 2011, a supremely long time in the rapidly changing technological world. According to Dr. Oestreicher, the website had been running in conjunction with a content management system, a program that supports the management of the content of webpages, that did not work well enough to allow for the smooth operation of the website. A few years ago, an effort was initiated to build a new content management system to do this instead. But CPA then changed direction and moved toward the adoption of an open-source content management system, Drupal 8, which is used as the backbone of university sites including Brown, Duke, Penn State, Stanford and Yale. The process of migrating the content of the old website to its new platform began at the end of July of this year, with a goal of being ready in time for 2017, and was completed ahead of schedule and launched in mid-December.
The first issues that were addressed with the restructuring of the website were speed and responsiveness of the site. The old site often took a minimum of 10 seconds to load, and occasionally access to the site was impeded by an inexplicable error message. These were major accessibility issues that needed to be addressed. “The website of an institution is its front door,” said Oestreicher. “If it does not invite people in, then an opportunity has been lost.” CPA is confident that the new site will be up and easy to access all the time, and that it will be as fast as any other site on the web. By changing the site to a more operable system, they were also able to optimize the site for all mobile platforms.
Another area of focus for the new website is in terms of the website’s general mission. “We thought about the questions of what the website needs to communicate, specifically what YU represents and who we are,” said Oestreicher. Whereas the main features of the old website’s homepage had an emphasis on telling the viewer what is happening at YU, the new website would invite all of its viewers, such as current students and faculty, prospective students and parents, donors, and mass media members to explore all that the institution has to offer, and to understand the underpinnings of the various elements of YU.
In order to properly convey its message, the CPA went with new, bolder approach for the display of the site, featuring large dramatic imagery. These images appear not just on the site’s homepage, but also on most of the subsequent landing pages. The design for these webpages and most of the photography were done in-house by YU employees, and is a true testament to the hard work put in by the CPA team towards the site.
While the design of the website seems a very positive thing, Dr. Oestreicher emphasized that there is much more work to be done with this endeavor. “A big step for YU is to recognize that there are more steps to take,” he said. “We don’t want to be chasing any fads, but we must make sure that we are making the best use that we can of technology and design.” Dr. Oestreicher described the process of renovation of the website as something that will have to come in phases, with the new look and feel of the website as merely “phase one”. Future pursuits will include a revamping of much of the content of the website, and ensuring that content is updated on a regular basis. For example, the CPA is currently working closely with the Office of Academic Affairs and the Office of the Provost to update the faculty pages on the website, and to make sure that all of the information there is accurate and helpful to the viewer. The next phase of improvements will also use feedback about the user experience to improve the ease of navigation and the interactivity of the site.
With all this excitement about the new website, it might be interesting to consider why the site was launched without any official announcement or fanfare. According to Dr. Oestreicher, this was intentional. Like many other digital “product” introductions, trying to identify all the issues in a test environment can only take you so far. Realizing that perfection can’t be guaranteed on Day One, launching in a low-key manner is a better way to gain real-world user feedback and begin addressing all glitches or problems. The bottom of the new website links to a feedback form, which can be filled out by users with comments regarding their experience with the new site. Comments received by CPA are prioritized with the aim of addressing issues or minimizing disruptions as quickly as possible; dozens of changes have already been made in the weeks since the site’s launch.
With the new look of the website, Dr. Oestreicher feels that YU’s website “compares favorably not only to the sites of other universities, but to institutions in other sectors as well” while adding that a few “growing pains” still exist. This “first phase” of improvements to the site will eventually enhance the experience for all types of users, and will hopefully lead the way towards many future advancements in this area.