Tag Archives: layout

Web Emergency Plan

Screenshot of Dartmouth Emergency Information homepage

In light of events affecting campuses in past years, including Hurricane Katrina and the tragedy at Virginia Tech, many colleges and universities have developed protocols for managing emergency situations. The web is a key component in emergency management as a tool for notification, instruction, and communication. As a masterful worrier and contingency planner, I was only too happy to lead the project to develop a plan for using the web in an emergency.

Dartmouth’s Web Emergency Plan has several components, including:

  • An emergency banner that displays over most official College websites
  • An emergency website that displays current status information, and that would be used extensively during an emergency
  • An off-site emergency website that would be activated if Dartmouth was offline
  • An alternate homepage layout for use in the wake of an emergency

In designing these elements, we focused on ease of activation, flexibility, and lightweight design. In an emergency we knew we would need to act quickly and flexibly, as we could not predict in advance what would be needed. We would also receive a good deal of web traffic and needed to minimize demands on our infrastructure.

The campus has done a number of tests and trial runs and our protocols have executed according to plan. It’s a solid and robust plan—just what a worrier needs. While I hope its use remains purely in test mode, the Web Emergency Plan could make an enormous difference should Dartmouth ever need to put it into effect.

Web design articles for Peachpit

Screenshot of Peachpit article page

Peachpit is one of the most well known publishers in the design and technology industry. In particular, their New Riders imprint is the stomping group for the field’s most prominent experts, through the “Voices That Matter” series. I have had the honor and privilege of publishing a book, Access by Design, and many articles under the Peachpit masthead.

My most extensive series of articles has been for Peachpit’s Web Design Reference Guide. Alongside web gurus such as Andy Clarke, Robert Hoekman, Jr., Molly Holzschlag, and Dave Shea, I published 20 articles for readers interested in learning best practices for web design. For the most part, my articles focus on usability and accessibility concerns, including usable forms, flexible layouts, and data tables.

More recently I published two articles with Peachpit on user-directed design: one on making the case for user research and a second describing the components of a project charter.

Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center

Screenshot of DHMC Quality Reports page

I have consulted on a number of projects for the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, or DHMC. These projects have been great learning experiences for me. Unlike many organizations, DHMC is committed to user-centered design. I was given support for user research, both with resources and timelines. And most importantly, when it came time to make design decisions, user research was the guide.

The most interesting and challenging project that I did for DHMC was the design and usability for their Quality Reports feature. Quality Reports offers comparative data on how DMHC measures up across a variety of diseases, procedures, and cost comparisons. In 2003, DHMC was just beginning to plan for a rollout of this new and innovative feature. They wanted to provide the information in the best, most useful format possible. That’s where I came in—and where user-centered design played a key role.

The team at DHMC had several different elements in mind for presenting the reports: checkmarks indicating how DHMC was measuring against their quality goals; the data itself, and the comparison data; and explanations of the measures, so that readers would understand the significance of, for example, “aspirin at arrival.”

Screenshot of Quality Reports detail page

I developed several different functional mock-ups of the reports, each one combining the elements in different ways. I then did user testing to determine which approach resonated best with DHMC patients, looking for things like:

  • Did people react to the information/visual density of the interface?
  • Did they read the narrative text?
  • Did they like having the comparative data?
  • Did they like the checkmarks?

The most impactful thing we learned was that the scorecard approach, with only checkmarks, was too simplistic. Testing participants preferred access to the data and comprehensive descriptive information. Also, in examining quality reports, participants wanted to learn more generally about the conditions measured.

The interface for Quality Reports is a scorecard of sorts, but with data rather than checkmarks. Each measure includes a brief description, and is linked to a more complete description and data graph. Also, patients can access health information about conditions from the Quality Reports pages.

As of this writing, the designs I created for DHMC, including the home page, are still in use.

Arts at Dartmouth

Screenshot from Arts at Dartmouth

The Arts at Dartmouth website is an effort to provide a consolidated view of arts-related activities and opportunities at Dartmouth. The site is aimed at prospective students who are interested in incorporating the arts into their college experience. But the site also serves current students and the Upper Valley community who are interested in participating in the current arts activities at the College.

Collaboration is a key component of a cross-disciplinary project such as Arts at Dartmouth. Five academic departments, the Hood Museum, and the Hopkins Center for the Arts comprise the primary stakeholders, along with Admissions and the Office of the Provost. I was project leader, and in order to move the project forward, we formed a working group to do the work of the site, a management team to help with decision-making, and had regular sessions with the stakeholder group to touch base and get feedback.

Another important tool in the development process was the project charter. With many differing interests among the stakeholders, the project charter served as our touchstone throughout the site development process. In particular, revisiting our defined goals, target audience, and measures of success helped keep us focused and avoid scope creep:

Goals and Themes

  • Demonstrate the value that Dartmouth places on the arts
  • Demonstrate the distinctiveness of the arts at Dartmouth
  • Demonstrate the influence and value of the arts on overall quality of life

Target Audience

  • Prospective students (and their parents and families)—accepted students in particular
  • Current students
  • Dartmouth and Upper Valley community

Measures of Success

  • Increase in matriculation of students who are highly talented in the arts
  • Increase in the number of arts majors/minors
  • Increase in the number of students enrolling in arts courses, especially those who enroll during their first year
  • Increase in student participation in/attendance at arts-related activities
  • Increase in overall attendance at arts-related activities

In the end, the biggest challenge to developing and maintaining the Arts site is content. Each of the stakeholder departments has its own website, and expecting them to engage in content development for an additional website was not realistic. We developed a minimal collection of static content—testimonials, photos, descriptive text, and videos—as part of the site development process. Then we embedded feeds from other sources—Flickr, YouTube, calendars and news—to provide an ongoing content source, giving a more dynamic and current feel to the site.

The architecture for this “portal to the arts” is fairly straightforward. Each department and center has its own page, with text and imagery designed to express its energy and focus. The overall visual design is colorful and vivid, based on a color palette derived from the site’s primary visual element—a segment of an oil painting created by a student in Studio Art. The layout is flexible, adapting gracefully to different window widths.

Screenshot from Arts at Dartmouth

The Arts at Dartmouth website is an ongoing project. We continue to add to the site, refine our approach, and measure progress toward our success metrics.

Dartmouth Home

Screenshot of Dartmouth homepage

In my time at Dartmouth I have been responsible for three homepage designs. For the most recent version, launched in August of 2006, I collaborated with colleagues in the Office of Public Affairs. We formed a working group called The HomeTeam, established oversight with senior leadership of the College, and embarked on six months of user research, followed by two months of informed design.

We decided early on that we did not want to “tell and sell” Dartmouth. Effectively representing Dartmouth online could not be achieved through static, official narrative. Instead we sought ways to “show” the Dartmouth Experience. We opted to use the site as a news source, highlighting the “now” of Dartmouth through stories, events, and features. While the Dartmouth homepage requires daily care and feeding, it serves an important role in representing the vibrancy of the College, both internally and to the world at large.

Another thing we recognized early on was that the success of the site depended on engaging the Dartmouth community in the design process. People at Dartmouth use the homepage as their portal to information, activities, and tools that are part of their work. If the homepage did not serve their needs, we would be introducing a frustration into their daily lives.

Screenshot of Customize Quicklinks page
The Dartmouth homepage allows users to create a custom set of QuickLinks on the home page, providing easy access to commonly used website and applications.

We spent a good deal of time talking to the community about their needs, checking in through Web Town Meetings to share design ideas and gather feedback, and posting our work and progress and requesting feedback through the HomeTeam website.

For the design, we used a flexible, three-column layout with a full-width photo at the top of the page, similar to a newspaper layout. The widescreen aspect of the photos can be challenging, but the College photographer has a wonderful eye for wide shots.

As of this writing, the design we launched in 2006 is still Dartmouth’s homepage. Five years is an eternity on the web, with its shifting design trends. While I expect a redesign within the next year or so, the current design still serves Dartmouth well, thanks in large part to the good work of its editors who keep the content and images fresh and interesting.

Web Style Guide

Web Style Guide book cover

The first version of Web Style Guide was a web site called the Yale C/AIM Web Style Guide, posted in 1993, just as the world outside computing and academia began to notice the new medium and the Internet in general. The early web was sorely lacking in aesthetics but exploding with potential. Web Style Guide provided much-needed guidance on structure and design based on several decades’ worth of experience with print, hypermedia, and multimedia design and authoring.

In 1997 my co-author, Patrick Lynch, and I updated the Web Style Guide site to reflect the maturing design trends and changes in web technology. This was a time of significant progress in visual design and interface sophistication, but at the cost of standardization and accessibility.

In 1999 we produced the first print edition of Web Style Guide. The web site had gained a significant following as more and more organizations turned to the web as their primary means of communication. People with little or no background in design were assigned the responsibility for web site development, and they looked to Web Style Guide for calm, reassuring, and practical guidance.

Since its inception as a web site in 1993 and into its third edition, Web Style Guide has presented solid design advice based on classic design principles.  In the second edition we focused on solid design practices, acknowledging the growing attention to web standards and accessibility. In the third edition we were able to move away from issues like cross-platform compatibility and adaptation for people with disabilities, and instead provide solid planning, design, and editorial guidance for a more stable, accessible, and sustainable web site.

Web Style Guide is a classic. It has been translated into more than eight languages, and is commonly used as a course text for web design classes. Despite the availability of a book version of the guide, we deliberately chose to continue to make the web site materials freely available.

Screenshot of Web Style Guide page

“A style guide for the interface with real long-run value, showing us deep principles of design rather than simply fashion and technology.”
—Edward R. Tufte

“An Elements of Style for Webmasters.”
—J. D. Biersdorfer, New York Times, Circuits Section

“At last a book on the design of web sites with the viewer in mind. Non-technical, yet informative and lively: it delights as it informs.”
—Donald A. Norman, The Nielsen Norman Group

Hopkins Center for the Arts

Hopkins Center for the Arts home page

The Hopkins Center provides an environment for learning about, creating, and experiencing the arts for both the Dartmouth and Upper Valley communities. For their latest redesign, the Hop worked with in-house web support to build a dynamic website that would both promote their programs and serve as a resource for prospective and current Dartmouth students.

The Hop had been working with an external vendor and using a content management system. They had the necessary experience and staffing to commit to maintaining a dynamic website. And since their design and functional requirements included elements such as a calendar and RSS feeds, we decided to use WordPress as the development platform. We normally do not offer WordPress because of the support implications. However, due to the unique business needs of the Hop, we felt a dynamic authoring environment was necessary to meet their needs. We beefed up our in-house expertise and hired an external WordPress consultant to help with the more complex functionality, such as the calendar.

We worked closely with the Hop to develop the information architecture for the site. Our goal was to provide easy and intuitive access to program information, which is necessary for a center for the arts. We also sought to highlight the educational opportunities for Dartmouth students through workshops, exhibitions, and academic programs.

When it came time to work on the visual design, I was fortunate to have access to the graphics developed by the Hop creative team as part of their print campaign. The Hop season brochure provided excellent source materials that allowed me to create a compelling visual design that captured the tone and energy of their printed pieces. In particular, I was able to include a treatment for silhouetted images.

Screenshot of Khmer Arts Ensemble page with silhouette

I used CSS3 transparency effects to maximize the impact of the bold background graphic. In addition, I created a design for the Hop’s YouTube channel utilizing many of the same elements.

Screenshot of the Hop's YouTube channel

The Hop staff was quick to learn the WordPress interface. Once we developed the framework, design, and functionality, the Hop set to work filling out the content, adding text, photos, and videos. WordPress has proven to be a good fit, and they continue to provide site visitors with fresh and compelling content.

Undergraduate Admissions

Screenshot of Dartmouth Admissions home page

As Dartmouth’s Web Director, my responsibility is to manage and coordinate all development of Dartmouth’s digital environment. Admissions is an important property in that environment. When it came time for a redesign, I persuaded Admissions to work with my in-house group, Web Services, rather than outsource the project.

Having won Admissions as a client over external vendors, I was under pressure to deliver a service that would be comparable. However, because of my broader role at Dartmouth, I had to develop the site within the greater context of the Dartmouth web. The entire process required that I perform a careful balancing act of responding to requests while adhering to institutional standards and meeting user needs.

When it comes time for decision-making in the design process, I have found the best approach is to let users drive the process. User-centered design takes the decision making out of the hands of the designers and stakeholders, and instead allows user needs and preference direct decision-making.

We started the process with usability testing of a range of admissions sites at other institutions. We wanted to see how prospective students approach the process of finding a good match in very different contexts.

In observing about 5–6 high school students it became clear that the process of finding a good school was very similar to that of finding a good partner. Prospective students first determine whether they are right for the school by looking for data, such as average test scores of admitted students. If they pass the “fittedness” test, then they explore whether the school is right for them—the location, whether it offers a major in their field of interest, athletics and arts offerings. If the school passes the test, then they look to the application process.

As a result, our strategy was to provide prospective students and parents with data right up front. The current site has “Facts” front and center, complemented by images, videos, narrative, and stories that demonstrate that Dartmouth students are admitted for more than their ability to do well on standardized tests.

The information design supports the natural process flow, with the “Facts” and “Learn” sections providing ample opportunities for prospective students to determine whether they are right for Dartmouth, and whether Dartmouth right for them. The “Visit” section supports the next phase in the process, providing information and opportunities for both virtual and physical campus visits. And the “Apply” section is the final step in the process, with information and functionality to support prospectives who have decided to take the plunge and become applicants. In April, when decisions have been made and applicants have been notified, the architecture also supports admitted students with a “Class of 20XX” section. The site also has an “Answers” section that answers commonly asked questions.

Supporting these more practical needs is the “Perspectives” section. Here is where we attempt to communicate the richness of the study body through a variety of first-hand perspectives on the Dartmouth experience, through interviews, student blogs, live office hours, and more. This section aims to accomplish a challenging task: to provide authentic stories within the context of an official admissions website. We continually explore which means of communication is the most useful, impactful and, most importantly, credible to prospective students.

Screenshot of Dartmouth Experiences page

The visual design is modeled on a flexible, grid-based layout. I generally build flexible, or “liquid,” layouts, but this was the first time I did so on a grid, and the result provides the best of both worlds. The page elements harmonize, and yet they scale to accommodate different window widths and text sizes. And the line length cannot become too long since the layout is restricted to a generous but readable maximum width.

All of Dartmouth’s sites are built on the same codebase, so the Admissions site uses mostly the same code as, for example, Classics, Budget, and the Office of the President. This architecture allows for site-wide changes, such as the inclusion of an emergency banner on all sites in case of an emergency. It also allows a small team of web professionals to provide support to all Dartmouth departments and programs. On the down side, it limits design options.

For Undergraduate Admissions, I used the standard codebase with only one modification — the header area contains additional elements. I made extensive use of CSS3 properties, including color transparency, transition effects, and radius properties. Since not all browsers support CSS3, I coded these elements to degrade gracefully in browsers that do not provide CSS3 support. I also used JavaScript and the JQuery library to enhance the navigation experience, but users who visit the site without JavaScript have fully functional navigation.

Forever New: A Ten Year Report

Screenshot of Ten Year Report webpage

During his tenure as Dartmouth’s President, James Wright produced a both a five- and ten-year report detailing activities and milestones achieved, and plans for the future. I developed websites for both reports. My task was to take the lovely print design created by my colleagues in the Office of Public Affairs and turn it into an attractive and easy to navigate website.

In many ways, web design is more difficult than print design because the medium is fluid rather than fixed on paper. Designers often address this difficulty by trying to nail designs down using fixed element widths, fixed type sizes, and unchangeable graphics. However, as a designer I strive for universal usability. I design layouts that adapt gracefully to different window widths and types sizes, and favor text over graphics whenever possible, as text can be read by software and graphics cannot.

The ten-year report challenged my abilities at fluid design. The booklet is image heavy, with compelling photographs bleeding to the edges of most pages. With a flexible web page, it’s impossible to predict page edges. I used floats, fades, and clipping to capture some of the same drama as bleeds.

Screenshot of the Ochieng’ Brothers page showing treatment of large images

The navigation of the site is modeled on the booklet, with linear paging links that announce the topic of the next page. Paging navigation is both above the fold and at the end of each narrative, so users can easily page through the report. To accommodate users who wish to jump from section to section, or among specific pages within each section, I included a site map on the home page and at the bottom of each page.

Regardless of the ease of use, attractiveness, and readability of the on-screen version, some users would prefer to print the report. I explored options for producing an attractive and readable printed version, using image swapping to provide high-resolution print-friendly images where possible. I also provide a link to a single-page version for printing. While the printed web version is not the equivalent of the one designed by my colleagues, it provides a good experience, both on screen and on paper.