Yesterday, via Facebook and Twitter, we soft-launched the GVSU Alternate Homepage, a project we’ve been playing with for a few months. The alternate homepage, an idea cooked up by members of the web team, is intended to be a very simple, quick loading, one-stop web portal for internal audiences. Basically, we took a good hard look at what parts of the website are used the most by current students, faculty and staff, cut out all the rest, added some design magic, and this is what happened.
But why would you go and do a thing like that? What’s wrong with the existing homepage?
We don’t think there’s anything wrong with the regular homepage. We worked hard to get it to where it is, we’re very proud of it, and have no intentions to replace it anytime soon! However, the struggle of designing and managing a university homepage is that there are many audiences to consider and many usability hurdles to contend with. A university’s homepage needs to be an appealing, attractive, easy-to-navigate page for prospective students and their parents; it needs to provide current students, faculty, and staff with the links and resources they need; and it serves as a way to keep alumni, friends, and the community informed about what’s going on at the university.
We think our homepage does all of these things very well. However, we also know from experience that sometimes, life here at GVSU can get very hectic. Sometimes you just need to get somewhere on the website fast, without being distracted by the latest GVNow news item or updates from the events calendar.
So that’s why we developed the alternate homepage. Using it, you can get to the most popular places on our website with under 2 clicks and 1 page load. It has no frills. Just links and a pretty picture.
Speaking of the picture, it changes every day, just like the one on the GVSU homepage. Users can sign up to vote on which photos appear each day.
The soft launch: what we learned
Yesterday afternoon, we pushed the page live and did a soft-launch, simply saying, “What do you think of this alternative GVSU homepage? http://www.gvsu.edu/alt/” After a few minutes, the responses started rolling in. They ranged from positive:
“DUDES! That’s a sweet homepage. Very avant garde for higher ed.”
“WHAT IS THIS? GOOGLE? — But seriously, up the opacity by like 5% and it’d be pretty fantastic. I’d love to see this as the homepage.”
“I like it better.”
“*LIKE* Clean, easy to find elements, particularly Banner and athletics.”
“love the alternate homepage! Makes finding things a lot quicker.”
…to not so positive:
“Not a fan at all. To much waisted space and dose a poor job of advertising GVSU to new students.”
“It’s not informative enough. There is no section for prospective students either. If I were new,I wouldn’t know where to start to look”
“It doesn’t *feel* like a homepage. I feel like I’ve been taken to GVSU’s google search page. Home should match the rest of the site.”
“I don’t like it. I like the website it is now. I especially like the events being on the page of what’s going on around campus. I don’t think this would be a good option for incoming students.”
Several responses to our facebook page, in particular, displayed a surprising (and somewhat disheartening!) amount of outrage. What became immediately apparent is that, in our mysterious, concise launch, we had done a poor job of communicating the page’s target audience and its purpose. Users were jumping to the conclusion that we intended it as a replacement to the other homepage.
So, we quickly started re-tweeting and did some explaining:
And people were happier. After they realized what our intentions were, the crowd on Twitter had mostly positive feedback and a lot of people seemed thrilled with the idea. Facebook users, on the other hand, were still pretty lukewarm to the concept. (What are the implications there about the differences between the overall user base of the two sites? I’ll leave you to ponder that one.) Overall, the situation was a good reminder that with any new concept, especially something as unusual as this one, it’s important to be clear about our intentions. A little communication can go a long way towards happy users.
In just under 24 hours since we did our soft launch, it has had 1,700 views and 56 people have marked it as their preferred GVSU homepage. I look forward to more feedback as more people learn about the page and begin to use (or not use) it, and I think it will be interesting to see what we learn and how the page evolves as we continue to make it more useful and user-friendly.