Online Campus Tour Conundrum

How hard could it be to build a user-friendly virtual campus tour?

It’s bad if the university website fails to offer adequate information for new students; it’s even worse when they’ve got all the good stuff out there while students can hardly find them.

I’ve been working on a project to rebuild UW’s online Visitors Center. Quite unfortunately, I found our website, when functioning for campus discovery, belongs to the “worse” category.

What surprised me after digging deeper into the website is a rich library of campus tour resources, over 50% of which I could possibly never notice without doing this project.

What makes the valuable information so unreachable?

Please take a look at this site map. Everything related to campus tour is listed. The titles with the same highlight color link to the same page.

Campus Tour Navigation

See what’s wrong? The richness of information is screwed up by the complex hierarchy. The navigation system is basically problematic in the following aspects.

  • Decentralization of resource. New students expect a highly direct and efficient discovery over the campus. They want everything in the same place, assumably the interactive map could be a ideal starting point. However, on UW’s current website, you’ll find information is scattering under different submenus like “Campus tour”, “Visit the UW”, “Visitors Center”, “Maps”, “Photo”, “Planning a Visit”, “Tours”, etc. Students can be easily distracted and feel frustrated by clicking back and forth.
  • Poor logic in hierarchy. The layers’ order of the umbrella is constantly changing. Take “Visitors Center” as an example, it is the secondary page under “Discover UW”, and it contains “Tours”; while it becomes the fourth page under “Future student”, and is contained by “Campus Tour”. How confusing is that?
  • Inconsistency in navigation. Wherever we click “Campus Tour” or “Tours”, we take for grated that they will map us to the same page. However in our case, the highlighted green (light, dark and bright green) areas are actually links to three different tour pages.  Another example is on the Visitors Center’s page, as you can see below, we can find two “Interactive Map” items, and they’re linking to two completely different maps! If they are supposed to point to different pages, then why they are given the same title? The design of the navigation is totally again our mental mode.

Campus Tour Navigation

The site absolutely needs fixing in hierarchy, repetition, ambiguity and inconsistency. Since the information is already all there, I assumed it would not be a challenging task, until I talked to the specialist in UW’s Visitors Center. I was told that different menus and pages are managed by different departments of the university. It is not realistic to do a complete integration and reorganization. These departments all want to offer as much as they can for the online visitors, that’s how the tour guidance is getting more and more complicated.

Apparently, it’s more than the design. I understand the administrative rules in the university, but I’m wondering, does the website serve better by just adding more and more information while not providing a neat and intuitive navigation? Which is prior?  Hopefully the departments can bridge the gap sooner and make FULL use of the current information on the website.

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