Cornell University Telling a Bolder, Friendlier Story Through New Cornell.edu
ITHACA, NY – Big, bold images. Engaging video. Audience-focused navigation. Mobile-friendly. Those are the results of more than a year of researching, designing, programming, testing and polishing that went into the new cornell.edu, the university’s front page, which went live this week.
“It’s really about telling Cornell’s story in a visually interesting way,” said Lisa Cameron-Norfleet, director of the Office of Web Communications, who led the redesign project for University Relations and has been a curator of Cornell’s front page since the early ’90s. “The guiding principle of the previous cornell.edu site was a lobby approach, to get people where they’re going fast. We think of the new site as a concierge, getting them there through an experience. Instead of link piles, we’re telling people what we’re doing.”
“We upped the game with the imagery from static images to videos,” added Zac Doob, director of the Office of Web Technologies, who headed the technical team that made the site work. “We wanted to give the feeling that you’re visiting.”
As the page opens, viewers find top news and upcoming events, including stories from the Cornell Chronicle and CornellCast videos. The “Around the University” section pulls in photos and links provided by colleges and schools, which can be filtered by schools, units and strategic priorities. Further down the page are the latest postings from the university’s Twitter, Instagram and other new media accounts. The old links are there too, in the footer, along with a dynamic world map that highlights Cornell’s global impact.
The redesign extends to the sub-pages that open from links across the top. Research showed that the audience wanted authentic storytelling from students and faculty members, so, for example, the “Student Life” link opens onto an overview of life on campus told in the words of students, with links to athletics, activities and student blogs. “Research” shows the range from mainstream to quirky, and “About Cornell” describes the campus, history, traditions and international connections. “Admissions” reminds prospective students that 3,282 undergrads were admitted to the Class of 2017 out of 39,999 who applied.
Use any device. The site has what technicians call “responsive design,” which allows the screen to expand and contract and rearrange to fit any screen, from wall-sized TV to tablet to smartphone.
The redesign is based on about a year’s research on what visitors want to see, and incorporates input from internal and external stakeholders and focus groups, including current and prospective students and faculty. “All the decisions on the site are data-driven,” Cameron-Norfleet said. “I’m confident that it’s what our users want and need as opposed to us thinking it’s what our users want and need.”
A primary audience to keep in mind, she noted, is prospective students. One of the first questions they have, she said, is “Am I going to fit in?” So images on the new site reflect the diversity of the student population and their wide range of interests.
To get a “fresh eye” on design, the team hired Free Association – a New York City Web consulting firm co-founded by Cornell alum David Landa and involving fellow alums Michael and Matthew Piliero, and Stephanie Wills – that designed the site and conducted much of the research. The company’s impressive client list includes Ford Motor Co. and Victoria’s Secret.
“I think of them as an extension of our workbench,” Doob said. “They crafted the user experience and we built the systems that published the content. We met several times a week; we were on the phone; they came up here a few times, and we went down to Brooklyn. It was a very collaborative approach.”
The team also worked with a New York area writer, Brooke Capps, who wrote most of the content on the sub-pages, keeping the tone and manner consistent for the entire site. University Photography supplied video and images, and Jessica Doolittle, project manager from Cornell Information Technologies, helped with security and best practices.
There’s more to come, Cameron-Norfleet said. “We are still in active development, moving into Phase 2,” she said. “The to-do list doesn’t end, so keep coming back to see what’s new.”