Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Harvard Doesn't Want You to Like It, But Stanford Does So

As a volunteer, I have been helping with rebuilding a web site of a small private high school. Promoting the school on the web is very important for them because they have international students every year and want to continue having enrollments from overseas.

When I visited there last month, the business administrator whom I was meeting with was out of her office, attending a French class of Grade 9 or 10. She was sitting on a chair among students, paying attention to an international student from Germany. "French class is very hard for German students. It is taught in English, and they have to go back and forth between English and French via German," said she. Yes, the school is that small, filled with those warm attentions to each individual student.

For this kind of projects, it would be better for them to hire a professional designer, and I am not a designer - although I practice the design-first development (or may be well-known as Getting Real, by 37signals) in my projects. The school was recently founded by parents of home schoolers, and thus their resource is limited like a boot-strapped startup in our entrepreneur world. So they don't wish to hire a 10-20K design firm. This doesn't mean to me they cannot have an impressive web site - if it is very focused and simple, expressing who they are efficiently.

Yesterday, a parent who is studying web design at a college joined the project. It is great to have her because she knows the school from inside as a parent. In one of messages she sent me, she asked if I knew Joomla, a content management system saying it had good support, popularity and flexibility and even Harvard University was using it and gave me this link. She sounded she wanted to try it out. So I visited the page of The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University, whose screen capture as of writing is below.

Source: http://gsas.harvard.edu/

At a glance, I can see the site is designed by a professional, well-organized by vertical tabs, and its CMS, if any, seems functional enough. However, it is not a good design example for the school's site, at all. Take a look at Department of Art & Art History of Stanford University. Here is a screen shot.

Source: http://art.stanford.edu/

The main difference is, I have to dig out the Harvard site by clicking this and that to know what the graduate school would be for me, while the Stanford page burns it to my brain in a few seconds. Stanford sends me a very clear message, whereas Harvard doesn't. As a prospective student or parent, I would be interested in Stanford, but not in Harvard, if those are the only information I got.

So I wrote back to her as follows. People often think a good CMS can make the site look professional. However, the most important thing would be the message. Other detailed information would be secondary. A rich, mature CMS tends to make us forget about these because it focuses on information architecture instead of the message itself. Even worse, it tends to dilute the message. This is why I would prefer a simpler tool (or even a single page) especially for a small organization which does not have much information to organize. It has to send a simple, focused, simple and original message. Otherwise, it would end up with entering a competition against other established large private schools.

In one hour, she emailed me saying it was so true and she would focus on the content and the message of the new site. I was very glad I made sense to her. I guess she would love the new book by 37signals, titled REWORK.

No comments:

Post a Comment