New Brown University Home Page: Breaking Too Many Rules?

The new Brown University home page has been making a bit of a buzz recently (well, Jared Spool and friends have been talking about it at least).

It's quite a departure from the traditional university home page and it's certainly cool to wave your mouse around for a while and watch the different 'bands' of content slide up and down.

But does it work? Without doing some proper user testing it's impossible to say for sure. However, I have my concerns.

Battle of the Bands

The main one is that the headings on the left hand side look like they might be links but are not. Because they are on the left, look a lot like vertical navigation and are much larger and clearer than the actual links on the right, my eye is immediately drawn to them.

Knowing that users tend to satisfice (they'll click on the first link that looks like it might be relevant without checking to see if it's their best choice) if I wanted to learn about, say, giving to Brown, it's not unreasonable to expect me to see the "Giving to Brown" heading and try and click on it.

However, if you try to do so, before you can click the whole band slides up out of the way. It's only when you mouse over one of the upper headings — which doesn't move when you mouse over it — that you find out for sure that they are not links. I wouldn't be surprised if this was pretty frustrating for some users.

In addition, if you figure out that the links are over on the right and try to click on one, if it's in one of the lower bands it still slides up and out of the way. You only have to try this once to see how annoying this could be. If you want to look for a job, for example, you are forced to effectively click twice.

Strangely enough, one might argue that the site becomes more usable when you disable JavaScript because then all the bands open up and you can just scroll down the page to the section you need.

Another problem is that if you increase your text size, the content in the open band becomes unreadable as it disappears below the visible area.

Why Hide Great Content?

This is less of a problem for the user than for the organization; but, by displaying content only when you open a particular band you are hiding it from the majority of your users. It's hard enough to get people to read content that you shove in front of their face, let alone force them to actually go looking for it.

There's no reason why someone who's coming to look at admission information wouldn't be interested in learning about what new research is being done. Or, someone who's interested in giving to Brown might be further encouraged by seeing the great research work that is going on.

Unless these users actively mouse over the research band (which is unlikely, given how task-oriented most users are) they will never see this content.

Searching for Search

I'm not sure why the site search is at the bottom of the page. There's plenty of empty space at the top right of the page where one might expect to find it.

Also, because of how it's designed the search box doesn't look much like a text box. Less savvy users might not even realize that you can type in it — it looks a lot like a solid grey bar. I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of people just hit "search" without typing something in, in order to get to an actual search page.

If you do, you are taken to a blank page with the heading "Google Public Service Search" which is very confusing. Am I still searching the Brown site or the whole of the web?

What Do I Know?

But then again, what do I know? Perhaps the cool factor of the unusual interface more than makes up for any potential shortcomings.

Maybe Brown University's users like seeing the content bands go up and down so much that they wave their mouses all over the home page and see everything — now wouldn't that be nice?!

Posted on: September 18, 2006 | 4 Comments

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4 Comments Posted

Maybe Brown/their developers felt that their target audience (potential students, the majority of whom will have just finished high school) would be impressed by the interactivity and not as easily put off by the non-traditional approach.
Only an understanding of their website user demographics would throw light on whether that's a wise choice or not.
I certainly think the home page's inability to stand up to much text resizing is a major problem.

It's true that a novel interface like this has to overcome lack of user experience. But, having worked on a major educational site, I know exactly why they took this approach. Universities have more content than almost any other site, and it's extremely diverse. More than other types of sites, visitors to educational sites are usually looking for very specific information. I really admire their approach to help people find what they are looking for instead of splaying out a huge bloated PR nightmare on the front page.

This rollover navigation has the potential to annoy, and it's risky. But I think they'll be successful, because it's intuitive; not in the sense of past experience, but because it's so simple and it's obvious what's going on. I don't think normal users will get annoyed unless they can't accomplish their goals, which this interface is designed towards.

That said, I expect they've done a fair amount of usability testing, because that's the only way to confidently move forward with something like this.

John – you may well be right with regard to potential students.

However, I would be concerned about other important audiences such as alumni and those who might give to the university.

These could be people of any age and I wouldn't be surprised if those in the older age brackets didn't have some difficulty navigating through the home page.

Gabe – it was interesting listening to Jared Spool and his guests talk about the site.

One of them mentioned the same thing that you did — that they admired the designers going pushing the envelope so-to-speak, but that it was risky.

I think it was Jared himself who asked whether you should be doing something risky with your home page — something that has to serve the needs of so many people.

I would hope that they have done plenty of user testing (and it sounds like they may have from their about this site page). But if that were the case, how could they have let the search box go through like that?

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