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TAMU Webmaster's Blog

Information and insight from the A&M Webmasters


Web Design: Progressive vs. Myopic?

Some thoughts and responses to Lars Damgaard’s post How to avoid ux design trends and why you should. Thanks also to some of our best designers for stimulating my thinking:

  • You can’t amaze people by doing the same thing that everybody else already did.
  • A web design that screams “2015” in 2015 will also scream “2015” in 2019. Great design doesn’t have to scream.
  • Good design is obvious. Great design is transparent. – Joe Sparano
  • Nevertheless, great design can be tested. Research can inspire great design.
  • Designs that win awards might not win users. If you lose sight of users, you become short-sighted.
  • Form must follow function. Design is problem solving and communication, not decoration.
  • A new design trend is not progressive because it’s new. It’s progressive if it communicates. It’s progressive if it solves problems.
  • Trends change, people don’t. The paradox? Great design can be oddly conservative, because it’s grounded in human experience.
  • A well-designed glove accommodates itself to the form of the hand. It doesn’t try to break new ground by providing one less finger.
  • One outdated web design trend emphasized small fonts and low contrast. Did fashion kill this trend, or did human optics?
  • Trends can’t dictate the ideal size of mobile buttons because they can’t dictate the size of fingertips.
  • Fashion can compel trendy college students to wear shorts. Even in winter. But not in deep snow.
Thursday, February 12th, 2015 design No Comments

Tailgating Website Update


Football season is right around the corner, and nothing screams football like tailgating. Being in the SEC brings a whole new audience to our campus, so what better time than our second season to update the tailgating website.

We incorporated the same layout as the visit family of sites, but with a slightly different design. The new tailgating site has a different look to match the tailgating audience; we incorporated a turf background surrounded by blue skies and clouds and a slide show of past tailgating events to bring in the spirit of football season.  The three-column navigation throughout the site makes it easier for users to find information.

The inner pages have a cleaner layout with a more visible navigation to make it easier to navigate from one page to another.  Take a look and let us know if you have any comments.

Gig ‘em!

Monday, July 29th, 2013 design 2 Comments

Putting the “why” back into the process

[Note, it was pointed out that other marketing offices do create newsletter, brochures, direct mail, and other content-centric printed elements and do engage in online advertising. In our department, though, the print work is primarily in the realm of advertisements and online advertisement is largely banner-style inserts on specific websites, so your mileage may vary in how much of this applies to you.]

A colleague recently passed around a link to an article talking about trends in web design. The basic premise was don’t use trendy design techniques for the sake of trendy design — make sure the style fits the topic or serves a purpose. This last phrase, while simple, really says a lot about what we do and, more importantly, why we do it.

It has become cliché that the web is not just print content placed online. That comparison has become so overused that we don’t think much about what it means anymore. In our world the web is not just a different medium requiring different rules, but its very purpose is usually also completely different from our print projects. This then means that not only are the rules of the medium different, but everything affecting the purpose (i.e. the “why”) of the design are different as well.

In the higher ed marketing office [at least in our office], most print projects are not content pieces. They are ads in various magazines, journals, and websites. Let me rephrase that. They are advertisement. I’m not saying that’s bad, but it does imply a wholly different mindset in how we view their design. Advertisements by their very nature are embedded in larger content and compete with both the content and other advertisements for the reader’s attention. It is very possible that they will be competing with the very content that the reader was looking for in the first place. As such they have to be bold, splashy, and whatever else it takes to draw their eye (with obvious exception to the method of being noticeable by being particularly stark.) This arena promotes the use of large and complex imagery because that’s what works. In print, for example, we might devote an entire page of powerful imagery to get the viewer to read a two sentences message.

Our higher ed web sites are not themselves advertisement. As we are trained at “web school,” users come to our sites to solve a problem, which is usually to find some sort of information. That might be the date of an event, how to register for the university, where to purchase football tickets, or any number of things. But they have chosen to come to our sites for a reason. This makes web design much more utilitarian. We aren’t competing with other content on the page, we are the reason the viewer has come in the first place. As such, our design should compliment our content, not be clever or trendy for its own sake. It should be friendly and welcoming to the viewer, but not distract the user from the content they are trying to find.

The next lesson at web school is that the user experience is defined as how quickly and easily (if at all) our site solved the user’s problem. Basically, did they find what they were looking for, and how hard was it for them to find it? This is why Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think has become such a blueprint to web organization. Research has shown that it only takes a few seconds to create a bad experience, and that users having a bad experience with a site are much less likely to revisit the site. If that user is a potential student, the odds of them following through to submitting an application are reduced. To make the site successful, everything we do — content and design — should be centered on improving the user experience.

While we need to produce sites that are inviting and make users want to stay, the designs need to enhance the content, not detract from it.

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013 design 1 Comment

Questions regarding student-athlete promotion

Below is an important email for what we may and may not include on our web pages.

On 12/11/2012 09:19 AM, Cook, Jason D wrote:

Brand Council — As many of you have seen, Johnny Manziel winning the Heisman Trophy has brought unparalleled national exposure for Texas A&M. Many of you have inquired about tapping into this excitement in your respective marketing and communications efforts. Unfortunately, we will need to be very restrictive in how such promotional efforts proceed, for the following reasons:

— Per NCAA rules, we, nor any third parties, are not allowed to profit from a student-athlete’s name, image or likeness.

— “Johnny Football” is currently being trademarked by the Manziel family, with our involvement and assistance. This is to protect his current eligibility and future interests.

— “Heisman” is a registered trademark of The Heisman Trust, and all use must be pre-approved by the Trust.

We will proceed under the guideline that current student-athletes are not to be used to promote department- or college-level initiatives. University-level use may be approved based on review from the Athletic Compliance Office, Athletics External Ops and Division of Marketing and Communications.

We understand that there may be special circumstances from time to time, as we want to continue using athletics to introduce audiences to the greater University. Please feel free to contact Diane or Shane if you have any questions and we will engage the appropriate parties in Athletics. Thanks in advance for your assistance.

Sent from my iPad
Jason Cook
Vice President, Marketing & Communications
Texas A&M University

Tuesday, December 11th, 2012 Branding, design No Comments

Building a Successful Website

We get a lot of comments about our university website. The question that is probably most asked is “how did you do it?” While the site is far from perfect – there a a lot of things that I personally don’t like – I do think that in the broad sense it can be called a success…or at least an improvement over what it used to be. With that in mind, here is how we made a successful (or at least better) website.

Know Who You Are
In our case this meant getting back to our roots. The previous version of the site strayed away from the traditional Aggie color scheme. It wasn’t bad, but it never had the die-hard support of Old Ags (it could have been worse, the designers’ first draft was green rather than maroon. Luckily that was rejected by the powers that be.) This is, at its core, basic branding. Your website is the online showcase for your university, and it needs to visually express who you are.

Know Your Audience
This simple axiom appears in every writer’s guide, but seldom seems to be applied to university websites. Know who you are writing for and what content they want. In our case we determined that the primary audience for is prospective students and their parents. We kept this as a guiding factor when deciding how to lay out the site, what the core organizational areas would be, what content would get linked to, and what information of our own to post.

This was a difficult decision, and yes we did take flack from some of our on-campus users who expected basic intranet content to be posted. While we did in the end leave faculty and staff sections, we made deliberate choices of what to put on and (even more so) leave off. In the end, our primary users actually have noticed this focus and have commented on how refreshing it is to be considered the center of our attention.

Network with Peers
I attended several web conferences over the last few years and had extensive conversations with peers about what they were doing, what worked, and what didn’t. The biggest takeaway is that we’re all facing pretty much the same problems. So don’t reinvent the wheel – find out how somebody has already solved the problem that you’re facing.

Satisfy Your User
This should probably have been listed first, because it is the most important thing you have to do. Users come to your site to perform a task. Generally speaking that task is to find content of some sort about your university. That means their experience with your site is going to be determined by whether they could find what they were looking for. There are a few components to this:

  1. Make the information available – there are many studies that will show what college bound students and parents are looking for. Use this research as a checklist and make sure your site contains every one of them.
  2. Make the content simple to find – your design should funnel people to the information they’re looking for. If users can’t find content, for them it’s the same thing as it not being there.
  3. Identify (from above) the most sought-after content on your site. Move that content towards the top of the site and make many prominent links to it from pages throughout the site.
  4. Once you have identified your core organizational areas, compare your structure to everybody else’s site. I went through that list once for each of our core areas and identified any element that somebody else had on their site that I had have missed on my own list. While doing these sweeps, keep a lookout to see if there is a core organizational area that you have left off. Our “Student Life” section, for example, was added precisely in this way.

This process is a lot of work. It’s long and tedious, but in the end it means that you will have identified the important content that you need to have, which in turn means your site will be more useful for your users.

This step might be different depending on your university organization. We are a very decentralized campus where every office is in charge of their own website. Our office has effectively no control, and often little input, in what goes on these sites, how they look, etc. These sites do, though, contain the information that visitors to want to see. So rather than being an all-encompassing website, instead is much more of an aggregator site that links users to content managed elsewhere. In order to do this effectively we must work with offices across campus…asking them for what content is most relevant, where links should go, etc. We aren’t experts on everything that takes place on campus, so we rely on this communication to make sure we’re sending people to the right information.

Site Integration
Those who read often know that his is my favorite soapbox. Your overall web presence cannot be successful if it consists of several separate sites that don’t integrate and interact with one another. We approached the university website knowing that events from the Web Calendar and the University News sites were going to play a central role in providing page content. These are all piped in through RSS feeds and incorporated into the site. We have expanded on the concept, making sure that calendar events get embedded in news stories, photos from the image repository get used in calendar events, top-10 search terms get used in our departmental site, social media links on our 2nd level pages, and many others. We are always looking for ways of cross-site content usage.

Be Flexible
Just because your site is published doesn’t mean it’s done – it is instead just the beginning. Realize that nothing is set in stone and that you should always be willing to make changes. With a project this big you will never have gotten everything perfect on day one. There will be links that need to be updated, content rewritten, and perhaps even large-scale revisions to be made.

We understood this and took the approach that the site would evolve over time. As people across campus gained familiarity with the site they sent in comments, suggested changes, and requests for more new content. One of these involved the addition of a new element that combined several of these principles — the Research page now contains a feature box that pulls research-related stories from the TAMU News site. Collaborating with the Division of Research, this same feed will also be incorporated into their own upcoming site.

We were also willing to admit our oversights and make changes to correct them. Our recent run through the NCAA Womens’ Basketball tournament revealed that we weren’t doing a good job on the athletic page of getting people to the information they wanted at the time. We therefore set up a new element on that page that would feature our teams whenever they are in big events and provide links to get visitors to the information they were coming to find.

While I would love to say there is some magic secret or formula what leads to success, for us it has always boiled down to old-fashioned hard work, and then some more hard work after that. I learn new things on each project, but these basic guiding principles help keep me focused and the end result hopefully on target.

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Monday, May 2nd, 2011 design, 3 Comments

Conference Presentation

We’re back from HighEdWeb and life is slowly getting back to normal.  We had a great trip, and the reception to our presentation was beyond our expectations.   For those who haven’t been to the conference site to get the slides, I’m making them available for view here.  Be sure to look at the Notes section as well, as those contain many of our talking points to accompany the slides.

For those who don’t want to go through the whole thing I’ll recap some of the primary points here:

  • Mobile devices are the future, you must start developing for them now or be left behind.
  • Which is better mobile app or mobile web?  – There is not right answer, they are different technologies with different purposes.  Focus instead on the content and experience that you want to deliver to your user, and then choose the platform that best delivers that experience.
  • The biggest advantage to apps is it’s ability to access hardware features (GPS, camera, etc.) and this will be where the app shines in the future.
  • The biggest advantage of mobile web is that is is HTML that you already have the skillset to create, and because it is online Google will be a powerful friend in getting your content out to the world.
  • The speed at which smart phones have been adopted has changed the landscape.  Apps are no longer the “sexy,” “cool,” “must have” thing that they were a year ago.  CSS and Javascript allow mobile websites to fill that role now, allowing apps to evolve into higher-end elements. Embrace this change, don’t spend time and money building an app that can be done faster and easier with a website.
  • That being said, people like being able to just “hit a button” and pull up the information in an app without having to type in a URL into a browser.
  • The evolution of app and website brings us back to the concept that “content is king.”  Every time we get a new technology we go through a cycle of forgetting this, only to have it  re-assert itself once the platform us uniformly adopted.
  • Think of air travel or cruises a generation ago – they were top of the line travel that everyone dressed up for. Now they are considered run of the mill and we wear t-shirts and flip flops.  Similarly, back in the 1990s everyone wanted a personal website to post pictures of their cat – today we get our cats Facebook accounts and post hundreds of pictures.  In another few years nobody will care about mobile web vs. mobile app, they will just want their content. We need so start preparing  for that mindset now.
  • Design for all mobile devices, not just high-end smartphones.  Graceful degradation/progressive enhancement will allow you to target the upper end phones with nice displays while still allowing the content to be ready by everyone.
  • Several years ago we complained about “best viewed in IE” on websites – we can’t now turn around and produce sites “best viewed in webkit.”
  • When you design a mobile site, present it in a standard navigational layout rather than building something of your own.  Lists and iPhone-style icons are the accepted norms, don’t make your users think by giving them something new.
  • Mobile sites will get a lot of hits from desktop users because they are lean and easy to navigate.  Embrace these users and don’t redirect them away from the content.
  • “The user IS mobile, not just HOLDING one.”  – Make this the foundation of your mobile strategy.  You are not just designing for a device that has different capabilities. The mobile user has different needs and expectations from a desktop user, give them the content they need.
  • “Making a mobile website is not the same as making your website mobile.”  You should give your traditional website mobile-friendly styles, but that isn’t enough.  You really need a separate website that caters to the mobile users’ needs.
  • Think outside the box in content to add.  As well as things like bus routes and dining menus, we found the About Us a popular destination one day when our football team was on national television.  Users didn’t even get up to go to the other room and look us up, they did it from their phones while still watching the game.
  • Look for partners across campus – when Transportation Services added our URL to their bus signs traffic to the site doubled overnight.
  • Mobile devices are changing so rapidly that the standard 2-year cycle we use on our desktop sites is simply too long. We must be constantly looking at how to evolve our mobile sites.

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Friday, October 15th, 2010 design, Mobile Web 2 Comments

new map needs feedback

We’ve been working with the fine folks over at Facilities Coordination as they refine their campus map. Now, they’ve launched a new “beta” version of it and are would like the web community to “bang on it”.

Basically this map offers the FCOR folks some greater flexibility for publishing maps and from what Jim tells me, it renders tiles a whole lot faster.

We all use the campus map in some way. The data powers our TAMUmobile maps, we use it to point people to our buildings for visits or for special events, and it is integrated into our calendar.

It’s important to let FCOR know how we use it and what it may need to better meet our needs. So if you you’ve got a few seconds/minutes to spare, help them out by rooting around on it and pass on any feedback over to Jim Bouse at FCOR.

To test it out either click on the screenshot above or visit the beta at:

Thursday, August 12th, 2010 Campus Maps, design No Comments

Custom Facebook landing pages

TAMU Facebook Landing Page

For those not logged into Facebook or not fans of Texas A&M, they get this landing page. It's also the "Howdy" tab for current fans.

If you visit the A&M Facebook page and you’re not already logged in, or if you aren’t already a fan you’ll get a default “landing page” that we’ve developed and put online.

Landing pages are getting more and more use from retailers (Gap, Best Buy, Coke, etc) wanting to make a splash with visitors and get them to “like” their page. You’re also beginning to see this with universities as well. While many are still defaulting to the wall for non-fans, there are some that are beginning to build these splashes.

For us, it’s a mix of trying to get these folks either further into the A&M Facebook page (clicking on the Facebook wall sticker, or the fan photos link) but we also realize that some of these are going to be parents of current/future Aggies or future Aggies. We want to give them a quick and easy way to get to the info they need to help them as they make important decisions. So all of our links across the top jump to pages within the webspace.

Jenni and I must have looked at over 200 different retail and university fan pages and we’ve noticed a lot of retailers are adding video, so we added the video spot in the middle which also highlights our “It’s Time” campaign.

So how’d we do this? › Continue reading

Monday, June 7th, 2010 design, Social Media 3 Comments

New Multimedia Page

As some of you may have heard already, we have launched our new and improved Multimedia Page.  This site is the hub for all things multimedia for Texas A&M: screensavers, wallpapers, firefox personas, photos, videos, etc.

Aggie Multimedia Homepage

AggieMedia Website Homepage

We wanted this site to stand out from our other pages and use it as an outlet for trying new and inventive approaches to design that cannot be done on www.  Before designing the site, I did research on web design trends for 2010, and found that hand drawn elements and large, bold headers are going to be popular this year (this explains why you may have seen me doodling on paper taped to the windows of Bizzell Hall last month).  I used these elements throughout the site along with lighter colors that stray away from the traditional A&M maroon and tan.  Most of the hand drawn doodles are also links to other pages, one of them being “snapshots of campus” which is a different way to approach the stereotypical campus slideshow.

The look of the site is meant to be eye catching and fun for future and current students, and we are already getting a lot of positive buzz about it on facebook and twitter!

So check it out!

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Thursday, June 3rd, 2010 design, Multimedia, Visual Identity 2 Comments