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Admissions, reimagined and simplified

Posted by on Friday, January 27, 2012 in Launch.

Simplify. Simplify. Simplify.

That was the overarching theme of many of our discussions with the Office of Undergraduate Admissions when imagining a new Web presence. Let’s step back and make things easier for the user. Focus on the key MESSAGES that UoA wants to get out there about Vanderbilt. What are the key ACTIONS we want prospective students to take when they visit the site? Once we know those things — it flows from there.

The old site had an unwieldy main navigation bar that consisted of a dropdown menu with approximately 200 links (!! YES, 200!). The main focus on the homepage was a flash video player that wasn’t accessible on many mobile devices. The key messages were getting lost in a sea of information.

Through focus groups with various student groups and UoA staff, and a thorough review of the existing site analytics, we came to a site plan that we think better presents what Vanderbilt is. We believe students and their parents will more easily be able to get to the information they are looking for — by guiding them through VERY simple navigation (going from 200 links in the main navigation to 8) and focusing on Admissions strategic priorities and key messages. Many, many new “landing” pages were created for these (and others) that strive to condense the massive amount of information on the Admissions website into easily digestible “chunks”. You can read more about UoA’s take on the new website on the Admissions blog.

A few highlights:

Homepage Tabs — While we wanted to simplify things, we also still wanted to provide information easily accessible from the homepage. We accomplished this with a simple tab structure — highlighting our blogs, videos, dates and deadlines, social media links, etc — all there on the homepage, but without overwhelming the user with the information. We can also easily create seasonal tabs — currently we have a Class of 2016 tab. When the Vanderbilt Roadshow begins – we could have a RoadShow tab there instead. The tabs give us a lot of flexibility for highlighting things on the homepage while, again, keeping things SIMPLE.

Saying goodbye to flash — Using jQuery and HTML5 for video, the site is now accessible on all devices. (I’m particularly excited about rolling out the simple jQuery + Youtube Playlist video player I’ve built for use on the STORIES tab on the homepage, also in use on the videos page. Powered by a YouTube playlist and about 6 lines of jQuery– it works on all devices. Love jQuery and PHP and VUFairyDust™. We’re going to be using this code everywhere to display video playlists.)

Find Your Admissions Counselor — this section has been expanded. There are now bios and photos of each counselor — and contact forms for each counselor so that students can quickly and easily reach their counselor. The student can start typing their state, and the list of counselors will automatically filter to display only the counselors from their state.

Contact a Student (encompassing Tour Guides and Global ‘Dores) — this allows a prospective student to find a current Vanderbilt student to talk to. Prospective students can find someone from their state or country, from the school they’re applying to, by class year, etc. They can easily contact them to get the “Inside Scoop” on what it’s really like to go to school at Vanderbilt.

Find Your Major — Using the same datasource as our top level Disciplines and Majors site, here we are presenting a filtered view of only the undergraduate majors. This allows us to keep the visitors on the Admissions website, while still providing them with some of the most frequently accessed information.The student can just start typing and the list will automatically filter to the majors matching their words (e.g. start typing engineering — and only the engineering majors will display).

Telling the Vanderbilt Story — this is a project that Beth and I have been working on as a side project. At first we weren’t thinking of Admissions at all when we began building it out; we just thought there were all these really great stories about Vanderbilt students, faculty, staff and alumni — and we thought — why not create a feed of those stories? The people behind Vanderbilt — one story at a time. Powered by the Vanderbilt News site, anytime a story comes through that would be perfect for this section — all we have to do is tag it and we can pull it through. For Admissions, we’re pulling some videos from that section into the homepage STORIES tab — and linking off to the full Vanderbilt Story microsite from there, where the visitors can browse, for instance, only stories about faculty. This microsite is going to be an evolving presence — with new content being added on a regular basis as more and more cool stories about Vanderbilt people come along!

Search — another VUFairyDust™ recipient. Vanderbilt is fortunate to have an awesome yellow box on the premises. What is that yellow box, might you ask?  It’s a Google Search Appliance. It makes search pretty great. We can tune it for a specific site — for specific words — so that you always get what you’re looking for. UoA can put keywords into the search appliance — so that when any of those words are searched on — the search appliance knows exactly what result the user really wants. (e.g. What are the deadlines for applying?) Magic and awesomeness.

Content Management — and of course, all content for Admissions is managed through OmniUpdate (for the main site) or WordPress (for the blogs). The combination of these two systems makes for a powerful backend that can handle pretty much anything we can think of that we’d like to do. The UoA staff are able to manage all the content across their sites with workflows in place to ensure approval of all content before it goes live.

Facebook — we rolled out a coordinating Facebook tab with the new site. It includes all of the content found within the homepage tabs, formatted for Facebook. And as with all apps we create within Facebook, the same tab can be used on multiple Facebook pages. One source, multiple applications. I love reusable content!

This has been a rewarding project to work on — made more so by the great collaboration we have with the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, especially with Ryan Burleson (who has only been at Vanderbilt a few months — he jumped in with both feet!)

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