$170,960 overhaul of the NCF website leaves students with accessibility complaints
The homepage of the newly-designed New College website.

$170,960 overhaul of the NCF website leaves students with accessibility complaints

The main NCF website has drastically changed as of recently, the end result of a 15-month-long project by Communications and Marketing, IT and Fastspot—a third party web design vendor—to update and streamline the website in order to further appeal to new and prospective students. Current members of the NCF community have replied to the update with mixed reviews. Students and faculty who have become used to the old website’s layout and quirks have had to quickly adjust to the incredibly different layout of the new website, attempting to find and commit to memory where important resources are now located on the page. 

The updated website is a project which was spearheaded by the Communications and Marketing department in an effort to make the website more appealing to prospective students and the modern age—implementing a trendy new layout and color scheme, meant to reflect the uniqueness of the NCF campus community. 

Digital Marketing & Communications Manager Isabel Lower and Director of Marketing & Communications Ann Comer-Woods, who both were leading the process of updating the website, explained that it had begun in Fall 2020 and really got off the ground in terms of design in Spring 2021. 

The vendor brought on to design the website, Fastspot, has designed numerous websites for other universities and institutions—including Johns Hopkins University, Brown University and Yale College—making them an obvious choice when choosing a vendor to work with. Fastspot is a “creative agency,” as their website boasts: “Innovation, storytelling and technology power our ideas.” In total, NCF spent $170,960 on FastSpot, split between two fiscal years, according to Associate Vice President of Administrative Affairs Christie Fitz-Patrick. 

Lower was not actually brought on to the Marketing & Communications team until Sept. 2021, but Woods had been on board the entire time. Lower explained that it was “pretty unusual for somebody to come into something kind of at the end of it” and that “a lot of decisions that I was making were things that would have usually been made at the beginning of the process.” She also explained that the project had been through several people and had seen a lot of change in team members because of staff turnover. 

When asked about the process the team used when putting together the website, it was clear that the website had been designed primarily with prospective students in mind. Additionally, they used a “mobile first” design philosophy: optimizing the website for mobile devices before reworking it to look good on desktop as well. 

“A lot of the fonts and layout that were chosen were with mobile in mind,” Lower said. 

“One of the goals of the new site was that it had to be mobile friendly,” Woods confirmed. “So it is designed to work well on a desktop as well as on mobile because we know that students are on their phones, looking at the website, and we wanted to make sure that it was mobile friendly first and foremost for our audience.”

Additionally, when asked about the new ways of navigating the website, Lower explained that “longer pages with lots of content” used to be incredibly popular within web design. For a while it fell out of use, but “it’s come back around to be a good use of space and good design.” 

“We simplified it to have a lot of content in sections on a page so that you don’t have to navigate back and forth between sub-pages and landing pages instead, it’s just kind of more unified,” Lower elaborated. 

Lower and Woods also both explained that their main two audiences when designing the website were prospective and current students. Especially prospective students, which resulted in a lot of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) happening throughout the process—including changing the term AOC to Major on the main page for the academic programs since the most common term high school students who are searching for colleges are using is “Majors.” 

Prior to being redesigned, ncf.edu had an extensive list of undergraduate programs labeled “AOCs” readily available. Now, the undergraduate programs are referred to as “Majors” on the homepage and require a bit more searching to find.

“One way that we wanted to make the website more accessible to new students [and] prospective students, is to kind of spell out those abbreviations [such as AOC],” Lower explained. “So, you know, in some places we referred to it as a major kind of more top level, just because that’s more familiar to the audience, so they can kind of understand that makes sense.” 

But how well does this new website appeal to current students, those who are regularly using the website right now? 

In a survey sent out to the student email forum, several students left comments about how they felt about the new website. Generally, comments were critical of the new website, highlighting issues relating to navigation as one of the key issues. 

“It values ‘looking slick’ over usability or accessibility,” one student commented. 

“Accessing the USF-NCF library catalog is harder now,” thesis student Bennett Aikey said. “For thesising students, this is a pretty annoying hurdle. I haven’t really explored the new website, but for my purposes, the library thing is a major thumbs down from me.” 

“I find it overwhelming,” another survey comment said. “It bombards you with so much information and visuals that it drains you to the point where you actually forget what you were looking for in the first place.” 

Other common complaints included the excessive scrolling required to find things, and the lack of any clear direction on where things can be found on the website. 

Students had little to say in comparison about things they liked about the website. Compliments included citing the colorful branding, new graphics and homepage video to be some few positives outlined.

It is worth noting that Marketing & Communication held a couple of focus groups throughout the website’s production. One student who participated in the focus group sessions, thesis student Sarah Cooper, was willing to discuss what the sessions looked like and what the response from the criticism was. Cooper participated in two different focus group meetings which consisted mainly of student ambassadors, students who work for the admissions office and people who are generally active in the campus community. 

“[Students] gave a lot of feedback about the layout and the usability of the website compared to what we had now,” Cooper explained. “And I think the general impressions were that it was harder to navigate. Personally, I think I’m still going to be running into the same issue. As with the previous website, where, if I need to find something, I’ll probably end up Googling it rather than being able to find it through the website directly, because you just have to do so much scrolling to find anything and the drop-down menu.” 

This feedback was given during the focus group, and Cooper believed it continues to be an issue as of the official launch. 

When asked about the complaints and comments from students, Lower firstly encouraged that students and faculty reach out to her with any questions or feedback they may have.

 “I would just say, I think as people get used to it and figure out, you know, where everything they need is located, the ultimate goal is that they just stop thinking about it,” Lower said. “You just get used to it and, I’m also, definitely, happy to work with anybody on optimizing their page for what they require it for.” 

The complaints from students, including Cooper, aren’t just pure annoyance that comes with any change to a regularly used tool. Running the website through diagnostic checks on speed and accessibility yields shocking results. When run through the diagnostic test, PageSpeed Insights, it becomes clear that the website is incredibly slow on desktop due to excessive amounts of content on each page and a considerable amount of unused JavaScript running in the background.

Additionally, the NCF website does not fully pass a website accessibility check administered by WAVE, which shows that the website includes examples of low contrast (making things  difficult to read), broken and redundant links, as well as necessary content hidden from screen readers. 

Lower and Woods both seemed to agree that the new website will simply be a learning curve for current users that they will eventually get used to. They are both happy to hear feedback from both students and faculty, and hopefully any issues that are found can be fixed while the school continues to work with Fastspot for the next year.

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