May/June 1999 // Case Studies
George Mason Gets a Facelift
by Cara Determan and Allyn Summa
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Cara Determan and Allyn Summa "George Mason Gets a Facelift" The Technology Source, May/June 1999. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Redesigning a website is always a challenge, as we can attest after taking on a major redesign of the George Mason University website in February 1998. Because the GMU umbrella supports more than 500 second-level sites from the top page, our primary goal was to enable users to find information effectively and efficiently. Our secondary goals evolved out of Mason's financial and marketing concerns: because resources were an issue for the University, we aimed to develop a site with easy content management and update; and because previous designs were either outdated or conceived as temporary highlights, we wanted the site to consistently present a professional, high-tech image of the university.

The Approach

We did not rely on any one organization to complete the redesign. Instead, the university formed a team—the MasonLink Management Team—comprised of individuals from across the University, each of whom brought different experience and skill sets to the effort. University Libraries, University Relations, University Computing & Information Systems (UCIS), and Institutional Research and Reporting were all represented on the redesign team. Next, the MasonLink Management team performed a survey of other university websites. We felt that it was important to identify, first, what other higher-education institutions were doing with their top-level pages, and second, what elements (if any) were consistent on the websites. While we wanted to address our audience in the most effective manner possible, we also wanted to provide links that are familiar to users.

In our research, we found that most university websites operate via "one-way" navigation. This type of navigation requires users to access secondary pages through selected categories (i.e., a user finds a link for the Physics Department homepage only after clicking on the category "Academics"); most of the secondary pages are associated with only one category. Some of the most popular categories are: Academics/Academic Life, Admissions, Arts/Sports, Libraries/Computing, News/Events, and Info/Weather. Many of the sites we looked at also include a search box that allows users to type in keywords and receive a result set of pages containing those words.

Both versions of our website—our "original" version ( and our "temporary" version (—also used one-way navigation; consequently, each of our secondary sites was available through only one category on the index page. We knew that this system was frustrating to users, many of whom considered it a challenge to find something as simple as the Human Resources page. Because the redesign team's primary goal was to provide users with an uncomplicated and effective way to access all secondary pages, we decided that the one-way approach to navigation required serious modification. Mason's redesigned site ( therefore incorporates several different navigation options so that, from the very first page, users are able to navigate the site in the ways that feel most comfortable to them.

Redesign Features

  • The retention of traditional categories. Because many other university sites use traditional one-way categories, and because our previous sites also used this categorical system, we decided to retain, rather than replace wholesale, our category links. The result: users comfortable with the old site can still navigate the redesigned site without becoming disoriented. The categories are fluid, and they represent the main areas that users typically explore on the Mason site—the Visitors Center, Academics, Admissions, Libraries & Research, New in Technology, and New Places & Spaces. We also decided to retain the keyword search because it is a familiar tool and allows visitors to control their own exploration of the site.

  • The addition of audience-based categories. Our new navigational structure allows secondary pages to be grouped according to the interests of various audiences, including the following: Students, Faculty & Staff, Parents & Prospective Students, Alumni, Business & Government, and Friends & Community. To identify these groups, the redesign team turned to two sources of information: (1) our own team representatives, whose internal experience with the University provided the initial basis for choosing the audience groups; and (2) focus groups made up of members from relevant departments and/or organizations, members whose expertise informed our final decisions. For example, we solicited input from the staff from the Alumni Office before organizing the resources grouped under "Alumni"; likewise, representatives from various student organizations and from the Student Programs Office supplied feedback about the pages grouped under "Students." Some secondary sites were easier to place than others. The team felt torn between the desire to place web pages in as many audience groups as possible and the simultaneous desire to keep group listings concise.

    The development of audience profiles enables us to tailor content in such a way as to provide "homepage" areas for each group—to create one-stop shopping that allows targeted users to find timely, relevant information that is conveniently organized on one page.

  • The addition of Mason A-Z and New Sites categories. In order to accommodate the largest number of users possible, we grouped the secondary sites in yet another format: "Mason A-Z," an alphabetical listing of sites that includes a brief description of each page. This listing has two major advantages. First, users familiar with Mason and its organizations can quickly find the websites that they know exist. For example, most of the university community is familiar with University Computing & Information Systems; the alphabetical listing provides an easy and direct way for users to find the UCIS site under "U." Because the individual entries are cross-referenced, visitors not sure of the official name can also find UCIS under "C" for computing. Second, an alphabetical listing provides a means for those both inside and outside of the Mason community to browse the websites contained within the University's umbrella and to quickly get a feel for the information and services provided on those sites.

    As a compliment to this A-Z structure, the redesign includes a New Sites listing that provides the name, description, and date of creation for recently added pages. Again, this listing allows both internal and external users to watch Web development taking place at Mason and to determine which new sites offer information and services of interest to them.

  • The addition of the Mason's Popular Sites menu. The Mason’s Popular Sites drop-down menu is the final major navigational structure included in the redesign. It offers a list of sites that many users expect to be able to access from the top-level page. This list comprises many core pages, including Academic Programs, Applications Online, Continuing Professional Education, Human Resources, Library Catalog, University Catalog, Schedule of Classes, and University Computing & Information Systems; but the list also includes more fluid entries that reflect timely activities on campus—for example, Aquatic & Fitness Center, Center for the Arts, Center for Global Education, SportSite, and Mason’s Y2K Page.

  • The addition of a News, Announcements, and Events category. The redesigned site also includes a link to Today@Mason, a secondary page that makes available all announcements and news stories about Mason as well as details about current events at the University. This link offers a quick way for all users to find out what is happening on campus on any given day and also provides users with an effective scheduling tool.

Maintenance and Technology

Though we are excited about the flexibility of the redesigned site, it does require a significant amount of maintenance. Both the "original" and "temporary" sites required oversight on approximately 7 to 10 pages. Our multiple navigational structure increases that number to more than 35 pages. To accommodate this number of pages without an increase in resources, the team implemented what is called "database backend technology."

In short, this database technology organizes all the lower-level links and directs their delivery to Mason's top pages. Each website within the Mason umbrella has its own entry in the database. For each site, fields in the database entry specify the creation date, alphabetical listing(s), audience relevance, and categorical distinction—as well as contact and other administrative information. The database technology also provides a content-management interface and link-delivery system for the news and events portion of the Mason site, Today@Mason. Today@Mason is updated and maintained by University Relations rather than the Web team; as a result, it resides on a different system. With the database technology, University Relations content providers have the interface they need to enter daily news stories.

Cold Fusion technology makes it possible for the team to administer all the information in the database from a web interface. Selections and modifications to the database allow the team to quickly update administrative information as well as link-delivery information—which audience pages and which category pages links appear on, for example—as well as the order in which they appear and how they are grouped on each of the pages. The integrity of the data is maintained because it is contained only once in the database. However, the information is distributed to as many sites within the Mason top pages as is appropriate.

The Mason website database and the Today@Mason database provide two significant functions: First, they allow URLs to be displayed on as many pages as is appropriate even though the information is maintained in only one source file. Thus, once an update is made to the database, that change is reflected on all the associated pages. Second, database technology allows content providers (in Mason's case, the redesign team members and the University Relations staff) to directly add information and/or content to the site. No emailing or calling a webmaster—or waiting for a response—is necessary. Providers make the changes they require, when they require them, with no intermediate steps.

Lessons Learned

The major portion of the redesign spanned a 3-month period and involved 3 full-time designers/developers as well as various management and part-time staff. Clearly one of the strengths of Mason's approach to the project was the establishment of a cross-departmental design team. Too often, design efforts are centered in one department; that kind of narrow team vision results in a site that is limited in its usefulness, that is "lopsided" in one fashion or another. We believe that Mason's new site bears no such flaws, for not only were the departmental associations of the team members varied, so were their skill sets. Individual members provided expertise in such areas as design, development, system administration, and management. It is this mix of associations and skill sets that brought success to the Mason effort.

Working with focus groups also provided a mechanism to quickly identify general user needs and requirements. Focus group and user comments provided immediate guidance on potential problems and much-needed input about the links and information on audience pages. However, the redesign team found it necessary to carefully scrutinize focus-group data for four reasons: first, bias was inherent in the feedback provided by individual commenters; second, the focus groups rarely came to a consensus regarding the pages; third, the groups often debated issues of design rather than issues of content; and fourth, no focus group looked at the overall site. Because each group concentrated on a relatively small portion of the site, it was the redesign team's responsibility to take the groups' input, put it in context, and consider it when making strategic decisions about the overall design of the site.

Our experiences indicate that completing the redesign is only the tip of the iceberg. The development of an information-management system and university marketing tool requires continual analysis and refinement. The administrators of top-level university websites should have long-term goals which will set the standard for consistent navigational approaches, information organization, design elements, and content management throughout secondary pages. They should also have a non-biased tool for measuring which changes to the site are proving useful and which could benefit from continued rethinking. (So far Mason has no such means of assessing the redesigned site's effectiveness.) Keeping any site fresh and alive requires a united university effort, a dedicated Web development team with a vision of the future and, as in our case, a vision of the university website environment as a whole.

Since the site's completion, the MasonLink Management Team has experienced several transformations. The original design team members are no longer on the team. As a result of the successful redesign to Mason's top pages, the designers moved to new university projects. The new team, called the Mason Web Team, has shifted its focus from design into maintenance and upkeep. A recent survey conducted by the Mason Web Team indicates 48% of the roughly 1600 respondents rate the Mason website as "above average" with another 21% rating it as "excellent." Surveys are like simple site statistics in their vulnerability to manipulation of interpretation. And unless administered thoughtfully and with specific goals in mind, the bias of survey respondents makes any result questionable. However, in light of the absence of other assessment tools, this survey does provide the original MasonLink Management Team a certain amount of satisfaction that many of Mason's users have found the redesign effort successful.

Here is a sampling of comments from the survey:

"I wouldn't want anything to change on the top level page. I think it's great where it is. It very pleasing to the eye and users don't have to hunt through massive amounts of useless information to find what they're looking for."

"Unlike many other web sites... including commercial/business sites, the Mason site makes sense. The titles are easy to understand, information is cross-referenced logically and effectively, and it moves quickly. I wish more of the sites I use worked nearly as well!"

"The main page is excellent."

Certainly not all of the comments about the site are so approving. But it is not misleading to claim that a significant percentage of the anecdotal responses have been positive. We hope that the site will continue evolving and changing to better suit user needs and to take advantage of future technologies; in the meantime, all those who participated in the redesign take pride in the fact that, for many users, George Mason's facelift was certainly an improvement.

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