Students checking out Western Michigan University’s website today on their smartphone or tablet should have noticed some big changes the moment their browser hit the front page.
The school started their roll out of their redesigned website today, implenmenting a number of significant improvements. While the color scheme and other art assets have largely been retained, WMU web designers have brought one new feature to the new site: responsive web design.
“It is set up so that when you go to wmich.edu on whatever device your using, it will immediately be adapted to that device,” said Cheryl Roland, a spokesperson with the university. “So if you pull up the website on your smartphone, you will see something completely different.”
While many websites have deployed specially designed mobile pages to make their site easier to navigate on devices with smaller screens than traditional computers, these sites often serve a lackluster experience compared to their full-featured counterparts, said Tonya Durlach, the director of the WMU electronic communication department.
“With mobile friendly sites, when you go to their site from your mobile phone, it detects that you’re using a mobile phone and it serves up usually a condensed version of the site,” she said. “You can only do limited things, it doesn’t have all the same content. It’s a stripped down version.”
Responsively designed websites, on the other hand, adapt to the size of the screen of the device accessing the page rather than serving a new page based on the device itself. Once the site detects this information, it has the web browser dynamically optimizes the position of text, images and other elements for that particular display.
“It’s easy to use, but all of the content is still there,” Durlach said. “You can do anything on the responsive site that you could do on the full site, and that’s not the case in most mobile friendly sites.”
The push for this design philosophy has been in response to an overall increase in tablet and smartphone traffic over the last few years, Durlach said. The last time her office ran stats on the WMU site, 10 percent of visitors have used these devices, a 6 percent bump from this time period last year.
“More and more, people are using smartphones and tablets to visit our site,” she said. “I guess we’re just trying to be proactive in making sure that, as more and more people use these devices to visit our pages, that they’re getting a nice, easy to navigate, easy to read, easy to use site.”
So far, these changes have been implemented to only a few of the site’s pages, including the front, about and news sections. Nearly a dozen more areas of the site are expected to roll into the new system throughout the fall, with priority being given to pages that directly linked to from the main page, as well the pages for each of the university’s academic colleges.
The electronic communication department, a branch within the Office of University Relations, has planned the implementation of this new web standard since March, as part of their greater plan to overhaul the website’s content management system. The lead programmer for the project, Dan Lobelle with Tek Systems, has been working with the department’s existing web team to modify the university’s Drupal based CMS engine to better serve the university’s online needs.
While many sections will be relatively easy to transition, pages for Miller Auditorium, the WMU bookstore and other such organizations will present unique challenges to rework into the new system, as they require their own features and color schemes outside the usual website standards, Durlach said.
While the team has been working steadily to completely transform the entire WMU website, Durlach estimates that will take around three years to fully transition a site of its magnitude.
Another challenge the designers still face is optimizing the site for the high resolution displays seen on Apple’s recent generations of iPhones and iPads. While some icons have already been tuned up for these screens, the team is continuing to get the rest of the site’s assets up to snuff.
Still, Durlach and the rest of the programmers are celebrating today’s site redesign, despite the remaining road ahead.
“We’re really excited about it, and it will be so much better for perspective and current student to access information when they’re on the go,” she said.