Drupal for Higher Ed: Reflections from the Fall 2016 Intern Team

For the past four months we’ve been working at Sanmita as marketing interns. In the second half of our internship, we focused exclusively on building Sanmita’s sister brand, DrupalAnswers. Over the course of our internship we have gained experience in market research, higher education website audits, video marketing, the creation of social media and blog posts, and content curation.

We also learned how to create an integrated content strategy across different platforms. Throughout the entire experience, we worked as a team to complete tasks and brainstorm strategy, which we believe led us to produce even greater results than we would have alone.

When we started this internship we had basic understanding of what exactly web development involves. We understood there were multiple facets to the development process but our grasp of the topic was limited to design and the aesthetic aspect of a site. Throughout our internship, we gained a fuller understanding of what truly encompasses web development.

We now know the importance of the discovery process and why research is a vital part of a website’s strategy and creation. For instance, conducting proper research influences the development of information architecture, which plays a major role in determining the success and organization of a site. As we completed audits of college websites, we also learned several other aspects that contribute to a site’s success, including accessibility, page speed, mobile-friendliness, and how easy it is to navigate through the website’s content. One of our favorite quotes found during our research sums up what we learned perfectly:

“Pretty things can be useless, and ugly things can be useful. Beauty and quality are not always related.” ― Abby Covert, How to Make Sense of Any Mess: Information Architecture for Everybody

Essentially, good design rests upon a solid foundation.

Since our company focuses on higher education institutions, we spent a lot of time researching best practices for mission critical sites. Without a doubt, we agree that Drupal is the best CMS for higher education. Drupal is powerful, flexible, and is built to handle the complexity of a higher education site– even the White House chooses Drupal as their go-to CMS. As we’ve learned, Drupal is the best option when stability and scalability are vital to the project, or if it requires close attention to detail and unique customization. An added benefit of Drupal is that most of their extensions and ways to customize the site are free of charge – perfect for higher ed institutions that might be working on a tight budget.

Now with just a week left in our internship, we feel that we have gained experiences that we can apply in the future. One of our favorite parts of the internship was having the opportunity to work on the company’s integrated online marketing strategy. We strategized and executed ways to drive traffic to the website and blog posts through social media, demonstrating the importance of consistent messaging across all platforms. Another aspect of this internship that we were thankful for was being able to see the full lifecycle of the projects we worked on. We were involved in each step of the way, from start to finish. This was a unique experience that we have not received elsewhere. Overall, the skills and experiences we have had working at Sanmita are invaluable to us and will affect the way we will grow as marketers.

 

 

The Secrets of Organizing Your Higher Ed Site, Part 1 of 5: Inventory

In the modern information age, we’re all experiencing information, or cognitive overload. The sheer volume of information we’re exposed to and the frequency with which it arises can be an issue, but researchers tend to agree that it’s not the volume of information; it’s how it’s organized that’s the problem.

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What You Need to Know About Information Architecture

One of the biggest mistakes we see people make when it comes to their websites is not prioritizing information architecture. While the design aspects of a website are fun, glamorous, and ultimately vital to the success of your site, it’s important that you don’t jump straight to the design and forgo the important process of building a solid information architecture and understanding the purpose behind your site and its content.

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Free Resource: Content Audit Template

The goal of a content audit is to understand the current state of your website content, i.e. what content is relevant, what can be merged with other content and what can be safely removed. You can then analyze the information and organize the content based upon  your users feedback, industry trends and site analytics. Theoretically, it seems a very simple process, but in practice, conducting a site audit can be a messy exercise if you don’t have a plan in place. Some reasons to conduct content audits include:

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Mega Menus

Navigation has always been a design problem for large websites. Mega drop-down menus are a growing trend in web design that structures navigation choices through layout, typography, and sometimes icons.

 

Mega menus can greatly improve navigation and usability on sites that involve a lot of pages or products. With mega drop-down menus, a visitor can see all their choices at once. For bigger sites with many features, regular drop-down menus typically hide a lot of your site’s content. You can scroll, but this becomes confusing and hides a number of choices at any given point in the navigation process. Mega menus show everything at a glance and through grouping, allows your visitors to visualize the relationships among items on your site. CSS-only dynamic drop-downs are possible, but they don’t offer mouse over/out latency or work in every browser.

 

While mega menus can make it easier for users to find the information they’re looking for deep within a site, a vast number of links can also overwhelm some visitors. Mega menus can help streamline the navigation process by allowing you to group menu items. Chunk options into related sets using concise, yet descriptive labels for each group. Try not to offer huge groups of options that require a lot of time to scan. At the same time, don’t make the groups so small that the menu has an overabundance of groups that your users have to spend time understanding.

 

Just because you can put everything in a mega menu doesn’t necessarily mean you should. The standard usability guideline to “keep it simple” also applies to mega menus. Avoid GUI widgets and other interface elements that involve a lot of interaction. Mega drop-downs are temporary – They appear on hover or click so shouldn’t replace dialog boxes, which should be used for more complex interactions. Even though mega menus have the room to support many options, it’s best to try not to overload your users.

 

From a design standpoint, mega menus can look great and allow you to further express your brand’s personality and creativity. These drop-down menus are a design canvas! They eliminate unnecessary scrolling and offer additional elements such as typography, icons and tooltips to help guide users to the content they came for.

 

Mega menus are common on e-commerce sites because they typically include many categories of products. They’re also useful on other large websites where fewer clicks should be necessary to get to a specific page. Mega menus allow visitors to reach the content they’re looking for no matter where they are on your site.

 

Your site may benefit from a mega menu if:
  • You manage a large number of products (eCommerce sites like REI)
  • You publish and manage a lot of content (content aggregators and news sites like Reuters)
  • You have complex service offerings requiring a lot of supporting content (large association sites, higher education sites like Cornell, government sites like The White House)
  • Your site is information-oriented, diverse, and you offer a lot of long-form web copy

 

You probably don’t need a mega menu if:
  • Your site is small without too much content (small businesses, restaurants)
  • You have fewer pages and focused content
  • Your site is dedicated to a singular function, such as a tool or online calculator

 

Be warned: The increased ability to navigate a site will come at a tradeoff on the SEO front. Too many navigation links in a mega menu may dilute your site’s overall page rank. Google assigns a PageRank score based on the number and quality of links pointing to a webpage. A site’s internal link structure transfers PageRank throughout the site. When you distribute a site’s PageRank in a “broad” way, you dilute the page’s ability to rank competitively in the SERPs. Sites with weaker trust and authority metrics will suffer more than established sites with strong authority and trust metrics. Shoot for 100 links or less, but keep in mind that there are occasions where the SEO hit will be worth it.

 

Navigation has a huge impact on your website’s usability and appearance, so make sure you have the right menu for your site’s content, layout and visitors. This article features several free and premium WordPress plugin options that can help you create a responsive menu, or make your existing navigation compatible with mobile devices.

 

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Why a Discovery Phase is so Important to Your Website Project

Every successful project begins with a Discovery phase. This is the part of the project that includes research, analysis, exploration and planning. The goal here is to grasp the bigger picture, define business goals, establish project scope, acknowledge constraints and define success.

Unfortunately, this phase is often overlooked so as to save time and/or money. Without the discovery process, you risk consequences such as overspend later on in the production phase or misguided development. Not all development agencies use a Discovery phase, but they should. Beyond projects with very simple objectives, a designer or developer couldn’t possibly understand your business well enough to give accurate estimates without a detailed analysis. Most project managers would agree that if the requirements are identified early on in the project cycle, this would result in reducing the project schedule and/or budget. It also results in project deliverables suitably meeting the business user and technology requirements. Reworking and fixing errors adds unnecessary time, cost and avoidable headache to your project.

One option is to go forward with in-house discovery. Think about it: it’s already your job to think about how you can best serve your users. You probably know the subject matter better than anyone else and you already have some of the research you would need on hand. But, proceed with caution. Be mindful of your assumptions and internal bias. This process takes time and effort and it can be frustrating to admit failures to make the improvements necessary for success. In-house discovery is as effective as the people conducting it. Lack of discovery experience or blind spots in a team’s collective knowledge will limit the value of the process and its outcomes.

Another option is to work with an agency that can assist you with the discovery process. Our process begins with a discovery phase to fully articulate the goals, constraints and measures of success for your project. We set out to bring clarity to your vision and concept. We meet with you and your key stakeholders to ensure that project goals and stakeholder expectations are fully aligned and that all potential opportunities are explored. We work together to develop real understandings of what achievements are expected in terms of outputs and outcomes.

The goal is to develop a blueprint or detailed plan that reduces the risks of your project. At the end of the discovery engagement, you’ll walk away with the following deliverables to inform the production process:

 

Revised Information Architecture

This is how the content should be organized, classified and expanded/reduced to match the goals and stakeholder expectations.

 

Wireframes

This is how the content should be arranged on a webpage to let the target user access the most relevant information with the least amount of effort, letting the user navigate your site naturally. Wireframes give you a glimpse of how visitors will interact with your site. At this stage, we focus exclusively on the user experience and functionality of your site.

 

Detailed Project Requirements

The project requirements document is the foundation for all subsequent project deliverables, describing what inputs and outputs are associated with each process function. The requirements document also includes the system, performance, integration and interface requirements for your website project.

 

Launching your website project with a discovery phase is one of the most important things you can do to set them up for success. Following discovery best practices would result in reducing project costs, shortening the development cycle, enhancing team productivity and most importantly, a better website.

 

Start off on the right foot. You can learn more at www.sanmita.com. We invite you to contact us with your website or CMS needs and any questions you may have. We look forward to hearing from you!

Why You Should Get Excited About Information Architecture

Information Architecture, or IA, is one of those vague-sounding terms which can seem to spiral off into abstraction when you read about it. Even a simple definition can sound pretty yawn-worthy:

“Information architecture is a combination of organizing a site’s content into categories and creating an interface to support those categories*”

Wordle.net-IA-TaxonomyIn reality though, well-planned and executed IA is a vital aspect of development that’s crucial to website success.

First of all, let’s dispel the myth that IA is some kind of techy mumbo jumbo that’s expressed only via convoluted flow charts.

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