For the first time since the Internet was invented, Carnegie Mellon redesigned their website. Hurray for breaking out of 1996!

CMU home page screen shot

I applaud the grand undertaking of overhauling a university website. Having worked at the University of Pittsburgh as a web developer for three years, I understand that this is no small or simple matter.

There are numerous obstacles to overcome, politics to play, and too many people to please. Given my knowledge of those difficulties, I commend the result.

At first glance, the large photography helps the site look interesting. The main area is all Flash, and is a decent use of the technology to pull of subtle effects.


Code Like a Platypus

Being the web standards nut the I am, after a minute I dug into the source code. Was I surprised to find an inflexible mishmash of CSS and tables? No. Was I disappointed that my cutting-edge tech school hired someone (Ripple Effects) that doesn’t know how to build without tables? You betcha.

I’m guessing the higher ups at Ripple don’t know about web standards, so the developers are not being forced to any standard, as long as the site appears to work; but the developers have heard enough about this CSS thing to throw in some div tags here and there, but not enough to actually achieve the layout they desired.

The resulting code is a bunch of gobbledygook.

These developers are not clueless, mind you. They’ve got some nifty Flash with XML and CSS going on, they’ve employed SWFObject to display alternate content if visitors don’t have Flash (though their alternate content has some problems), and they’re messing around with DOM scripting.

With all that going on, the lack of full CSS layout is a mystery, but unfortunately not unusual.

Just for fun, try turning off Javascript and images. I know, who does that? Me!

Light as an Elephant

It’s typically a good practice to keep your site light and speedy, like a race car. This site has six overweight passengers crammed inside, and a few sandbags in the trunk for good measure.

While there is an ever increasing trend toward DSL and cable Internet service, people do still use dialup. This site doesn’t care about those people.

  • Total recommended size for 56 Kbps modem: 30 kb (8 seconds to load)
  • Total size of home page files: 365 kb (73 seconds to load dialup, estimate)

The page loads in about 10 seconds for me using cable modem. Not bad, but these numbers are:

  • 48 images: 126 kb!
  • 5 scripts: 162 kb!

As a comparison, the University of Pittsburgh home page, which I built, is 58 kb total: 30 images at 24 kb; 3 scripts at 9 kb.

I’m not holding up Pitt as the standard of excellence.

Looks Like a Swan

Yep, it looks better, and it appears to work. But because of the above negligence, the developers failed.

General Take on the IA

I have some questions about the information architecture. But as I am not privy to the user research and strategy, I cannot fully comment. Though the Post-Gazette article about the launch indicates the guiding principle was people and stories.

I will say that I like that information is chunked in an attempt to make navigating more manageable for visitors. But does it? There’s a look going on, which may be overwhelming.

It’s interesting that Search is the first thing beneath the Carnegie Mellon logo. Does this mean there’s an expectation that visitors will not know how to navigate the site and will rely on searching to find the content they seek?

I feel a bit sorry for News, tucked away as it is beneath all the navigation, making room for the themes. I wonder if people will really submit theme ideas.

I also wonder about the font sizes, especially on the subpages. With all the large images and large main navigation links, the body text does not appear very readable (but who reads?). And check out the line length on the Research page.

CMU research screen shot

What Many Are Calling Web 2.0

“In what many are calling Web 2.0, companies, nonprofits and universities are spending billions of dollars redesigning their Web sites, with varying degrees of success.”

That’s from the Post-Gazette article. Read it again. Did you catch the revelation? Web 2.0 is about spending billions to redesign websites, and possibly utterly failing.

Ending On a Good Note

I’m harsh, I know. Overall, I’m very happy to see the site has finally been updated. It’s a huge improvement, and a step in the right direction.

I just hope it doesn’t take another 10 years before the site is updated.