The University of Waterloo rolls out an unnecessary redesign
The University of Waterloo released a new website design today, foregoing its dark, photo-centric layout in favour of a brighter, more content-heavy homepage. It has received mixed reviews; some love the new design, some hate it. But it’s best not to dwell too much on the design change, because when it comes to aesthetics you’re never going to please everybody.
What we should dwell on, though, is the reason why UW needed to redesign its website at all. There were some legitimate concerns with the old site. It failed to meet certain accessibility requirements set by the province, and it wasn’t mobile-friendly. The old site had interactive panels and dropdown menus that just didn’t translate well to small screens. Surely, these issues could have been addressed by refining the existing website, rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Back in May 2010, UW released its Positioning Guide - a set of policies governing what colours, fonts, and emblems should be used in communications and publications put out by the university. The new website does not follow these policies. Rather than using the “Waterloo Yellow” specified in the colour palette (#FECB00 for those interested), the new website uses #FFDD00. It’s a slightly lighter shade of yellow, which isn’t the end of the world. But if UW isn’t following its Positioning Guide on its own homepage, what purpose do the policies have, really? This represents a glaring lack of communication between the staff that set the policies for UW’s brand identity and those who implement it.
In December 2009, White Whale Web Services (a firm from California that specialises in web development for higher education institutions) was contracted by the university to redesign the website. Extensive identity branding and public consultation happened over the course of 20 months - meetings with students, staff, and the Web Advisory Committee, mockups and screenshots, revisions, beta tests of the new designs, online polls and feedback forms. The redesign was complete by Fall 2011.
I don’t know how much money UW paid White Whale to fly back and forth from California all that time and redesign the website from the ground up, but the effort put into it in 2010 and 2011 certainly dwarfs the two days of consultation that were done before this most recent design was unveiled.
I want to specifically address the issue of accessibility. WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) is the industry standard for making sure all people, regardless of ability, can access content on a web page. Back in July 2010, a special meeting of UW’s Web Advisory Committee was held, where it was decided that the White Whale redesign would meet the WCAG requirements to Level AA. (PowerPoint file, see slide 9) Now, we’re being told that that website did not, in fact, meet the guidelines. If it was a project requirement in the first place, why was the website allowed to go ahead without being WCAG compliant? To boot, this new redesign is apparently only Level A compliant a less stringent, and therefore less accessible, target.
One last point: it appears that all references to White Whale Web Services have been erased from the UW website, and its archives now only go back as far as November 2011. The blog that charted the progress of the White Whale redesign is gone. Most of the Google search results for “white whale uwaterloo” are now dead links. I have no idea why this is the case.
To conclude, I am utterly confused as to why UW felt the need to completely revamp its website and erase any trace of the previous redesign, which was an epic undertaking of nearly two years. This new site doesn’t adhere to the university’s positioning guide, sets a lower bar for accessibility, and was definitely the wrong way to go about solving the problems of the previous website.Sam Nabi