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What would Bates do?

A behind the scenes look at development of UM's new homepage

The design and development team, from left: Jennifer Sauer, University Relations; Dan Bowling, Student Affairs IT; Nick Shontz, Information Technology; Jordan Hess, Mansfield Library, and Karl Fite, Information Technology

The design and development team, from left: Jennifer Sauer, University Relations; Dan Bowling, Student Affairs IT; Nick Shontz, Information Technology; Jordan Hess, Mansfield Library, and Karl Fite, Information Technology. 

A six-week pizza-fueled marathon of web design, development and testing culminated in the launch of a new UM homepage on April 15.

“We did this all in six weeks,” says Nick Shontz, one of the web developers on the project. “That’s probably a record in higher education for website redesign.”

The radically slimmed-down homepage is designed for prospective students. A new site called my.umt.edu launched at the same time. It provides access to web resources for UM students, faculty and staff.

The challenge

Mario Schulzke, UM’s associate vice president for marketing, spearheaded the redesign project. Schulzke, who started his job at UM in January, recognized early on that UM’s culture of homepage design by committee would have to change. He wanted to get a new site designed quickly, and then continue to improve and iterate after launch.

“I knew we needed to fix our website and I didn’t know if we could do it internally,” Schulzke said. Based on what I saw with the current website, I didn’t know if we would be capable of moving fast. When I said at a web committee meeting, ‘we can’t do this in house, let’s do it externally,’ there was a group of people who said, ‘no, we can do it.’”

Schulzke invited anyone who thought it could be done in-house to stay after the meeting. Six people stayed: Shontz and Karl Fite from Information Technology, Jordan Hess from the Mansfield Library, Dan Bowling from Student Affairs IT, Jennifer Sauer from University Relations and Chris Lynn from Admissions.

The group started weekly meetings in Schulzke’s Brantly Hall office in February.

“We shut the door and we made decisions,” he said. When there was a disagreement—which there were a few—we made a decision before we left the room.”

Schulzke says Bates College and Harvard University provided inspiration for both design and decision-making. When the group got stuck, Schulzke says, “the joke was always, ‘What would Bates do?’”

Camaraderie and a can-do attitude

“I don’t know what their motivation was,” Schulzke said of the design and development group—Shontz, Fite, Hess and Bowling, “but they worked Saturdays and Sundays and every night for a month and a half. Holy crap those guys worked their butts off.”

Schulzke, who has worked with numerous web teams in previous positions, said he recognized talent in the group early on, but was impressed with how the team just kept getting better as the project progressed.

“Man, every problem I would throw at them they would solve,” Schulzke said. “If I said to Nick that he couldn’t do something, he would figure out a way to do it. That was fun. We started getting this camaraderie where everyone was like ‘we can do anything.”

“It was really cool working with some of the top web folks on campus and collaborating on this project,” Shontz said. “We used some newer technologies to make the process easier and boost our development time. We were researching and testing and playing with cutting-edge stuff, so that was cool.”

Shontz said the previous homepage was coupled with applications like the directory and search, making it tricky to update. The new approach makes the site far less fragile and simpler to update. Many of the new technologies leveraged in the homepage development will benefit departments who want to enhance their websites Shontz said.

One focus of the redesign project was making the site mobile friendly. A responsive design allows the site to render in multiple browsers, smart phones and tablets.

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Day one hiccup

High traffic brought the UM website down briefly the day the new homepage was launched. Tom Battaglia, who heads Technology Support Services in IT, said that at midday, the UM homepage was getting about 900 requests per minute.

Three web servers share the load, but a replication process between the three got bogged down with the heavy traffic. Adjustments have been made to the architecture and the site has been stable since. IT is investigating options for an external web hosting service to serve up the UM website in the event of a local failure or emergency.

Despite the glitch, Schulzke was pleased with the launch.

"Now we have to figure out how to keep moving forward," he said. "This team of people has to stick together. This process only works if you continue to iterate."

For web geeks

Here are some of the web development technologies employed in the redesign of the UM homepage:

  • Bootstrap 
    • Built by Twitter, Bootstrap is a open-source framework that combines HTML, CSS and Javascript code for building user interface components. Bootstrap helped speed up the development process at UM.
  • Less CSS 
    • Less is an open-source dynamic stylesheet that compiles CSS in a way that makes it load faster.
  • RequireJS 
    • RequireJS is a tool that makes Javascript calls easier to manage.
  • Mustache templates
    • Mustache is a web template system
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