Navigation by search?

I was tak­ing a look at Paul Nixon’s web site, and his links to the work they are doing redesign­ing the Uni­ver­si­ty of Arizona’s web site. They used to have a blog on which they described their work and solicit­ed com­ments, and one of the com­ments struck me. “Put a big logo and a Google search box. Done. Next project.”

One of the most vex­ing of prob­lems for a uni­ver­si­ty web design­er, espe­cial­ly one tasked with a dense web site, is how to facil­i­tate nav­i­ga­tion on that site. You have two audi­ences to cater to, the group that knows what it wants to find (cur­rent stu­dents and staff), and the group that has just come to browse (the all impor­tant prospec­tive stu­dents and their par­ents).

Tra­di­tion­al­ly, the designs pro­duced to solve this dilem­ma go one way: pro­vide a ton of links and let the user find what they want. Links by con­stituen­cy, links by top­ic area, links for non-inter­est­ed par­ties. You end up with 15 or 20 links, often with sub­menus, and then a smat­ter­ing of oth­er “impor­tant” links like news, or the foun­da­tion, or what­not.

But one of the impor­tant, and often neglect­ed aims of a University’s home page is to sell the place. To prospec­tive stu­dents, donors, news orga­ni­za­tions. Frankly, to any­one for whom a good expe­ri­ence is impor­tant to the University’s future.

How does the flip­pant com­ment I quot­ed above solve this prob­lem?

Well, I’m not sure. But it is an inter­est­ing per­spec­tive. What if… what if you cre­at­ed a Uni­ver­si­ty home page for the pub­lic. It was gor­geous to look at, and described the recent suc­cess­es of the Uni­ver­si­ty, while also let­ting the pub­lic know what was hap­pen­ing on cam­pus, what the Uni­ver­si­ty is all about, and how they can join the com­mu­ni­ty (either by donat­ing, enrolling, or just attend­ing an event, be it sports or the­ater or grad­u­a­tion or some­thing else).

Then, also on that page, is a “nav­i­ga­tion box.” On load, the focus of the cur­sor goes there. Start typ­ing, and it aut­ofills what you might be look­ing for (see Google), get off the aut­ofill track and hit return, and it search­es the Uni­ver­si­ty intel­li­gent­ly, return­ing rel­e­vant hits.

I imag­ine that search being as intu­itive, use­ful, and smart as say, the Launch­Bar search. Vis­it the University’s web site. Start typ­ing a few let­ters, hit return, and there you are, where you want­ed to be.

I don’t have a freakin’ clue how to do it. But I think it could be done. More impor­tant­ly, I think it should be done.