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Work begins to redesign Rockefeller’s website

by Alexandra MacWade, assistant editor and Zach Veilleux, director of publications & editor-in-chief

People at a website meeting

Staff from the CPA and IT departments at a recent meeting about hardware and server configurations for the new website.

The last time Rockefeller’s website was rebuilt, mobile phones had hinges and Netflix sent movies only on disks. Broadband was still a novelty and Myspace was on the rise.

That was in 2004, and since then there has been a revolution in how people interact in the digital world. Although has been kept functional with occasional design and software updates—most recently in 2010—it’s now badly in need of a gut renovation. For example, the use of smartphones and tablets, which together account for more than half of all internet traffic today, has led to the need for a responsive website design that provides a seamless viewing experience across a wide range of devices.

“Rockefeller is a cutting-edge institution known the world over for its advanced science,” says Franklin Hoke, executive director of Communications and Public Affairs. “That message should be coming across loud and clear on the university’s website, which is accessed some 68,000 times each month. We want the image we portray to the world when they visit us online to match the level at which our scientists operate.”

An extensive project is now under way to rebuild the Rockefeller website, with a strategic approach to ensure that the university’s online presence reflects its strengths and serves its key audiences. The work is being conducted by CPA staff and their colleagues in Information Technology, along with outside firms that specialize in strategic digital communications and web development. “It’s not just a matter of updating the site’s design, but completely reevaluating the site’s technical structure and content architecture from the ground up,” Mr. Hoke says.

The revamped website will launch around the end of this year.

Expert support for design and technology

The process to select the right contractor began last fall. After soliciting proposals from several highly recommended firms, CPA engaged two vendors—a design consultancy and a technology consultancy—to support the project. After contracts were signed this winter, the firms, in partnership with CPA and IT, began to develop the approach that will inform the design of the new site.

The design firm, C&G Partners, is already familiar with Rockefeller’s culture and priorities, having redesigned several print publications—including the Scientific Prospectus and the graduate program viewbook—over the past year. As part of the discovery phase for the website redesign, C&G’s digital team has been running a comparative analysis of websites from peer biomedical research organizations, research universities, and nonprofits. They are also conducting stakeholder interviews with key groups on campus, including faculty, students, and administrative staff, as well as users outside of Rockefeller who represent key audience groups such as prospective applicants for faculty positions, donors, and clinical trial volunteers.

On the technical side, the firm DataArt, which already has a history of successful collaborations with C&G Partners, has spent several weeks onsite, working closely with IT to develop a comprehensive accounting of existing servers, domains, and backend systems. They have also interviewed CPA and IT staff members involved in maintaining the current site to better understand what functionality is needed, and to outline in detail the scope of the extensive technical work required.

A critical part of DataArt’s mission will be to deliver a robust platform that can seamlessly support technologies such as video streaming, integrate with existing web-based systems, and be effectively managed and supported for years to come.

“This is an opportunity to streamline our backend infrastructure and invest in new content management and database systems that will bring us into the modern era of web services,” says Anthony Carvalloza, the university’s chief information officer. “The new website will take advantage of the latest technologies, will have improved security, and will have a more full-featured, easier-to-use interface for content developers.”

The next steps

As the process moves forward, the work of the two teams will merge, with C&G Partners presenting recommendations on the architecture, content, and design, and DataArt developing new backend systems that can replace and consolidate some of the current systems.

CPA’s Meghan McCurdy, hired last fall as assistant director of digital strategy, is serving as the project manager. For ongoing guidance, the CPA advisory group, a committee of faculty and administrators, will weigh in at key points in the process. Their task is to ensure that the website that ultimately launches is one that supports the strategic goals of the university—including student and faculty recruitment and fundraising—and meets the needs of internal stakeholders.

“Rockefeller’s website is its most important communications tool, and it’s critical to our ongoing success that it reflect our institution in the best possible light,” says Timothy P. O’Connor, executive vice president. “The teams now working on this project are taking a careful, comprehensive approach to ensure that the site we develop is one that showcases our science, represents our unique culture, and supports our engagement with students, colleagues, donors, neighbors, and other key communities with whom we interact.”