UW–Arboretum looking to make website updates, seeks advice from LSC 532 students

Sunlight shines through trees in the Longenecker Horticultural Gardens at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum during spring on May 3, 2020. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison)

While the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum is known by some as being a peaceful nature retreat in the middle of the city, it is also the site of historic and on-going ecological restoration research. The UW-Madison Arboretum is a global source of knowledge and a model for restoring ecologically sustainable relationships between people and the land through integrative, innovative, and collaborative approaches in science, stewardship, education, and public engagement. However, the Arboretum staff felt as though their current website content, functionality, and design were dated, limiting its ability to effectively convey all the important work being done and the amazing opportunities available for community members.

Lacking the time and resources to work on updating their website, at the start of the Fall 2020 semester the Arboretum staff reached out to LSC faculty associate Don Stanley to see how he and his students in LSC 532: Web Design for the Sciences could help. The class worked with the Arboretum communications director Susan Day on ideas for improving the Arboretum’s website to help it better convey the value of the Arboretum to researchers, educators, the campus community, and the greater Madison area community.

Sandhill cranes walk through the Longenecker Horticultural Gardens at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum during spring on May 1, 2020. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison)

The project began with Day joining the class and providing an overview of the Arboretum and its missions and goals. The students then interviewed her to better understand how an updated website could help achieve those goals. The students were divided into eight teams and each team was tasked with creating updated website concepts to help the Arboretum team achieve their digital communication goals. 

“We are like a virtual think tank and idea team for the client,” said Stanley, “and I think that’s probably the biggest value we bring to our clients. They get to see a variety of perspectives on how they can best achieve their communication goals” At the conclusion of the semester, each team of students presented their ideas and suggestions to Day and Stanley as their final project.

Using key web design concepts learned in LSC 532, including user experience, interface design, and information architecture, the student teams developed website redesigns and recommendations. Day was impressed at the projects the students presented. “There was such a range of ideas,” she said. “The creativity and the different ways people approached the site was really interesting.” Since the Arboretum’s site was last updated, technology has changed significantly and it was no question that some aspects of the site could be improved. “There were a lot of really good practical suggestions that were more up-to-date,” said Day.

One of the student teams in the course focused mainly on improving the website’s navigation. Riley Bellin, a student in LSC 532 and a member of this team explained that “their website had a lot of headings that were confusing, a lot of ‘busy-ness’ on their homepage, and overall was just a lot for the visitor.” As a solution, Bellin’s team “chose to simplify, condense, and combine some of the navigation and make the pages a lot easier and more accessible.”

Taylor Schaefer is another student that took LSC 532 last semester. Instead of navigation, Schaefer’s team decided to focus on the website’s homepage. “The Arboretum’s original website lacked a clear hero image and call to action, which are two of the things I believe are the most important when viewing a website for the first time.” A hero image is an image, usually a large banner, that is the first thing a visitor’s eye is drawn to when visiting a website. 

LSC graduate student Leo Barolo Gargiulo and his team also worked to improve the Arboretum’s homepage. They focused on improving the homepage “aesthetically” and “functionally” to “prioritize the information the website visitors are more likely to be after and to transform the visitors into leads and leads into consumers.”

Redesigning a website is a challenge that pushes students out of their comfort zone. In addition, working with a client gave them real-world experience. It is important for students to take what they have learned and apply it to see how much they truly understand. “My job is, in my opinion, to guide [the students] to the things that I have 25 years of experience in,” said Stanley, “I want to coach them and they need to be coached, but I want to guide them so they build that confidence and skill to ask the right questions, to start to think of a problem in a unique way, to get out of their own mindsets.”

While there have not yet been any updates made to the Arboretum’s website, Day and the rest of the Arboretum’s team are actively working on organizing ideas for the future project. Hopefully, students will see some of their suggestions come to life soon.

Story by Jori Skalitzky, LSC B.S. ’22 and LSC’s 2020-21 Lenore Landry Scholar