Last year, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) information technology group embarked on an ambitious and challenging mission: to transform the district’s relatively static web site into an interactive, news-driven marketing and information tool. The goal was to give stakeholders a compelling reason to keep coming back to the site on a regular basis for more information, while at the same time enabling the district to get its message out to stakeholders more effectively.

Partnering with their colleagues in the district’s public information office and other departments, team members developed a fresh, vibrant site that’s a snap to navigate and is loaded with data, news, photos, and features sure to delight parents, employees, realtors, business leaders, reporters, and other site visitors. By all accounts, the district has succeeded in meeting its goals, as the site is drawing rave reviews from parents and educators alike.

Here’s what the team, led by project manager Libby Gray, has to say about its nationally recognized work:

Why did you decide it was time to redesign your web site?

CMS adopted new image standards, including a new logo, colors, theme, graphic standards, etc., that were to be used in all communications. The old web site was outdated and needed to reflect the new image that CMS had adopted. The focus of the site needed to change to reflect a new approach to communicating with the community and world—we wanted to move from a static web site to a news-driven site that could be updated instantaneously. We wanted a web site that had a consistent look and feel throughout.

How did you get the buy-in and support from your superintendent and central administration?

We involved the superintendent, senior staff, and public information officers in the beginning stages of the development. We asked them what they wanted in a web site: what did they want to communicate to the community and the world? We kept them involved during the entire process of the redevelopment. Our senior staff recognized the value of our internet site and realized that it could serve as the central location for hosting real-time, accurate information about the school system.

Whom did you involve in the development process and why?

We involved the associate superintendent, assistant superintendent of public information, department directors, and others who would be major content providers. Each person whom we contacted contributed valuable information in his or her area of expertise. Because the information on the site represents the entire school system, we felt it was important that we involve as many folks as possible, so all areas would be covered.

Did you use any research to help you redesign your site?

For several months prior to launching the redesign process, we used a web statistical analysis tool called WebTrends on our old web site to track what areas were being used most by the public. Our team also read many books and internet articles regarding home page usability studies and visited other web sites from education and business to get ideas. We also sought and used input from the CMS departments that tended to use the site the most.

What’s the strategy or “big picture” behind the new look? What are your goals for your new web site?

We wanted to create a web site that CMS and the community could be proud of—one that would move us from static pages to a site that is news-driven and easily updated and maintained by CMS staff on a daily basis. We wanted to present online content that is fast to download, easy to navigate, and simple to search. We also wanted a design that helps build CMS’s overall image by providing consistent graphics, navigation, and written content. We also wanted a site that works with a multitude of browsers, operating systems, connection speeds, and monitors and is easily indexed by major search engines and spiders.

What was the timeline from start to finish?

We started the process in December 2001 and finished in July 2002.

What were the costs?

Having gone through an extensive redesign and relaunch of our intranet site and informational technology department prior to this project, we already had the hardware and software in place. As one of the nation’s largest school systems, we’re also fortunate to have two web developers, one contracted web developer, one web associate, one project manager, and an information systems coordinator on staff. (Of course, our team also assists CMS’s 148 schools, central administration, and dozens of departments.) We also received networking and database support from Southeastern Technology Group.

Do you have any software or technical recommendations?

We used UltraEdit and UltraDev to design the web site. UltraEdit is made by IDM Computer Solutions Inc. It’s a text-based programmer’s editor. Dreamweaver UltraDev from Macromedia is a web design and development editor, site manager, and FTP (file transfer protocol) client. It facilitates site design, application development, and file uploads to the web server. We also use an Internet Information Server 4.0 NT, ASP (active server pages) interacting with an SQL server.

What do you know now that you wished you knew when you started this project?

We wish we had realized there would be numerous design versions we would create before selecting one that would meet everyone’s needs. Our lesson learned was to lay out the template in Adobe Photoshop, where we had greater mobility for design before coding in hypertext markup language (HTML). Other than that, we had just recently redesigned the CMS intranet, so we had already solved most of the problems we might have encountered.

What do you consider were the key factors in your successful redesign and relaunch of your web site?

An organizational focus on the district’s internet objectives is absolutely critical. A project this complex won’t succeed unless the top leaders are bought in and you have support at various levels throughout the organization.

Having a detailed project plan, work flow chart, weekly status meetings, and input from senior staff and department directors helped tremendously. We also have a talented and creative internet team that worked beautifully together and have a great sense of humor. Team members were given the option of choosing the areas they wanted to work on, so that helped as well.

Finally, our public information department constantly sends us news stories and photos that we can post quickly on the web, so we’re able to tell the CMS story first, even before our local newspapers, television, and radio stations. We have developed applications that facilitate the addition of news stories by “non-techies.” We’ve also involved content owners in the process and streamlined our site maintenance, allowing us to update the site frequently and continually.

When you launched your site, you also launched a “tell us what you think” survey. What were the results?

The survey about our new design and content was put together by one of our web developers and was on the site the same day as the rollout. The results have been consistent from the beginning.

  • 86 percent were not first-time users of the CMS web site.

  • 81 percent found the information easy to access.

  • 87 percent found the site user-friendly.

  • 86 percent liked the look of the new design.

We have a comment section at the end of the survey and have received rave reviews, with very few negative comments. We had to laugh when one person criticized us by saying, “You just have too much information,” as that’s probably the best compliment any webmaster can receive. We’ve also received many eMails from large and small school systems from across the United States and Canada asking us about the web site. Most have been amazed at the timeliness of our news articles. We now have the mechanism in place to do all kinds of surveys for all departments, which makes the web an even more powerful, interactive tool.

What would you advise your colleagues in other school systems who are just starting this process?

1. Get senior staff and departments to support the project.

2. Develop a project plan with clear objectives, benefits, scope of work, work assignments, etc.

3. Be flexible and recognize you’re going to change designs several times, especially in the beginning.

4. When the design layout is completed, set the color, graphics, and font standards for the entire web site and stick to those standards.

5. Develop a site that your staff can maintain. It’s better to start simple and add new features as your capabilities and resources increase.

Links:

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
http://www.cms.k12.nc.us

Libby Gray’s eMail address
l.gray@cms.k12.nc.us

Nora Carr’s eMail address
carr@lga-advertising.com