Army snaps to attention, salutes U-M students' recommendations
Five School of Information (SI) students know what it's like to mobilize an army.
Not just any army: the U.S. Army.
The SI graduate students took on a formidable challenge last fall when they decided to recommend improvements to the Army's public information Web site (http://www.army.mil). The site is a portal for the Army to distribute news about the service to soldiers' families, the media and the public.
To the students' surprise, the Army adopted seven of their 15 recommendations. The Army was in the midst of revising its site through a consulting firm when the students entered the picture.
It all came about when the students "adopted" the Army in their Information Architecture course, taught by adjunct lecturer Peter Morville. They interviewed the Army webmaster and conducted usability tests at SI of the existing Army site. The students also did a comparative analysis of similar organizations' Web sites and evaluated existing Army pages.
The team focused on such factors as how the site was organized, its labeling and navigation schemes, how well the site conveyed its sense of purpose, and what kind of information search and retrieval methods it supported. The team also developed prototype screen images for the Army to show how its recommendations could be implemented.
Getting the Army's attention fell on Whitney Ross's shoulders. He had an inside edge. Ross, a full-time SI student, also is an Army captain who serves as a medical services officer and information management officer. He became the group's liaison to the Army webmaster and civilian contractors.
Ross and team members Joanna Markel, Marla Gómez, Anthony Abernathy and Nicholas Johnson worked from late September to December on the project. Johnson says it is remarkable that the Army did not solicit their advice, but accepted their recommendations in December and quickly worked some of the suggestions into its finished product. The Army was "very positive" about the 15 recommendations, Johnson says, and rolled out its revised product in March.
The Army adopted ideas on general Web page layout design; replacing banners on the home page with a rotating banner; replacing the former "Quick Link" list with a drop-down menu; reducing the screen space dedicated to local links on some pages; having a search box always visible; maintaining navigation links and style on the search page; and using a better search engine.
"We took particular care when we were developing the approach to 'refreshing' Army.mil by focusing on the capabilities of delivering more content, improving technical platforms and continuing to carry the Army brand," says Lt. Col. Mark Wiggins of the Army's Strategic Communications Office in Washington, D.C., and director of the Web site.
"These students did exceptional work," Morville says, "and the Army was right to implement their recommendations. I've been a professional information architecture consultant for more than 10 years, and I'm not sure I've ever had a client implement so many major recommendations so quickly. The Army could have paid $50,000 for these information architecture recommendations, and it would have still been a good investment."
Johnson says the team was pleased to see its work taken seriously. "The ultimate fulfillment is that we see them implemented," Johnson says. "It's rare that recommendations of this scale are actually implemented, especially when those recommendations are coming from a free source, and a student source at that.
"It's well known that the more an organization pays for recommendations, the more likely they are to take them and use them. The fact that they paid nothing and used them is really impressive."
SI students learn how to make things "scalable," and this project was a good test. "It's hard to have a larger scale than the Army," Johnson points out.