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Computing News
The New Penn Web

The Penn Web is the University's public face on the Internet. It is also a communications medium for users with differing information needs and degrees of familiarity with the University. The redesigned Penn Web, which replaced the current Web on October 1, 1997, addresses both functions: It makes evident Penn's richness as an institution, while providing several ways to navigate University information. The entire community was invited to try out, and comment on, the new Web. Feedback will be used to refine the site and help set the agenda for development.


The new Penn Web offers four distinct ways to navigate University information:

Randomly selected links from Penn A-Z are displayed on the search query page under the heading "Featured Penn Site." A new featured site is displayed every time the Search query page is reloaded, allowing users to sample the range of Penn's Web resources.

Topical menu structure

The topical categories on the new home page are organized into two groups: the list of categories to the left of the rotating graphics relate primarily to Penn, the Academy, and those on the right, to Penn, the Community. On lower-level pages, organization follows a set of principles, approved by the Penn Web Steering Committee, intended to make the structure predictable and scalable.

The Penn Web Team analyzed several sources of information to arrive at an initial draft of the top-level menu structure. Statistical analysis of 49 university Web sites resulted in the development of a ranked list of most-used-top-level categories, which served as a starting set of potential topics for organizing access to University information. Analysis of Penn Web Survey results from approximately 2,000 respondents provided data on tools and categories of information most important to Penn Web users. Focus groups and e-mail addressed to the Penn webmaster provided, and continues to provide, a steady flow of information about user concerns and the types of information they are seeking. The "Jobs and Employment" category is an example of one created in response to the Penn Web Survey and focus group requests.

Through extensive consultation within Penn, the top- and lower-level menu pages were further refined to balance efficient information retrieval with the need to present Penn as a multifaceted institution and meet the information needs of diverse audiences . The categories on the home page, for example, were revised to include "Health System" and "Arts and Culture," in recognition of their importance as community resources and the unique ways in which they enhance Penn's mission. Decisions such as the number and grouping of choices on the home page represented careful tradeoffs between the differing navigation needs of first-time, often external, users and frequent users in the Penn community.

There were other tradeoffs as well. How prominent should a link to emergency contacts be? Some argued strongly for inclusion on the home page. Others wanted to omit the link altogether. This debate brought into relief such competing goods as just-in-time information for the community and not sending an alarmist message to casual browsers or prospective students. The link now appears near the top of the "Campus Life" menu.

Design and appearance

The new design assumes the widespread availability of monitors displaying at least 800 pixels in width. Placement of elements on the page accommodates printing on 8.5"x11" paper without truncation. On the home page, all links are constructed with HTML text using font face tags, a technique that allows some typographical control, yet makes links accessible while other page elements are loading on slow network connections. This use of text mandates a design with some elasticity to accommodate the wide difference in the default width of text on Macintosh and Windows platforms. Typographical consistency and the ghosted Franklin "watermark" image visually link the home page and menu pages. The home page's blue background provides a rich backdrop for the rotating inset pictures, contributes to its more contemporary look, and differentiates Penn's site from those of its peer institutions. Click on any rotating inset picture to link to captions.

Tools and features

A discussion of all the tools and features on the new Web appears in the overview section of the Web Guide, available on the toolbar. New this year to the toolbar are the popular student resource Penn InTouch and a Directories page. The new prominence of these tools directly reflects their high priority among respondents to the Penn Web Survey. The Penn Web Team is working to further improve delivery of directory-type information.

This revision of the Penn Web includes no changes to the Penn interactive calendar. A general review of calendar information on the Penn Web and its supporting processes is planned, with the goal of making it easier to submit, track, and find events on the Penn Web.


A major change in the new Web is the adoption (after evaluation and testing) of a customized version of AltaVista Intranet as the search utility. Penn Search now covers all 200+ servers* at Penn and can find all documents not specifically excluded by a provider.

The fact that the new search returns large numbers of hits emphasizes this expanded coverage. To interpret search results efficiently, both users and providers should consult the search help to understand how documents are retrieved and ranked. Web authors should also consult resource web developer's site to Penn's Web Developer site to learn how to use the META tag and other elements to ensure that their documents are appropriately retrieved and ranked.

Continuous improvement

With a new structure in place, the Penn Web Team expects to introduce refinements, enhancements, and new features to the Web as they become available at intervals over the coming year.

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