MIT’s Homepage: Preposterous or Ingenious?

Joshua Porter

January 9th, 2006

Our friends at MIT have an unusual approach to their homepage. They change it every day, so much so that it looks completely different from the day before. One day it is teal. The next day, red. Then yellow. They do this to “call attention to each new spotlight”, a term given to the prominent message or information they choose to highlight that day. For fun, they also have an archive of all past homepages.

What MIT doesn’t change is the primary navigation. They have a set of top-level and 2nd-level links that stay the same no matter what day you visit. Only the background image and spotlight change. When I visited recently, the homepage featured a large image of what looks to be the handles and digital interface of a treadmill. This was used to spotlight a program called the Getfit Challenge, a three-month team-oriented fitness challenge for the MIT community. Ordinarily this content wouldn’t be featured on the homepage. But it happened to be the spotlight on the day I visited the site.

MIT homepage

When I first saw it, I actually thought I may have typed in the URL incorrectly. After all, I had been to the MIT site before but I didn’t recall seeing anything close to this. My expectations were certainly shaken. However, upon a second look I realized that I was indeed at the correct URL, and one that was more memorable now that I knew what was going on there.

At UIE, we’ve seen a lot of homepages, but we haven’t seen many where designers take this approach. We often talk to design teams who make small changes to the homepage over time, usually promoting their latest offer or information to the most visible part of the page. Some even redesign it completely every once in a while. But changing it every day like this is unique. In most cases consistency is seen as a vital attribute for the look of the homepage. We often hear the phrase “consistent look and feel” to describe this belief.

Not so at MIT. They do what would seem preposterous to the “consistent look and feel” crowd. (I can almost hear marketing and design teams cringe.)

On the other hand, MIT does provide consistent change, showcasing content that folks might not have known about. They have obviously chosen the current knowledge approach instead of the consistent look and feel approach. They trust that new visitors will quickly understand what is going on, making the decision to highlight various programs and the creativity of the community at the expense of visual consistency. And they’ve kept at it for almost 3 years. That tells me that they’re confident it’s working.

So what do you think? Preposterous or ingenious?

12 Responses to “MIT’s Homepage: Preposterous or Ingenious?”

  1. Joefish Says:

    How about somewhere in between?

    I really like the idea, it’s certainly a refreshing take on things. I can see how this would work for someone like them, who have a large amount of content available, and where their users quite possibly take a look at the site just to see what’s there, or, they visit with a specific task in mind, but it’s ok if they get a little distracted.

    This approach probably wouldn’t work as well for someone with a small amount of content, because the user would be confused about why the homepage has changed. I think it would also be detrimental to sites where the user would visit with one specific purpose in mind. For example, when I visit the homepage of my country’s Inland Revenue Department (ird.got.nz), I go there with a specific purpose, and distracting me in any way would not be productive.

    Just the thoughts off the top of my head…

  2. Nataly Says:

    Very original site! But too heavy… Those who use dial-up will have a lot of problems!

  3. Adam Says:

    A school like MIT can do something like this, but a smaller school cannot. When I think of MIT, I think of a ground breaking school that constantly pushes the envelope. To me, it would seem more hokey coming from a smaller, lesser known institution.

  4. DeWayne Purdy Says:

    The coordination and design on daily changes is what really amazes me, that’s a lot of work. Their office is right across the street from the Cambridge Marriott, maybe you should invite them to speak at UI 11! They’ve been doing it for several years, it would be interesting to get their thoughts on the reaction to the daily changes, the process they go through, and the benefits they feel they receive from it.

  5. Brady Joslin Says:

    Interesting when accounting for site “interestingness” and may work for their audience. I wouldn’t recommend others trying to replicate.

  6. Bill Damon Says:

    At first I thought I was on the wrong site. That has to be somewhat of a problem when trying to start a relationship with the user. And if it wasn’t MIT I think I would probably run for fear of them being hacked and having a fake site in their place.

  7. BIG SWINGING Says:

    Ingenious and a great idea for anyone to try.

    If yer customers don’t like it, kill it and revert back to the old design.

    The answer to what works best always lies in the marketplace with actual customers and prospects. The problem is that some marketers and designers have the propensity to think they “know better” than their customers.

    As much as the smartest marketers and the most talented designers hate to admit, actual customers in actual situations are the only people that have all of the right answers all the time.

  8. Chris Cavallucci Says:

    I think it’s a risky but ingenious move. So, exactly who are MIT’s customers? I would think their user community is fairly broad: current and prospective students, faculty, staff, alums, associates, vendors, etc. That’s probably a significant number of people. The fresh content on the home page will strengthen the community and ‘stickiness’ of the site for these people who already have a relationship with the university.

    Also, this tag in the source may force the search bots to recrawl the site more frequently:
    meta http-equiv=”Expires” content=”12 January 2006″
    That’s certainly an added benefit.

  9. DeWayne Purdy Says:

    I forwarded the post to the University web developer’s listserv, and found the responses interesting… Many of the comments were similar to Adam’s… Because MIT=innovation, MIT can get away with this where many could not… it matches their brand. The resources involved are another issue, I don’t think we could do it with the resources I have to do the web site at my university. One post brought up an interesting CSS Zen Garden correlation… here’s the code and CSS, design and submit a home page idea. Pretty radical when you consider the extent most web developers like to have total control over the look of their pages.

  10. blockquote Says:

    The ever changing homepage…

    MIT changes its homepage picture and color every day. Jarred Spool Joshua Porter writes about it as an example of his “current knowledge” concept.
    ……

  11. UX Designer’s Quick Reference | butlerhouse Says:

    […] MIT‘s Homepage: Preposterous or Ingenious? – Joshua Porter […]

  12. current MIT student Says:

    It’s interesting to read this post nearly six years later. Nowadays, it seems that many university homepages have some form of photo or news feed that changes on a regular basis. Then again, some concerns that existed in 2006, such as dial-up connection speed, are no longer major issues.

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