Prior to its relaunch, the Sacramento Zoo website provided an ideal foundation for the main project in the class. Beyond being poorly designed, the zoo's home page was disorganized, presented content that only mattered to the zoo and its staff, and had far too many navigational links. The fact that the site was also local, and of a place many students had visited, helped them identify usability issues and build new designs from there.
Students were tasked with redesigning only the home page. They were given the option of reusing any assets from the original zoo site as they wanted, or they could choose to start from scratch and recreate everything, including the branding.
The projects did not need to be coded, as the focus was on presenting an improved user interface.
While usability is discussed throughout the program, earlier classes taken by students had tended to focus on coding skills or on other elements of design. So, this idea of really building around the users was at times quite challenging for students.
The class is a constant struggle to get students to do the legwork first. They naturally want to just jump in and start pushing pixels around, but the entire point of the class is to get them to realize that they cannot possibly build a truly usable site unless they know and understand the users first.
Here again the decision to have them work on the zoo site comes in handy. Even if they haven't visited the Sacramento zoo specifically, they have all likely been to a zoo at some point, and so can more easily put themselves in the role of the user and work from there.
The zoo is also one of those sites that has far too much information, and that information was presented poorly, so the project also challenged students to strip out the chaff and focus in on only what was really important.