User Research, Content Strategy, Front-End Development
Durham University is the third oldest university in the UK, with around 20,000 students, a quarter of them postgraduates. They’re a Russell Group member with an international reputation in research and education.
But like all universities, Durham University competes to attract the best students in the UK and worldwide. That world is increasingly noisy as competing universities aggressively market themselves as the university to apply for by providing would-be students with all the information they, and sometimes their parents, need to know when making this big life choice. More so if that student is coming in from abroad, at some expense.
All of this initial research helped us build out and refine personas that were far more current for the wants of the university (Michael 40yrs external academic) and the needs of prospective students (Yu Yan, 24, prospective postgraduate student).
A selection of some of the personas featured in a pack delivered to Durham as went through the discovery processes.
Using these broad personas, we also created journey maps to surface their students’ paths to and through the university. The personas gave everyone here at CTI and stakeholders at the university, clearly referenceable ‘people’ to use during discussions and development as a kind of shorthand. They fleshed out the very real concerns and issues that went through those students’ minds:
The journey maps surfaced the known and, in some cases, the unknown paths prospective students took in researching, benchmarking and submitting an application on the website.
Another pack was delivered, featuring some of the User Journeys discovered, based on our personas.
We gathered more student data and sense-checked what we’d done by providing opportunities for the students to give feedback, which is where we conducted some informal student interviews on campus and heard their experiences directly. Useful.
Here you can see Hanna and James fishing for passing students with free sweets encouraging them to share their stories and help us map their feedback. Surveys are quantitatively helpful; seeing and hearing actual students provides far more qualitative insights and empathy. It’s not all in the numbers but in the stories too — each providing the context and boundaries for the other.
We also took the opportunity to review and understand the existing website to see what worked and identify what didn’t. This spanned the design and layout, website content, task completion, navigation and information architecture (IA) and the all-important site search. This was useful to reference when we benchmarked Durham to other universities we found to be their competition. Navigating with mobile devices was more challenging than mobile-first students would be used to — so that was a prominent issue we’d need to solve.
There’s no handier or cheaper form of research than a competitor review to see what works, what could work and what your competitors have got wrong — a natural source of mistakes to avoid and successes to be inspired by. It’s essential to not simply copy an average of the best ideas your rivals use but to use their inspirations that can apply to your website, but one or two stages further. In this respect, identifying and mapping competing websites’ strengths, weaknesses, and positioning was a source of valuable data for us as we benchmarked certain factors we discovered to be relevant to Durhams’s audiences.
Creating an extensive set of Page Table templates - to encourage consistent content creation across the large organisation.
Upon presenting these new content strategy tools to the university, Steve Davison, the Senior Marketing Manager, said:
“I wonder how we ever got by without something like this before. Simple, concise, visually engaging, and a really good document to strengthen our partnership with the departments that we work with.”
Your website isn’t a filing cabinet in the sky.
There was another creeping problem; the Durham University website was being used to share internally focused content and documents to help university operations, which was of no use to prospective students at all.
These pages created a kind of information “chaff”, diverting and confusing prospective students. Those pages needed to be moved onto their intranet; that’s what their intranet is for, after all. We also found some duplication of content across the site — and that’s as confusing for students as it was for search engines.
Analytics Audit — start your engines.
One of the cores of the new website was to promote student recruitment; it was essential that search engines could efficiently find the latest content so that students could discover the university and its courses. This is where our colleagues in our Digital Marketing team assisted us in understanding the existing issues and planning for the new website search engine ‘friendliness’ whilst maintaining and redirecting the existing traffic. Speaking of which, it turned out that the existing traffic was spread over fifty-five domains — so there was a lot of consolidation to be done.
Creating change in any organisation, whether you are a multinational business or a university, can become political and, if not handled properly, a heated affair. Each owner of the fifty-five domains had produced content from their department or faculty’s point-of-view.
They had to understand the wider ‘why’ of this new format and hierarchy and see how it ‘raised the tide for all ships’ generally and supported their goals.
We’d planned a drop-in room to give us a chance to talk to any of the stakeholders and personally explain our research results and processes when the pandemic hit. Throughout the process, we produced and presented the results and findings of our research as distinct packages so that, over time, all of the stakeholders could see the components parts we were working with.
Having established what the universities goals were and creating personas for stakeholders and the students themselves, we’d prepared ourselves for the next stage of the project; to vision, design and prototype some potential solutions.
We have the convenience of our own usability lab in our main office in Manchester, which is where most of our UX team is based. As you’ll have realised, we prefer to know if our work works rather than hoping it does, so testing is essential. There are lots of types of testing we do, but undoubtedly the user lab provides us with the strongest feedback loop of all.
The lab itself is dressed to look like an inner city flat living room, but a living room with a one-way mirror, video surveillance and eye tracking. Recruited students were given a series of tasks and we observed them on desktop and mobile phones. We could compare what users were being asked to do, against what they were saying and what they were actually doing.
The Durham high-fidelity prototypes provided us with a chance to double-check that real users, unburdened with our biases and preconceptions, could indeed complete a series of tasks we’d devised in our testing plan.
All of our projects undergo rigorous testing throughout the web development process. In order to deliver the utmost quality for clients and their respective users, our in-house QA team ensures that all end products perform accurately and reliably under normal and abnormal conditions. Testing is followed by continual monitoring of software performance, to prevent reoccurrence of any issues and to ensure efficient ongoing operation.
As such, we were able to confidently deliver a well-designed, scalable and technically stable result.
After a year of design and development, the new website was ready to hold the new content, strategised and optimised. But this wasn’t going to be a big bang launch; this was the start of the migration of some content from those fifty-five domains — one college and department at a time. Slowly, over a year, each piece came into the fold, and Durham University’s website changed from the bottom upwards.
We worked hard to discover who the university users were and what journeys they needed to take to meet their needs, and we worked with the university to understand their desired outcomes. We took fifty-five domains, each of them the vital university pieces of a jigsaw that was hard to make sense of from an outside perspective, and brought them harmoniously together.
We’ve made Durham University’s website greater than the sum of its parts — and far more accessible for students and academics to understand.
User Research — CTI Digital / Stardotstar
Content Strategy - CTI Online Marketing
Front-end build — CTI Digital
Back-end build — Terminalfour
“The University has taken a massive leap forward in its web platform and design; it’s moved towards a more modern system, modern design, and information architecture — the lot. It’s been a massive change. I was quite shocked that we managed to deliver this in the middle of the pandemic, for such a massive change project.”
Steve Davison — Senior Marketing Manager
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