A new homepage for the University (part 1)

Earlier this year it was decided the University’s homepage needed some modernisation. It’d been a good four or five years since we’d given it a thorough review. In that time there have been huge changes in technology, in the University’s strategic goals and (most importantly) in the way our audiences interact with our website.

Another change that has been developing during this time is the way that we in the University’s Digital Comms team approach web development projects. Things move fast in digital – and this applies to processes and project management every bit as much as it does as to technologies.

Over the last few years, we’ve been adopting aspects of agile product management and reporting into our work practices. As part of this, we’ve become way more reliant on using data to make decisions. We’re now using Google Analytics and user research far more than we used to.

This helps us to decide what areas of bristol.ac.uk we should focus on and how to improve the content in ways that measurably improve our audiences’ experience with the website (rather than ways that we think improve things).

Identifying the problem

With that in mind, back to the homepage project. I’ve taken on a kind of hybrid role of both product manager and project manager. Not really a single role in agile but needs must. In addition to me, the team consists of a front-end developer, a web designer and our UX manager and officer.

Our first task was to find out exactly what was wrong with the current homepage. We all had a feeling that it could be better. But without pinpointing some specific issues that we could improve – and be able to measure – it would have been difficult to justify the time and effort required to redevelop it.

Researching user behaviour

To address this, our UX team interrogated our Google Analytics to understand how people were using the homepage, how they were getting there, and what (if any) problems they had in finding the content they were looking for.

The results were interesting, if not surprising. We found:

  1. On the homepage, site search (using the search box in the top-right corner) is the most performed activity
  2. And across the website as a whole, the vast majority (over 85%) of site searches are related to student recruitment – for example looking for course pages.
  3. Four of the top five actions after site search were to click on recruitment-related links.
  4. However, course destination pages are currently at least three clicks from the homepage, and the data showed that significant numbers of users were taking four or more clicks.

We also found that over 90% of users to bristol.ac.uk as a whole did not visit the homepage at all. Not particularly surprising, but what this did suggest was that those that do visit the homepage are overwhelmingly interested in studying here above all the other functions of our University.

What’s more, while all the various University functions need to be findable on bristol.ac.uk as a whole, they don’t all need to be promoted on the homepage itself.

Armed with these findings, the UX team started following up with users. This qualitative research stage took two forms: a remote survey pop-up on the homepage; and face-to-face interviews with prospective students, student recruitment staff and with other key internal stakeholders.

What it showed us was that one of the reasons users visit our homepage to look for course/recruitment pages rather than using Google is that they don’t trust a search engine to take them to the exact page they’re looking for.

This is likely because the user is interested in studying a subject, but isn’t sure exactly what courses we offer related to that subject. Or because they’ve already experienced issues in navigating large, university websites (perhaps even our own!) and would rather rely on following our own navigation from the homepage.

What we also discovered was that prospective students start using university websites (alongside other tools and websites) at the point where they want to create a short list of potential places to apply. They then return to the website at specific points during the application cycle to perform a key task, eg register for an open day, research accommodation, etc.

Also, users initially come to the website looking specifically for course information, any related courses of interest, and how the University of Bristol compares to other universities (ie what makes us different?). This last point links to a previous piece of research conducted by an external market-research company in 2016 which recommended improvements to our communication around what makes the University of Bristol distinctive, particularly with international audiences.

Defining the project

From all of this research, we were able to define two clear problems to solve:

  1. Users not finding key tasks quickly enough or at all
  2. Users not understanding primary messages and benefits of University of Bristol

Now I had enough info to put together a simple product canvas (essentially a plan-on-a-page for visualising your business model), and a product-development timeline based on the ‘Double Diamond‘ design process:

We now had a defined project with goals and measurements to work on!

But how would the research we conducted actually translate into a new, improved homepage? Find out in Part 2…


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