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University websites have a lot going on. It wasn’t until I worked in a world-ranking Russell Group university that I realised just how challenging HEI web and digital was.   

Audiences are hugely varied: former students; prospective students; businesses; the local community; the press; and more. If your university has medical schools, the NHS and Royal College of Nursing may form part of the mix too. Layer on other crucial factors including internationalisation, accessibility, mobile and low bandwidth use (particularly if you’re dealing with developing countries) and you’ve got a lot to get your head around.

And behind the scenes:   

  • Lots of authors. While a central web team might look after business-critical sites and pages, a university devolves authoring out to departments. Web editing can be a part-time or extra task for these editors. Sometimes, the editor edits as a full-time job. Whatever the skill level, authors need development, support and guidelines.
  • Distinct systems aren’t a bad thing, but managing the User Experience (UX) across different systems can prove difficult. Should the user know when they move from one back end system to another, or from one department’s pages to another? Why should the user see any difference? 
  • Resource bottlenecks. You may have a Content Management System (CMS) in place, or a means of producing sites internally for departments, but what about when you’re busy? Are your internal clients able to buy resource in? Will it look and feel the same? How can you ensure it is produced to a consistent standard?   

Five approaches to tame the experience   

There are a number of ways to approach improvements, but as a rule, you should accept that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Incremental or progressive improvements – that follow a clear strategy – are key.   

In a previous post, I talked about Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) guidelines as well as other challenges such as Key Information Sets (KIS), and how keeping on top of your user experience can make it easier. Here are five practical ways you can do that.   

1. Define your strategy with user experience at the core   

Without easy, clear paths to your content, featuring memorable, usable designs, content is a king that few people enjoy visiting. Regardless of how large or phased your improvement project is, put user experience at the core. Do this by noting usability as crucial to delivery; ensuring consistency in User Interface (UI), branding and navigation is a ‘must have’. Put your users’ needs at the heart of your strategy. Ideation workshops, competitor and industry analysis and strategic UX sessions can all benefit from this approach.     

2. Deliver the tools to grow a consistent UX   

Most universities have a plethora of back-end systems. By delivering a set of tools to help your authors and third parties keep things consistent for the user, the absence of back-end harmony won’t matter too much. Produce style guides on topics from writing style to navigation. Commission a UI kit that can be incorporated into any web production, by any developer, and updated centrally. Box UK works to this method when developing large-scale websites for clients, and the process is entirely transferrable to most HEI web architectures.     

3. Identify tactical improvement projects and deliver   

While strategy is important, identifying some quick wins and positive improvements can really help propel things forward. Observe how your organisation works with web content. Where are things going wrong? Why are they? How can you make it better? One approach is to try and find the thin end of the process wedge. An example might be your staff profile pages; if you delivered a system where staff could edit their own profile pages, your departmental authors would have more time on their hands.   

Think of creative, innovative and simple ways to deliver tactical improvements. Do your users have to do a lot of thinking over a certain type of content? Creating an app or service for a specific task might bring serious benefits at a crucial decision point. For example, Box UK worked with Cardiff University to deliver a scholarship calculator, so students could model their costs in real time rather than have to try and work it out from a PDF or flat webpage. Innovations like this go a long way to improve your UX.     

4. Do what universities do best  

Regardless of whether you’re in a specialised professional team or academia, you’re likely to appreciate the value of a methodical, research-based approach to solving a problem. So, how do you know if your website measures up? How might you find out?   

At Box UK, we’ve produced a process we call PIC, where we work with you to identify Peers, Innovators and Competitors. We explore what can be learned from them and uncover what makes their offerings special. We also encourage clients to make a PIC selection wider than their industry; learning from diverse sectors and digital leaders.   

Expert usability reviews also offer a full analysis of your website or web service, including detailed recommendations to help make your quality match up with your user’s expectations.     

5. Don’t think like a user. Think like a digital professional.   

Web and marketing professionals are discovering that usability testing delivers intelligence and insight that cannot be captured otherwise. At Box UK, we’ve used usability testing to draw out requirements from real-world users that were otherwise invisible to the business.   

Our recent work with Middlesex University, for example, saw us learn from a wide range of core HEI audiences – academic staff, prospective undergraduates, prospective and current postgraduates, and parents. We observed how they interacted with web services, analysed facial expressions and verbal feedback, and explored their ideas. We find that testing just 8 to 10 users, in a professional usability lab environment with experienced UX consultants, can deliver incredibly valuable insight into usability issues.   

Summary

In an increasingly competitive landscape, the digital experience universities deliver can offer a vital competitive advantage. This post should have provided some practical tips to help you start improving your services; and if you want more information on how Box UK can support your digital goals, get in touch with a member of our team today. 

About the author

martyn kelly

Martyn Kelly

As Head of Web for Cardiff University, Martyn led a series of projects - including look and feel consolidation, usability improvement, mobile delivery, online brand development and digital innovation - that saw Cardiff receive a number of industry accolades for their digital presence, receiving 52m page views per annum. Now a multi-skilled UX Consultant, Martyn combines this expertise with 16 years' experience producing commercial online experiences to help drive measurable business results for a range of organisations.

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