Needfinding for a new University website: how we did the discovery phase.

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“The first imperative is to deliver value to empower customers.”

Jon Iwata, Senior Vice President, Marketing and Communications, IBM.

What does the University want from its website? What is it trying to say to the world?

Who are the people using the website? What are they trying to achieve?

For the website redesign project we were working on the premise that the existing University website does not meet enough of the key business needs. Nor does it meet enough of the needs of key users of the website.

Our discovery phase was broken down into two broad areas: finding out about business needs and finding out about user needs.

Business needs

A website needs to convey content which matters to the organization.

A website needs to convey content which matters to its users.

How do we reconcile these two needs?

“The more content you give people that they want, the more time they will spend on content that matters to you.”

Prof. John Lavine, Media Management Center, Northwestern University.

That is the challenge of building a good website. We need to know what key things the University wants its website to achieve, and match these with what people want from the website.

Corporate vision – what we did

What is the brand concept?

The University’s brand is fundamental to how it wants to portray itself to the world. The University’s Brand Identity site contains the following on its brand concept:

The University’s tagline of “The UK’s European university” is a unique selling point and through this usp [unique selling proposition], we communicate a distinct sense of place in terms of geography as well as demonstrating the value of our European locations, partnerships and programmes.

This concept of brand was built on three central ambitions:

  • to create impact internationally
  • to provide an inspiring student experience
  • to enhance our reputation for innovation

What are the corporate objectives?

The University’s institutional plan covers a range of strategic areas. Part of our discovery phase was to distill this into a small number of key strategic objectives that the website as a whole should achieve.

Corporate vision – what we found

We identified the following 5 key objectives based on the corporate objectives and brand concept:

  1. Raise the University’s international research profile.
  2. Recruit quality students.
  3. Recruit quality staff.
  4. Deliver an excellent student experience.
  5. Deliver an excellent service to current staff.

Stakeholder interviews and focus groups – what we did

We wanted to find out more about how University schools and departments use their websites.

Where are their problems and pain points? What are they using their sites for, and who are they trying to communicate with?

We talked 1–1 with about 15 schools around the University, and arranged a couple of focus groups with another dozen.

The sorts of questions we asked were:

  1. Do you have an online strategy?
  2. How do you determine content for the website?
  3. What would you describe are the core value propositions of your site? Provide five user story cards to fill in and ask to prioritise.
  4. What are the strengths of your site?
  5. What are the pain points of your site?
  6. Who do you consider your competition and why?
  7. Who is your target audience/users? How do you identify user needs?
  8. Do you monitor/measure the success of your website? If so how?

Stakeholder interviews and focus groups – what we found

We got a lot of really useful feedback, but our key findings were:

  • School sites are primarily used as recruitment and research showcases.
  • Portraying school character and individuality are paramount.
  • Visual impact (a contemporary, modern feel) is critically important to a school’s image.
  • Schools need a content strategy to help build and maintain their content in more user-focused ways.

Competitor analysis – what we did

We analysed a range of UK university websites along four basic criteria:

  1. How do I find information about courses?
  2. How does the site engage me in making a commitment?
  3. What is university life like?
  4. What feel does the design and brand give, and how accessible is the content?

Competitor analysis – what we found

We felt the following features were common to really good, engaging websites:

  • Prioritise your audiences – don’t be all things to all people
  • Keep it simple – make people feel confident by providing quality content quickly (5 second rule)
  • Shout about successes!
  • Content driven. Engaging text, images, and video which tells a story.
  • Simple navigation.
  • Strong starting points.
  • Prominent course finder.
  • Audience links sit in a subsidiary area and don’t detract from the primary navigation.
  • Strong use of footers.
  • “Mega menus” can be ok when purposefully designed.
  • Student experience as a balanced lifestyle.
  • Virtual tours.
  • Visual hierarchy based on strong typography.
  • Accessibility.

User needs

Personas – what we did

Sophie - one of our personasWe built 6 personas with the help of various business stakeholders around the University. These personas will help us focus better on user needs in the alpha and beta phases.

Personas aren’t representative of all user needs. They act as an “empathy tool” to help focus on key user groups and key objectives. “What would Helen think or do when she visited this page?”

Personas – what we found

  • Helen. Undergraduate prospect.
  • Judith. Helen’s mother.
  • Liu. International Kent MBA prospect.
  • Sophie. Research postgraduate prospect.
  • Ryan. Current UG.
  • Simon. Academic.

We also wanted to reflect in our personas the fact that many of our users will have some kind of accessibility need.

Analytics and surveys – what we did

We looked at a range of central and school websites to work out what people were doing, and what their basic journeys were.

We also looked at the University homepage, and how research was represented (and viewed) across the entire University site.

Analytics and surveys – what we found

Our results showed a number of findings, but some key ones were:

  1. We need a more focused approach to research.
  2. People like looking at staff research profiles. We need to improve on this area and do more analysis.
  3. Some key areas of the site get a lot of traffic from international prospects. These areas need working on.

Interviews and surveys – what we did

We also used some user research and surveys carried out by the University’s Enrolment Management Services team. This looked at how local sixth form students used the Kent website, and what journeys they followed in looking for course information and student-life material.

Interviews and surveys – what we found

The results of this research gave us a good insight into the sorts of things prospects are trying to do and find out, but it’s clear that we need to find out much more during our alpha phase.


Our discovery phase looked at business needs and user needs.

Business needs

  • Corporate strategy and brand.
  • Stakeholder interviews and focus groups.
  • Competitor analysis.

User needs

  • Personas.
  • Analytics.
  • Interviews and surveys.

Some of our key findings were that promoting student life, research and staff profiles better is vitally important. Above all more focus is needed in delivering the content that key groups of users want in a clear, concise, and engaging way.

To help achieve this focus we’re going to need to develop a coherent content strategy during the alpha and beta phases of the project.

For more information on content strategy take a look at my blogs posts What a content strategy can do for you and How does content strategy work?

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