What is a public beta?
A beta (website) is basically a way of opening up something a bit experimental to the public.
A beta may not be fully tested or polished, so it won’t be used for anything critical to the business. It runs in parallel to the existing service. Normally users will be given a chance to opt in temporarily to a beta website, and perhaps even offer some feedback on it.
So a beta is a chance for developers to try new things and hone the user experience, all without putting the business at risk. Meanwhile business stakeholders get a very clear view of how things will look, and can start preparing for change.
Where have we come from?
Over the past year or so we’ve been planning a major overhaul of the University of Kent website. Our website is unnecessarily huge: many hundreds of thousands of pages, images, and documents spread out over hundreds of school and department websites. Target audiences are often poorly defined, priorities can be muddled, and content regularly does not meet users’ actual (as opposed to perceived) needs. Our users tell us that relevant information can be hard to find, and can be out of date or conflicting.
Changing our website is a big but very necessary undertaking.
One step toward our goal is to rethink how we communicate with our key target audiences, and focus on our users’ needs rather than business needs. This doesn’t mean we only put things on our website that people want to see. It means shifting the priority to users. Business needs should fit into and around our users.
The idea was to introduce designs which worked just as well on mobile devices as on laptops. We also wanted to experiment with a more modern, open design which uses well understood principles of design and user experience and provides a simplified navigation based on user needs.
What is beta.kent.ac.uk?
beta.kent.ac.uk is a culmination of several years of experimenting with different ideas on parts of the University website, together with more recent consultation, planning, and discovery exercises.
We want to showcase our work and start learning quickly to find out what works and what doesn’t through feedback and user testing. This is an iterative process which will allow us to make improvements as we continue to develop our beta site and plan to add new content.
How will people find beta.kent?
beta.kent won’t be indexed by google or other search engines. The public will have to opt to view it.
Some pages on our existing website will have a banner on the top inviting people to look at the new beta versions of those pages.
If someone chooses to view the new design, it will remember their choice and take them to the new design in future. They can always opt to go back to the original version, using a similar banner on the new design.
What are we putting on beta.kent?
The first content we’ll be putting on beta will be our News Centre. This is one of the sections we first began making mobile friendly and experimenting with new design concepts. It makes it an easier candidate as our first step.
Although we know that the homepage is not necessarily the most important page, we thought it would be a good next step. There is something symbolic about the homepage that will help set up the momentum for progressing the beta.
Course detail pages
Similar to the News Centre, we’ve done a lot to make the current course pages user focused and mobile friendly. These would be the next logical pages to test on beta, and would require relatively little overhead to change, because the content is already centralised and built. The only significant overhead would be sourcing images and/or videos to help make course pages more engaging and relevant to our users.
Key landing pages
We then aim to build content for some of the key user journey stopping off points. One of the first areas we’ll be looking at is some of the key postgraduate recruitment pages. This is in line with the emphasis on research in the University’s new Institutional Plan.
We have evidence from focus groups and other research that postgraduate prospects want University websites to deliver content which is very specifically tailored to their needs. We have feedback that this content is typically very hard to find on our existing website, and that this is costing us lost student uptake. Postgraduates might have questions such as “Who are the course tutors or supervisors?” or “How will I find accommodation for my family?”
When is this happening?
The News Centre will appear on beta.kent before the end of 2015.
We then plan to have a new homepage and central course/programme information pages on beta.kent by the end of February 2016.
Other landing pages important to student recruitment will appear throughout the first half of 2016.
How will we know it’s working?
We need to know what people think of our beta.kent pages.
Central to all our development work is to get user experience feedback from our standard set of iterative user testing and focus groups.
We will also be using raw data to see how people are navigating around pages on beta.kent, and how they’re using the content on each page.
The new site will have a feedback button so people can choose to send us anonymous feedback through a simple to use form. Hopefully we’ll get enough feedback that we can start to see trends or recurring problems with content, layout, style or navigation.
This isn’t a perfect approach: people who volunteer to leave feedback are a self-selecting group, and this approach may not give us enough reliable data. We will re-evaluate after the first few months, in conjunction with looking at the feedback from user testing, and data analysis.