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A User-Focused Process for Building University Websites

The two items that most define our websites as useful and usable in a moment of need are the content — what people can act on — and the navigation — how easily we get people to that content. Spending time on these items at the beginning of your website rebuild process will help you develop a website that is focused on and better answers the needs of our users.

This document, along with in-person help from University Relations – Digital Services, is meant to guide you through a user-focused process by prompting you with questions that will help focus your organization on user needs as opposed to organizational requirements.

Step #1: Document User Needs

The first step when rebuilding our websites is to understand what people need. To paraphrase the US Digital Services’ Playbook:

We must begin digital projects by exploring and pinpointing the needs of the people who will use the service or website, and the ways the service or website will fit into their lives. Whether the users are members of the public or university employees, university organizations must include real people in their design process from the beginning. The needs of people — not constraints of university structures or silos — should inform technical and design decisions. We need to continually test the products we build with real people to keep us honest about what is important. [source 1]
Our web presence is only one part of our larger strategy to help and service people. Understanding what people need beyond our digital presence will help us improve our digital offerings to meet needs.
We need to understand the different ways people will interact with our services, including the actions they take online, through a mobile application, on a phone or in person. Every encounter — whether it's online or offline — should move the user closer towards their goal. This includes print, email and phone. [source 2]

Ultimately, we want the final product to be simple and intuitive:

Using a university service or website shouldn’t be stressful, confusing or daunting. It’s our job to build services and websites that are simple and intuitive enough that users succeed the first time, unaided. [source 3]

Key Questions

Keep the following questions in mind as you work on your worksheet and think about rebuilding your digital presence.
  1. Who are your primary users?
  2. Why does the user want or need your service(s)?
  3. What primary tasks are the users trying to accomplish? Prioritize these tasks.
  4. What are the different ways that people currently accomplish the task the digital service is designed to help with? List steps. Consider both online and offline paths.
  5. Where are user pain points ( paper cuts) in the current way people accomplish the task? Consider both online and offline paths.
  6. Where could we improve the process ( magical moments) for users if we could fix anything?
  7. How do you use email or print to communicate actions users need to take?

Resources

The following resources should help you develop goals for your site based on user needs.

Step #2: Use Data to Revise User Needs

With our expected user needs written down, the next step is to review data to see if the current website addresses those needs. Data used to evaluate the goals can be based upon support requests, Google Analytics, focus groups and/or surveys. Do not feel pressure to use only one type of data. Remember, the more time spent on this step the better the site will ultimately meet our users’ needs.

Key Questions

Keep the following questions in mind as you work to revise your goals.

  1. Are there times during the year that your website is more popular than other times? Focus on what people are trying to accomplish is during the more popular times.
  2. What metrics will best indicate how well the service is working for its users?
  3. How often are you testing with real people?
  4. If user research was conducted which research methods were used?
  5. What were the key findings?
  6. How were the findings documented? Where can future team members access the documentation?

Resources

  • Google Analytics: Provides historical web traffic statistics for your site. If you would like direct access to the Google Analytics report for your website please contact University Relations – Digital Services. For more information check out the Google Analytics Help Center.
  • Google Search Console: Provides historical keywords used to find your site via Google search. If you would like direct access to the Google Search Console report for your website please contact University Relations – Digital Services. For more information check out the Google Search Console Help Center.
  • Focus Groups & User Surveys: If you would like to conduct surveys or focus groups, please contact University Relations – Digital Services to set-up a meeting with WVU’s director of market research.
  • Usability.gov: User Research Basics
  • Optimal Workshop

Step #3: Perform a Content Inventory and Audit

To properly judge if your content is meeting the needs of your users, you need to roll up your sleeves, look at every page on your website and grade each one. Jeffrey Veen summed it up best:

A content inventory is a decidedly human task. In fact, we find that the process can often be as valuable as the final spreadsheet. If you invest the time in scouring your Web site and deconstructing every page (or at least a good selection of pages), you will end up as the uncontested expert in how it all goes together. And that’s invaluable knowledge to possess when redesigning your site. Source 4.

Be critical. If a page doesn’t fit a goal and you don’t know why it’s on the site, then don’t be afraid to mark it for removal.

Key Questions

Keep the following questions in mind as you work on your content inventory and audit.

  1. How does this page help a user? Note the user need and action the page supports.

  2. Do the keywords for this page from the “Readability” tab match the purpose of this page? If not, it may be necessary to revise content.

  3. Does the page content take longer or shorter to read on average than the estimated reading time? Large differences may highlight the need to revise content.

  4. Is this page scored as difficult to read? A higher grade reading level is not a good thing. If so, it may be necessary to revise content.

  5. What is the quality of this content on a scale of high, medium and low?

  6. If this page has a quality of medium or low what is the cause? Consider using consistent adjectives like lacks accuracy, lacks completeness, outdated, redundant, trivial, voice/style, lacks usefulness or verbose.

  7. What should we do with this page? Consider using consistent actions like combine, delete, expand, keep or revise.

  8. If this page is not being deleted, would a new URL help organize this content better or make search engine results more meaningful?

  9. Does this page contain structured data that is repeated either in the page (e.g., directory information) or across multiple pages (e.g., program information)?

Resources

Step #4: Identify Content Gaps

By completing the content inventory and audit of your current site you can identify if you are missing content that would help address user needs. Review your goals and double-check that each is addressed by Step #3. If certain goals are either missing or not well represented enough, then make sure to note the gap on the “Content Gaps” tab so that the content can be created.

Key Questions

  • Are any goals or actions from our Discovery Worksheet missing from the content inventory and audit? If so, then add as a content gap.

Step #5: Develop the Information Architecture

The content inventory and content gap tabs provide a hint of a final organizational structure for our website, but it’s important to test the new structure before committing to it. By using a tool to sketch out the new information architecture, we can prove if it will match our users’ needs or not.

Resources

Step #6: Share Findings

Sharing our findings with stakeholders ensures that we make sure everyone is on the same page when it comes to the goals for the website. At this time University Relations – Digital Services can scope the time, skills and responsibilities needed to finish the project.

Resources

Creative Brief Worksheet: University Relations – Digital Services is still finalizing the Creative Brief Worksheet. This worksheet will help UR-DS document the findings as well as scope and duties for the rest of the project.

Step #7: Wireframe Templates

From here the process is a matter of marrying content and function to a design that matches each unit’s unique needs. Due to the unique nature it’s difficult to bottle up the rest of the process. University Relations – Digital Services will share artifacts via this project’s Teamwork instance.