Digital Transformation Project (DTP) stage 2: improving the school and department presence on the Birkbeck web 

Jane Van de Ban, Web Content Manager for Birkbeck, shares progress and updates on the second stage of the College’s web redevelopment project. This blog is one of a series of blogs about Birkbeck’s Digital Transformation Project

Following the successful launch of Stage 1 of our web redevelopment project (prioritising public-facing recruitment pages), we concentrated on making further improvements to our redeveloped web pages, to continue to improve these pages for our prospective students.

We have now launched Stage 2 of the DTP, turning our attention to school and department content on the Birkbeck website.

  1. Requirement-gathering with the schools

This project began during October and November 2017 with ER and ITS facilitating five workshops, one for each school. The aim was to gain a greater understanding of the challenges and priorities for school, department and research centre content, from the point of view of those working in the schools. The facilitators also spoke about the project, by invitation, at a variety of other school and department meetings.

At the workshops, ER and ITS facilitators gave participants an overview of the website transformation project work so far, including some of the evidence and research behind the work already  undertaken. We then presented attendees with data about how our current school and department content is consumed by visitors (such as the most popular content), and we watched recordings of students visiting the school and department sites and talking about what information they are trying to access and the barriers to completing their online journey with us.

Workshop attendees discussed university websites that they thought handled school and department content particularly well, before we began an in-depth exploration of school and department content – what it does, should do, could do better. Participants were given as much time as they wanted to add notes under a range of headings, including issues with current content, and priorities for school, department and research centre content.

When everyone felt they had got all their points down, the facilitators invited contributors to expand on their notes, generating a group discussion about the topics attendees felt were most pressing, helping to draw out commonalities, outliers and voices. Minutes were recorded to capture the conversations, questions and concerns raised by participants at each workshop and the post-it notes were photographed.

1.1 Workshop discussions – recurring topics across all five schools

Staff across the College shared similar concerns. Unsurprisingly, better navigation and good, up-to-date content constantly cropped up as high-level concerns and priorities. In addition, our attendees talked about:

  • Staff profiles: These are by far the most visited area of school and department content and, thus, demand attention. Much discussion centred on questions of audience, degrees of standardisation and information management – who will update the content and how they will connect with other systems that academics use, such as BIRon.
  • Design: By far one of the greatest concerns for the project across all schools was the visual appeal and imagery of the school and department web content.
  • The web as ‘shop window’: A good deal of time was spent discussing how to showcase the best that Birkbeck’s schools, departments and research centres have to offer. There was a unanimous desire for space to show off news, events, research impact and other activities. Some schools felt that this would help garner a deeper sense of community between students and staff.
  • Showcasing department individuality: Finding the right balance between heterogeneity with the ‘corporate’ site, while allowing the personality of each department to shine through was important.
  • What role do schools play on the Birkbeck web? There were mixed opinions on the necessity of keeping school content. Some participants argued that the school is merely an internal managerial structure that does not have much relevance to the outside world, while others thought we might be missing a trick by not giving space to school-level events, news and rankings. Some consideration still needs to be given to identifying the target audience.
  • Information for current students: there was a mixed reaction to the necessity for having a section for current students in certain schools. Some departments use the current students section for essential information such as handbooks and module timetables, while others do not have a current student area at all (eg Law). This also sparked much discussion of what should be behind the current student log-in area, ‘My Birkbeck’.
  • Maintaining web standards: Finally, many participants were concerned about who will take responsibility for ensuring web content is kept up to date while maintaining consistency and how this will be resourced. Most thought that some collaboration was required between professional services and the school and department-based staff, to ensure consistency across the website while keeping content fresh and distinct.

2. The launch of the Web Working Group

Now that we have completed the initial consultation and we have a good grasp of what staff across the schools are most concerned about, we have begun working with the Web Working Group (WWG), consisting of key staff (academic and professional support) from all five schools.

The aim of this group is for the digital transformation team (comprising the ER and ITS digital teams, and our project managers, Kayleigh Woods Harley and Richard Evemy) to work collaboratively with school / department staff (academics and professional support staff who represent their schools) to redevelop the school and department content on the Birkbeck website, informed by the workshop discussions with the wider group.

  1. ‘Layering’ the new look and feel on to our school and department content

But how best to redesign this important part of the Birkbeck website? The overall look and feel of our school and department web presence will take its cue from the ‘new’ Birkbeck visual identity, which – a year into its life – is now being used extensively by every school and professional service for everything from new architectural designs for Estates to event posters and prospectuses. But what is the best way to apply the new visual identity and digital standards to our school and department web presence?

In previous years, when we upgraded school and department microsites, we did this on a site-by-site basis, which meant it took a long time for the latest design to roll out across our school and department sites. This was obviously frustrating for the departments lower down our list (which were upgraded more than a year after the first upgraded site went live). So, this time, we are taking a different approach. Rather than improve one site at a time, we are going to target specific parts of or topics on each site (eg research information, staff profiles) and, with the guidance of our WWG, we are aiming to go live with the new parts for all school/departments at or around the same time.

This means that ‘old’ and ‘new’ designs will co-exist for the school and department web, but we believe this disadvantage will be outweighed by the fact that the whole of our school and department web will feature ‘layers’ of improvements, which will – over time – eventually take over, until all of the ‘old’ content has been transformed for the better.

After our first two meetings with the WWG, we have not only started to work on two project layers, but we have identified a series of other projects that we will need to tackle:

3.1 Department gateway pages

For many staff, the most important page on a department site is the gateway page (in effect, the homepage of your department). So, rather than start with other parts of our site, we decided this would be our first priority and the first ‘layer’ to be applied.

Our aim is to develop new ‘gateway’ pages for all of our departments (school content and gateway pages will be addressed in a separate ‘schools’ project – see 3.3) that will better enable visitors to access key information, in the new design. To do this, we need to analyse feedback we’ve received from the initial web workshops with schools, the WWG meetings, and our ongoing user testing, in order to determine the requirements for our department gateway pages. We will then share our findings and results with the WWG. After this, we will develop new pages for all of the departments, with a view to getting sign off from local heads of departments (ideally, with the support of the local WWG representative).

Once we have reached this stage, we will apply this first ‘layer’ to our department content.

3.2 Academic and research staff pages

Academic and research staff pages are critical for our users, but currently they are riddled with problems and errors – a lack of consistency in respect of the type of information we present, out-of-date information, duplicate content, concerns about design and layout, etc. This is obviously of great concern to the Birkbeck community as well as ourselves. So, we need to ensure that we make this content as good as it can be.

Among other actions we need to take to improve our academic and research staff profiles, we need to:

  • Complete our analysis of requirements gathered through user testing and the WWG discussions, to inform our planning
  • Develop a comprehensive list of ‘fields’ (contact details, links to personal websites and profile information on academic.edu, LinkedIn, etc.) that apply to all academic and research staff, while providing a mechanism whereby academic staff themselves decide which of these fields should be presented on their part of the Birkbeck website
  • Consider the best way to maintain and update this information
  • Think creatively about how we can ensure that this important information is embedded with other key parts of the Birkbeck web (eg our course listings, where we need to let visitors know which of our staff teach on which courses)
  • Do a better job of rationalising our sources of information to avoid duplicate content updates on the Birkbeck site – so, for example, we need to pull information from BIRon into our staff profiles, rather than providing duplicate (and, inevitably, out-of-date) publication information pages.

After all of this, we will be able to identify the way in which we can implement this project and will discuss this with the WWG. Then we will be able to plan the appropriate stages of development for this project.

3.3 Other projects

We have also identified a range of other projects that need to be addressed in this stage (in no particular order – and probably not a comprehensive list):

  • Department research: this project will concentrate on how we can best present information on a department’s research – their aims and objectives, their activities and their outcomes.
  • Search and discovery: we know that Birkbeck’s search – course and site search – needs to be improved. This project is going to ensure that we make it easier for our web visitors to find the information they need when they are on the Birkbeck web.
  • Departmental student experience: what is it like to study in a department? What is the student experience? This project aims to address these questions and more, to give prospective students a better understanding of what it will be like to study at Birkbeck in a specific department.
  • Student funding: we know that prospective students don’t always find all the funding information that might be relevant to their studies, so we need to do something to make this information both easier to find and comprehensive. That’s what this project is about.
  • Prospective Phd students: we know that department sites are critical for prospective PhD students, and we could improve their experience. This project will look at providing the information that Phd students need in order to make the decision that Birkbeck is right for them.
  • Current students: this project will look at the best way to provide information for current students.
  • Course information: we know it’s important to let our visitors know what courses each department offers, because staff have told us this and the WWG reinforced this. This project will concentrate on how we can and should provide this information.
  • Business services / partnership project: this project will consider how best to make this important information visible to our stakeholders.
  • Schools project: in our workshops, some staff told us that school information isn’t necessary on the Birkbeck web; others told us that we needed to find a better way to showcase school information. With this project, we will need to tackle this and come up with a solution that works for everyone.

We are reliant on the WWG to help us prioritise these projects and to help us to understand the requirements better, so that each project can be tackled on a stand-alone basis and layered successfully across the Birkbeck web.

  1. When is this all happening?

Currently, the Birkbeck school and department web comprises more than 27,000 discrete items of publicly indexed content (ie content available via a Google search). Transforming this quantity of content into something better (all of which will need to be reviewed with much content either rewritten or deleted, in consultation with local content owners) is a massive undertaking, and we are only at the start.

However, this is an important project to us, and we are keen to make progress. So, although we can’t tell you exactly when your ‘old’ pages will be improved, we are aiming to go live with new layers throughout the year and we will continue to use blogs to tell you more about the reasoning behind our decisions and, once we have plotted the timeline, when we are hoping to deliver them.

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