The story behind Birkbeck’s new web design

Dr Ben Winyard, Senior Content Manager at Birkbeck explains the research and process behind our website’s new look. 

The Birkbeck website serves many vital functions simultaneously: it must be an authoritative, accurate source of information; a gateway to services; easy to navigate and search; aesthetically pleasing; accessible to all; and it must reflect and advance Birkbeck’s mission. The experience of using our website is often absolutely central to a person’s decision to come and study in the evening with us.

In our digital age, having a professional, beautifully designed and practical, easy to use website is absolutely essential for any university or organisation. Users need to get where they want to be quickly and easily, feeling confident that what they’re reading is accurate, while enjoying the tactile and visual experience of moving through our site.

The Birkbeck Digital project is a hugely ambitious, wide-ranging and on-going project to redesign, redevelop, restructure and re-present Birkbeck’s web presence based on research, evidence and over 50 user-testing sessions. Every longstanding website – and Birkbeck has been online for around twenty years – has a natural history of expansion and growth. The ambition of this project has allowed us to research and reconsider everything about our site – the design, the layout, the navigation and the content – and the opportunity to field staff and student feedback to ascertain how people use, and feel about, our website.

The project has been divided into stages, as the Birkbeck website extends to many thousands of pages. Stage 1, which is being delivering on schedule this month, includes the redesign of the Birkbeck homepage, of our ‘corporate’ site, which includes all of the key information for prospective students and covers many of our most important professional and student services departments, and, lastly, the online prospectus, which includes over 3000 pages of course and module information across all levels of study, from short courses to PhD research.

Our first task was to organise user feedback sessions, to help us map and improve the experience of visitors to the website. A series of workshops, one-to-one interviews and group sessions, were bisected by ‘type’ of user, from ‘young undergraduate’ and ‘mature postgraduate’ to international students, MPhil/PhD researchers and staff from across the College.  From this research we were able to compile a rich analysis of who is using the Birkbeck website, what they are looking for, and what delights and frustrates them. This invaluable feedback has informed every step of the design process, the reviewing and refreshing of content and the build of the new website.

The feedback was often interestingly divided according to the age of the student: in general, users above the age of 30 were positive, describing our website as ‘modern’, ‘clear’, ‘precise’, ‘professional’ and ‘mature’; while younger users were less positive, describing our website as ‘traditional’, ‘outdated’, ‘plain’, ‘dull’ and lacking colour and media content such as videos. Many users expressed frustration with the navigation on our site – the menus, signposts and links that you click on to move from one page or section of the website to another – and felt we don’t adequately convey what it is like to study at Birkbeck. Users also struggled to access vital information, including bursaries and financial support.

Embedded accessibility software, including screen-reading, enables visitors to customise our site in the way they need it to work

Embedded accessibility software, including screen-reading, enables visitors to customise our site in the way they need it to work

The task of converting all of this, sometimes conflicting, feedback into a new design fell to the design company, Pentagram, who created our new visual identity last year so had a head start in understanding Birkbeck’s unique mission and our diverse staff and student community. Over the course of many brainstorming sessions and meetings in the autumn of 2016, Birkbeck’s content (External Relations) and technical (IT Services) experts worked together with Pentagram to translate our new visual identity and user feedback into a stylish, clear and colourful new design.

The mammoth task of translating Pentagram’s beautiful designs into a functioning website fell to our hugely talented and hardworking CIS & Web Team in IT Services. This type of translation work – of turning a design into functioning code on a webpage – will always involve cutting your coat to match your cloth – i.e. working out what can be done given the challenges of schedule, staff capacity and budget. The developers were astute at breaking down each element of the design and explaining the best way of turning them into a digital reality. Extensive user-testing was carried out in the team as well as research to makes sure our site is sector-leading in terms of accessibility. This sort of cross-team working carries its own challenges, but IT Services and External Relations have worked strongly and successfully together.

The new pop-out menu

The new pop-out menu signposts visitors to important pages

This new design has adapted our visual identity for the Web, incorporating new typography and standards of layout. On the redesigned Homepage, we now have the images, clear, graphic signposts to important pages that users have asked for, brought together on a new, easy-to-use pop-out menu on the right-hand side of the page.

 

Finding a course is usually the number one task of a new visitor to our site, so we have incorporated a prominent keyword course search box at the top of the Homepage, to get students started on their journey as quickly and easily as possible. We’re also showcasing the best of what’s happening at Birkbeck – as a lot of user feedback articulated a sense that Birkbeck is ‘hiding its light under a bushel’ and not trumpeting its achievements and strengths. So we are featuring news, events, blog posts and podcasts on the Homepage and on landing pages, singing loudly and proudly about our world-class research.

research-tile

Birkbeck’s unique qualities are showcased with eye-catching statement tiles

Birkbeck’s unique mission makes us genuinely different to other universities and the new website is all about making this clear upfront, celebrating it and helping prospective students see the many ways in which studying with us could have a real impact on their lives. We are also making videos more prominent, as a way of telling our unique story and dusting away some of the fustiness that frustrated our younger users. Finally, the new website has been designed responsively, meaning that, whatever device you are using, the website will look great and be easy to use.

newwebsite6phone

The website is optimised for browsing on any device

On our online prospectus, we are presenting each course page as a gateway into Birkbeck, as many prospective students come to our website through our course pages after a Google search. Thus, we now include links to important information on fees and funding, making an application, entry requirements, accommodation, our research culture and other key areas of interest for prospective students, depending on the level of study. We have also reviewed the content on all of our course pages, stripping out duplication and generic content and simplifying, consolidating and improving.

Redesigning and restructuring the website gave us a golden opportunity to review, assess and edit our content. The pages on our ‘corporate’ website include absolutely crucial information on fees and funding, student services, careers and employability, and research, while our online prospectus is the most visited area of our website and absolutely central to attracting new students.

Like most organisations, Birkbeck has seen its website expand exponentially over the past decade and, as with any large, complex organisation, content on our website has not always been kept up-to-date or focused on the needs of users. Seizing this opportunity, we have reviewed and refreshed over 1500 items of content, which includes webpages, images and files, in line with the newly created House Style and tone of voice guidelines – the first time Birkbeck has ever had a comprehensive style guide.

Duplicate and obsolete material has been removed, written content has been reviewed, rewritten where necessary, and adjusted to meet our House Style. User testing and workshop sessions with content owners across the College mean that we have been able to reorder material based on user needs, giving prominence to the material that matters most to visitors and giving answers to their most pressing questions. Areas of the website that had been structured to reflect the internal organisation of Birkbeck have been reordered to bring users’ needs, questions and tasks to the forefront. Thirty new landing pages have been created, giving essential content areas a fresh, vibrant new look that also makes the website easier to navigate.

Throughout this process, when considering the design, layout, structure and content of the website, we have been guided by the following ideas and principles:

  1. To focus on and prioritise the needs of the website users, whether staff, students or visitors.
  2. To simplify, clarify and reduce, while avoiding duplication, obfuscation and verbiage. Our written content should be truthful, clear, concise and easy to understand.
  3. To ensure our site is accessible to all users and optimised to enable disabled, blind and visually impaired users to access the information they need.
  4. To increase the aesthetic appeal of the website, particularly through the greater use of images, videos and other media. To this end, nearly 600 new images have been uploaded to the site.
  5. To simplify the structure of our website, to enable ease of navigation and quick access to the information that users need.
  6. Apply our new House Style and deploy a more consistent, positive and appealing tone of voice.

And this is just the beginning. Going forward, we will be redesigning and relaunching other parts of our website, utilising new technologies, implementing new principles of digital governance, rolling out our new House Style and tone of voice guidelines, and working towards the shared goal of a website we can all feel justly proud of.

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User-testing Birkbeck’s new website design

Naomi Bain, Web Officer (Training and User Experience), at Birkbeck explains the way student feedback informed our new web design. 

webOver the course of the past few months, throughout the redevelopment of the Birkbeck website, I have carried out more than 50 user testing sessions. These have sought to ensure that the changes and improvements we are making to the website are firmly rooted in research and evidence about how the website is used in real life, rather than how we might imagine it is used.

After each round of testing I reported back to the web teams, both technical and content, about any issues that came out of the sessions. These reports led to some changes being made, helped with decision-making processes and provided reassurance.

There have been four rounds of testing with students, gathered with the help of Team Birkbeck. As well as this, I set up sessions with students with dyslexia and related conditions and students with visual impairment, who I contacted with the help of the Disability Office and External Relations. The students who have participated are studying all kinds of subjects and come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Testing has included a number of older students, and students who do not speak English as a first language.

In the early stages of testing we just looked at PDFs of the new design. Students were asked for their response to the appearance of the site, and I did ‘first click’ tests to assess their understanding of the layout of the pages and how they would find something on a live version. We then moved on to testing some mock up stand-alone pages, concentrating in particular on testing the course finder and the menu.

For the final round, we had something approaching a complete test version of the new site, and focussed in particular on course information. In addition to this, students with disabilities assessed various accessibility tools, and also talked about how their disability could affect their use of websites.

All sessions took place at Birkbeck and were recorded using Panopto, the university’s video content system. All students used the site on a PC, and some also searched the site on their phone.

Feedback on the new site has been overwhelmingly positive. People described it as “clear”, “modern”, “colourful” and “engaging”. It compared favourably to both the existing Birkbeck site and to other university sites.

Observing students carrying out searches on the site enables us to quickly see whether they understand how the design “works”. Several minor issues with the design have been brought to light as a result of these user testing sessions and changes have been made, or potential problems flagged up.

The intention is to do some follow up testing post-launch, as part of an ongoing iterative process of development and improvement, which will ensure that Birkbeck sites are attractive, usable and accessible to all our students.

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Take a virtual tour of our campuses

Explore our beautiful Bloomsbury campus in the heart of London and state-of-the-art Stratford campus in east London.

Both campuses offer all the facilities you need, which all Birkbeck students are entitled to use. They are also well-served by public transport, making it easy to get to and from the College.

 

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Why do we feel different when switching languages?

This post was contributed by Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

Jean-Marc Dewaele

Jean-Marc Dewaele

Few topics elicit as many passionate discussions among multilinguals as the question whether a switch of language includes a switch in personality. Some, like Ilan Stavans, the Mexican-American author of Jewish origin, feel that every language they speak allow them to be a different person and are proud of their hybrid multilingual self:

Changing languages is like imposing another role on oneself, like being someone else temporarily. My English-language persona is the one that superimposes itself on all previous others. In it are the seeds of Yiddish and Hebrew, but mostly Spanish…But is the person really the same?…You know, sometimes I have the feeling I’m not one but two, three, four people. Is there an original person? An essence? I’m not altogether sure, for without language I am nobody. (Stavans, 2001: 251).

Is this feeling of difference when switching from one language to another just a myth? What proportion of multilinguals experience this difference? Is this linked to anything particular in the person’s background?

John McWhorter, a great American applied linguist, made a relatively off-the-cuff comment towards the end of his 2014 book The language hoax, attributing the fact that many multilinguals feel different in their different languages to the fact that they started learning the foreign language (LX) later in life and that a lack of proficiency in the LX limits their ability to express their full emotional and pragmatic range. While this explanation sounds perfectly plausible, McWhorter provides no evidence, nor any references to back it up.

Reading McWhorter’s assertions, I wondered whether he was right. Do multilinguals really feel different when switching to a language acquired later in life? Is it because they may still retain a foreign accent, or not be as fluent as the native speakers? I did not like the attribution of difference to a sense of deficit. François Grosjean and Vivian Cook have argued convincingly that it is wrong to see a multilingual functioning in an LX as a failed native speaker of that language. LX users (myself included in English) are legitimate users of the language.

A couple of years ago, I collected a large database on communicating emotions from multilinguals around the world with my friend Professor Aneta Pavlenko. It included an open question: ‘Do you feel like a different person sometimes when you use your different languages?’ which was coded according to the degree of agreement with the question.

A total of 1005 bi- and multilinguals provided feedback. This seemed like a perfect database, and opportunity, to test McWhorter’s hypothesis. An analysis of the distribution of the answers showed that close to half of the participants had answered with an unqualified “yes!” to the question, over a quarter had said “no!”, with the remaining participants having a more nuanced answer.

It turned out that feelings of difference were unrelated to age of onset of acquisition and levels of oral proficiency. In other words, participants who had started learning the LX later, and were not highly proficient in it, did not feel more or less different than those who had started earlier and felt more proficient.

A comparison of those who started learning the LX early (between birth and age 2) and late (after age 2) showed no difference in feelings of difference. Context of acquisition of the LX, the degree of multilingualism and gender were also unrelated to feelings of difference.

However, more highly educated, and older participants reported higher levels of feelings of difference. Foreign language anxiety was also positively linked with feelings of difference: those who felt more anxious in their L2 and L3 were more likely to feel different when switching to these languages. Feelings of difference seem directly or indirectly linked to personality traits (Ożańska-Ponikwia, 2013; Wilson, 2013).

Participants’ reported that their own self-perceptions did not necessarily match those of people around them. Perceptions were often presented as being dynamic, varying over time and differing between switches to specific languages.

Participants mentioned variation in both verbal and non-verbal behaviour: feeling less funny in the LX because of lack of vocabulary, being more taciturn in one language, raising voice pitch, covering the mouth, avoiding looking interlocutors in the eye, adopting a different body language, sticking to linguistic or cultural norms of the L1 to stand out in the L2 or vice versa. Some participants reported possessing different persona in their different languages.

The debate on the causes of these intriguing differences is likely to continue forever.

Find out more

References

Dewaele, J.-M. 2015. Why do so many bi- and multilinguals feel different when switching languages? International Journal of Multilingualism,http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14790718.2015.1040406

McWhorter, J. H. 2014. The Language Hoax. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ożańska-Ponikwia, K. 2013. Emotions from a Bilingual Point of View: Personality and Emotional Intelligence in Relation to Perception and Expression of Emotions in the L1 and L2. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Stavans, I. 2001. On Borrowed Words. A Memoir of Language. New York: Penguin. Wilson, R. J. 2013. Another language is another soul. Language and Intercultural Communication, DOI: 10.1080/14708477.2013.804534

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Who can control the post-superpower capitalist world order?

This post was written by Slavoj Žižek, Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities. It was originally published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site.

To know a society is not only to know its explicit rules. One must also know how to apply them: when to use them, when to violate them, when to turn down a choice that is offered, and when we are effectively obliged to do something but have to pretend we are doing it as a free choice. Consider the paradox, for instance, of offers-meant-to-be-refused. When I am invited to a restaurant by a rich uncle, we both know he will cover the bill, but I nonetheless have to lightly insist we share it – imagine my surprise if my uncle were simply to say: “OK, then, you pay it!”

There was a similar problem during the chaotic post-Soviet years of Yeltsin’s rule in Russia. Although the legal rules were known, and were largely the same as under the Soviet Union, the complex network of implicit, unwritten rules, which sustained the entire social edifice, disintegrated. In the Soviet Union, if you wanted better hospital treatment, say, or a new apartment, if you had a complaint against the authorities, were summoned to court or wanted your child to be accepted at a top school, you knew the implicit rules. You understood whom to address or bribe, and what you could or couldn’t do. After the collapse of Soviet power, one of the most frustrating aspects of daily life for ordinary people was that these unwritten rules became seriously blurred. People simply did not know how to react, how to relate to explicit legal regulations, what could be ignored, and where bribery worked. (One of the functions of organised crime was to provide a kind of ersatz legality. If you owned a small business and a customer owed you money, you turned to your mafia protector, who dealt with the problem, since the state legal system was inefficient.) The stabilisation of society under the Putin reign is largely because of the newly established transparency of these unwritten rules. Now, once again, people mostly understand the complex cobweb of social interactions.

In international politics, we have not yet reached this stage. Back in the 1990s, a silent pact regulated the relationship between the great western powers and Russia. Western states treated Russia as a great power on the condition that Russia didn’t act as one. But what if the person to whom the offer-to-be-rejected is made actually accepts it? What if Russia starts to act as a great power? A situation like this is properly catastrophic, threatening the entire existing fabric of relations – as happened five years ago in Georgia. Tired of only being treated as a superpower, Russia actually acted as one.

How did it come to this? The “American century” is over, and we have entered a period in which multiple centres of global capitalism have been forming. In the US, Europe, China and maybe Latin America, too, capitalist systems have developed with specific twists: the US stands for neoliberal capitalism, Europe for what remains of the welfare state, China for authoritarian capitalism, Latin America for populist capitalism. After the attempt by the US to impose itself as the sole superpower – the universal policeman – failed, there is now the need to establish the rules of interaction between these local centres as regards their conflicting interests.

This is why our times are potentially more dangerous than they may appear. During the cold war, the rules of international behaviour were clear, guaranteed by the Mad-ness – mutually assured destruction – of the superpowers. When the Soviet Union violated these unwritten rules by invading Afghanistan, it paid dearly for this infringement. The war in Afghanistan was the beginning of its end. Today, the old and new superpowers are testing each other, trying to impose their own version of global rules, experimenting with them through proxies – which are, of course, other, small nations and states.

Karl Popper once praised the scientific testing of hypotheses, saying that, in this way, we allow our hypotheses to die instead of us. In today’s testing, small nations get hurt and wounded instead of the big ones – first Georgia, now Ukraine. Although the official arguments are highly moral, revolving around human rights and freedoms, the nature of the game is clear. The events in Ukraine seem something like the crisis in Georgia, part two – the next stage of a geopolitical struggle for control in a nonregulated, multicentred world.

It is definitely time to teach the superpowers, old and new, some manners, but who will do it? Obviously, only a transnational entity can manage it – more than 200 years ago, Immanuel Kant saw the need for a transnational legal order grounded in the rise of the global society. In his project for perpetual peace, he wrote: “Since the narrower or wider community of the peoples of the earth has developed so far that a violation of rights in one place is felt throughout the world, the idea of a law of world citizenship is no high-flown or exaggerated notion.”

This, however, brings us to what is arguably the “principal contradiction” of the new world order (if we may use this old Maoist term): the impossibility of creating a global political order that would correspond to the global capitalist economy.

What if, for structural reasons, and not only due to empirical limitations, there cannot be a worldwide democracy or a representative world government? What if the global market economy cannot be directly organised as a global liberal democracy with worldwide elections?

Today, in our era of globalisation, we are paying the price for this “principal contradiction.” In politics, age-old fixations, and particular, substantial ethnic, religious and cultural identities, have returned with a vengeance. Our predicament today is defined by this tension: the global free circulation of commodities is accompanied by growing separations in the social sphere. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of the global market, new walls have begun emerging everywhere, separating peoples and their cultures. Perhaps the very survival of humanity depends on resolving this tension.

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YouTube justice UK style

This post was contributed by Professor Leslie Moran, of Birkbeck’s School of Law and Barbara Villez, Visiting Fellow at Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, Professor Université Paris 8

The UK Supreme Court has launched a new communications initiative.  As of late January 2013 you can watch, on demand, videos of judges in the highest court in the land delivering summaries of their judgments. Who is the audience for these five minute programmes? Is it the hard pressed smart phone/iPad generation law student, lawyer or legal advisor? No; far from it.  The Court’s press release announcing the launch of the YouTube initiative suggests the target audience is much wider. Lord Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court, is quoted expressing his hope that the videos will broaden the audience for the Court’s work. Are they the next hot internet viral sensation educating the public about the work of the highest court in the land? The short answer is ‘no way’. Are these videos a ‘must watch’ offering valuable insights into the decisions of the court? We have our doubts about that too. But they do make fascinating viewing.

The visual challenge of judicial activity

Judicial activity has been described as ‘visually challenging’. These videos do much to confirm this and do little to meet that challenge. Five minutes watching someone with their head down reading out loud from a set of papers is not great telly by any stretch of the imagination. The way the images are put together adds to this static quality, with each video being made up of two basic types of shot. Throughout, the camera’s presence is unacknowledged by the speaking figure.

There is little in the way of props or costume to attract the eye. Judges in the UK Supreme Court don’t wear special robes in court. These judges look very much like ordinary business men. There is only one female judge, Lady Hale. In contrast to this there is much to distract the ear. The microphones, built into the judicial bench, not only pick up the voice of the judge but also the endless rustle of their papers.  Coughing and other background noises regularly punctuate the proceedings. All tend to obscure the words spoken by the judge.

Adaptation from written texts

What are you going to get out of watching the highest judges in the land reading out loud? The judges, so they tell us in the videos, are ‘giving the judgement of the Court’.  But law students and other diligent viewers beware; ‘giving the judgement of the Court’ is not the actual opinion of the court. What you actually get is an image of a judge delivering a speech adapted from a press summary published on the Court’s website to accompany the judgement itself. Written initially by the judicial assistants, the judges approve these summaries and then adapt them for the ‘live’ presentation in Court. The judgment is a written text. And it is written to be read, not spoken. It is available on the Court’s website, as is the accompanying press summary.

As the videos show, the adaptation of the press summaries into scripts for a courtroom performance is problematic. Despite the rearrangements, these scripts are not easy to speak. Judges stumble over the dense text and struggle to incorporate quotations from the trial judge into oral delivery.

The videos do, however, have much to offer. You not only hear the voice of the judge but also the accent which is a marker of their social class. The folding and refolding hands of a courtroom assistant on screen behind the talking head of the judge add an unexpected physical ‘commentary’.

Television trivia?

But are many of these points indicative of the dangers of putting courts and judges on TV? Are we in danger of getting caught up in what some describe as the trivia of the moving image? Our first response is that image making and image management are central to judicial authority. As the 2008 Judicial Studies Board, Framework of Judicial Abilities and Qualities reiterates time and time again, all the core judicial abilities and skills have to be ‘demonstrated’ and communication is central to this demonstration of authority. The courtroom is one long established context in which these abilities and skills have been performed and communicated. Props, wardrobe, voice and the body all have a role to play in demonstrating and communicating judicial abilities and qualities. Video is a new communication format, context and set of challenges. It has characteristics similar to and different from both face to face courtroom encounters and the more formal and enduring qualities of the text of a written judgment.

The current YouTube videos are a return to primitive television. They are simply the result of the presence of the camera in the court. The camera appears to be no more than a tool that records an event. However as the simple editing shows, the record is subject to a degree of manipulation. The resulting image is not just mediated by the technology but has been subject to judicial control. If essential information about the judgement, the press summary and the full judgement are already available what extra is provided by these judicially approved moving images? It may well be just that there is a camera in court and that camera is a symbol of openness, transparency and a form of accountability.

But is that going to satisfy a public that lives in a culture saturated with sophisticated video imagery.  One problem with them may well be that the public is too sophisticated for primitive television. Viewers have expectations acquired from countless hours of watching complex moving images, generating high levels of visual literacy. The primitive visual aesthetics of the UK Supreme court’s YouTube videos are likely to be a real turn off. If the judges of the UK Supreme Court are going to use video available via the Internet as a means of communicating, then they may have to think harder about the moving image that it is being made and adopt a different approach to the use of the moving image as a means of communication.

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