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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Enhancing content on the Birkbeck website

Birkbeck’s Digital Editor Angela Ashby discusses how the web team are working to improve the quality of the College’s website.

Photo credit: Paul Cochrane

The digital content team in External Relations (ER) had a quandary: with a large and growing website, multiple contributors, and not enough resources to keep eyes on every page, how could we possibly monitor and maintain the quality of the website? We expected there to be broken links, which are inevitable over time, and we had created and published a style guide to keep our content consistent, but we needed both a big-picture view of the site and a way to focus our attention in order to make best use of our time.

Sitemorse

With the help of our technical colleagues in Corporate Information and Web Systems (CIWS), we explored various solutions and agreed that an online governance tool called Sitemorse would meet our needs best.

Sitemorse sends us monthly reports that pinpoint various aspects of pages that need attention and score us on issues falling into themes such as accessibility, function/links, search engine optimisation (SEO) and metadata (descriptive page tags). Sitemorse has also allowed us to build in rules that tell us when our pages don’t follow our own style guide and shows us where and how the content can be improved. These rules include decisions on abbreviations, email and phone format, italics, ampersands and link text.

Each new Sitemorse report shows our scores and ranking clearly improving for the pages that we’ve worked on. For instance, the Student Services area went from 5.7 out of 10 in December 2017 to 6.4 in January 2018. It’s a slow process, as each error needs to be individually corrected, but in the last four months, we’ve already fixed over 1000 broken links. It is still early days, but we will watch with interest to see whether errors approach zero over the long term. Our goal is to bring each section to at least a score of 7.0 out of 10.

Web maintainers meetings and Yammer

If you are the only person in your department working as a web maintainer, it’s possible to feel isolated. You are definitely not alone, though – there are at least 30 web maintainers working within Birkbeck, and we saw a need to create a community so that web maintainers feel part of a wider team, with common goals.

Our first step was to invite all web maintainers from around the College (including our Moodle colleagues) to meet every two months as a group. At meetings, the central web team shares details of projects and progress and encourages all web maintainers to raise any issues or queries, and to share their own best practice.

This inclusive approach is continued via an enterprise networking tool called Yammer. All web maintainers are encouraged to join the ‘Web support’ group, and any posted queries and requests for edits are dealt with by the relevant members of the central digital team in a way that benefits the whole community.

Another way that the central digital team extends its support to web maintainers is to invite anyone working on particular web projects to come and ‘hotdesk’ in ER, where we can offer more personalised support and collaboration.

Contact Jane Van de Ban if you’re a web maintainer and you’d like to join the group.

Fix-it Friday

The ER digital content team receives dozens of requests each week from around the College to update content on various web pages. Since our May 2017 go-live for the central pages, we’ve completed more than 200 separate pieces of work. This is in addition to the intensive improvement work we carried out on programme and module pages last year.

In order to fit this ‘quick-fix’ work in with our longer-term ongoing projects, we have initiated ‘Fix-it Friday’, where we schedule in requests that have come to us during the week. We can almost always complete small pieces of work on the next available Friday. If a request involves a larger project, such as a new set of pages, then we can discuss with the project owner how to prioritise the work over a longer period.

We prefer to receive work requests via Yammer, as it’s possible for emails to be overlooked during staff absences. To join Yammer, log in to Office 365, find the Yammer app and select to open it. Search for the ‘Web support’ group and click join. We’ll approve your request.

Training in 2018

So far, the newly designed central web pages have been maintained by the digital content team in ER. This is because we are planning briefings and a comprehensive training programme to ensure that web maintainers have the tools and the confidence to update pages in the new template. Once staff members have completed the training, they will be able to edit and maintain pages, with ongoing support from the content team.

Current and future projects

We are currently working with schools and departments, via a new Web Working Group, to scope and plan requirements for the improvement of department pages, in particular, the very important staff profile pages. We are also planning the improvement and migration of professional service pages to the new web design, beginning with Estates and Facilities, IT services and the library, with HR and the Registry Office to follow.

Like all the improvements made so far, these projects are focusing on users, the questions they need answers to and the journeys they want to make at Birkbeck. We continue to base our work and decisions on evidence and user-testing, adjusting our approach as necessary.

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Launching Birkbeck’s Event Toolkit

Birkbeck staff Siobhan Morris and Lucy Tallentire discuss the new Event Toolkit – a new resource to advise Birkbeck staff and students in organising, promoting and evaluating events. This toolkit will complement the work of the events team, who will continue to organise College-wide events.

Events, Communications, Public Engagement, and Impact staff from across the College have recently designed and created an Event Toolkit to offer general advice for all kinds of events, from conferences and academic workshops, to memorial dinners and book launches. This toolkit will complement the work of the events team, who will continue to organise College-wide events. It has been designed primarily for staff at Birkbeck to provide them with a practical resource to help run a successful event from start to finish, however, the toolkit may also be useful for postgraduate students and interns.

The toolkit is comprised of six sections, each providing a wealth of guidance, top tips and resources for planning, organising, and evaluating an event.

The sections focus on the following key areas: Why and Who, Logistics, Event Promotion, and Evaluation. In addition, the toolkit features a series of case studies designed to showcase best practice, as well as indicate potential challenges that may arise during the planning or delivery of an event. A list of Resources and Contacts is also included, providing evaluation templates, details of key contacts within the College, and links to further information.

More information on the toolkit’s content and layout is available in the video below:

The Event Toolkit team have been delighted with how the resource has been received so far, with comments noting that the toolkit is a ‘fantastic resource, it’s so comprehensive’ and that it contains ‘loads of information but it can be dipped in and out of’.

The toolkit will continue to be reviewed and updated periodically in order to ensure that the information provided remains accurate and up to date. We therefore welcome any feedback, suggestions or comments that you may have. Please get in touch with us through the feedback form in our Contacts section of the website. We hope you enjoy exploring the toolkit!

Explore the Event Toolkit here: http://www.bbk.ac.uk/staff-information/event-toolkit

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The changing role of Birkbeck’s website homepage

Jane Van de Ban, Web Content Manager for Birkbeck, gives insight into the functionality and strategic design behind our new homepage. Read part one and part two in our blog series about the redesign project.

We launched the new Birkbeck website six months ago and, since that time, one of the areas that has sparked a lot of conversation is the homepage – the ‘bbk.ac.uk‘ page that traditionally would have functioned as our ‘virtual’ front door.

Colleagues from across the College have been very curious about the changes that have been made to the homepage – and rightly so. Along with a lot of very positive responses – about the modern design, clear navigation and sense of purpose for both recruitment and research – some concern has also been expressed. This is understandable – we have made a drastic change from what went before.

So I thought it would be worth dedicating this latest edition of our series of blog posts about Birkbeck’s digital transformation project, to exploring this subject in a little more depth, explaining the evidence and rationale behind the design route we have taken.

The concerns that colleagues on our campus have expressed largely cluster around three issues: long pages; use of large images; and the loss of the carousel – a filmstrip of images that you can click through.

The ‘above the fold’ myth
Some people are worried that the introduction of long pages on content might put off visitors, who they imagine do not want to scroll down a lengthy page. This concern is sometimes expressed as ‘our content needs to be above the fold’.

There is a persistent, outdated belief that all of our most useful content needs to be available ‘above the fold’ on the homepage or people simply won’t find it. Some folk imagine that web users won’t scroll. This was certainly the case in the 20th century when mass web use was in its infancy (and on desktops), but is no longer true.

The term ‘above the fold’ comes from the world of printing presses and ink, where newspapers ensured their best story was featured on the top half of the paper so, when folded in half for the newsstand, the front-page lead story could easily be seen by passersby.  This concept carried over to the web, where people equated the bottom edge of their browser window to the fold in a newspaper. Some colleagues are worried that, a bit like those newsstand customers, web visitors will simply scan the headline and, if not presented with every key messages at a glance, they will walk on by.

This certainly used to be the case, but the web and how people use and interact with it has changed dramatically with the rise of mobile.

  1. The fold has moved – different devices have different viewing screens, and the ‘fold’ on my desktop is not the same as the ‘fold’ on my iPhone. Nor is it the same as the fold on my colleague’s Android phone or the fold on another colleague’s iPad. The relevance of the ‘fold’ as a strict guide for web design – and the injunction to ensure your most important content is above it – faded at the point at which people regularly started using devices other than their computers to access the internet (last year, visitors used more than 6000 different devices to access our website). This doesn’t mean the fold is entirely irrelevant, but it does mean web design in relation to it has had to change.
  2. Scrolling is now normal web behaviour. In the 90s, scrolling was not normal for web users and websites lacked the sophistication of functionality available today.

Here’s what the Birkbeck website looked like in January 1999.
At that time, we didn’t ask people to scroll, but our website was tiny and not even the place most people turned to find out about us. Imagine this – Google was only founded in 1998! Like many other websites in the 90s, it mostly comprised text that was uncomfortable to read on screen.

Now, thanks to the proliferation of devices with small screens that people use to access the web, along with advances in readable screen technology and the advent of social media channels that require you to scan lots of content, people have not only learned how to scroll and read online, but scrolling has become the norm. This means we no longer have to put all of our most important information above the fold – indeed, we’re no longer expected to – which means we can be more flexible when it comes to homepage design.

Where did the carousel go?
Since we launched the new homepage, some people have mourned the loss of the carousel – the sliding set of images that used to adorn the top of the homepage. They are concerned that, with the loss of the carousel, we no longer convey the unique character of Birkbeck at a glance.

When we were working with Pentagram, our design agency, to develop our new homepage, we had long discussions about whether the carousel should stay or go: we were initially resistant to the idea of losing it. After all, it was an efficient way to showcase lots of information about Birkbeck in one space, wasn’t it? Actually, no it wasn’t.

It turns out that web carousels aren’t working for website users, but internal audiences love them. So, while we thought people were finding out all about Birkbeck from the rotating images and messages in the carousel, in fact, our visitors weren’t interested at all: they did not always see them; scrolled past them; went straight to our course finder; or noticed just one image and followed that link. Our carousel was giving us a false sense of security and, as a result, we were not working hard enough to ensure our visitors understood what Birkbeck was about.

This chimed with findings from our customer journey mapping research, where students told us that, even though they trawled our website enthusiastically (some of them claimed to have visited ‘hundreds of times’), they weren’t necessarily aware of our core offering or our ‘unique selling points’, in marketing parlance.

For example, some did not realise we offered evening teaching as the norm: they thought it was just an option and that we were a daytime university. Nor did they realise how well respected we are for our research, both nationally and internationally. Or that our NSS results can really shine. Our researchers told us that we ‘hide our light under a bushel’ and we absolutely needed to do more to share our unique characteristics and our successes with our web visitors, the majority of whom only ever engage with us online.

Our new homepage design

When we commissioned Pentagram to come up with a new web design with and for us, based on our new visual ID, we knew we wanted to showcase Birkbeck effectively. We knew – because Birkbeck staff and students told us – that the Birkbeck website didn’t work for our visitors as well as it might and that it looked dated and staid.

Pentagram took time to understand our objectives, our concerns and the feedback we had received from staff and students before devising this list of design principles to inform our new web design:

  1. Simplify and clear away clutter
  2. Push up content and reduce steps
  3. Connect content and surface a story on every page
  4. Create hierarchy
  5. Don’t be afraid of long pages

We know that people don’t read every word on our homepage – in fact, not everyone sees our homepage but goes straight to a particular page as directed by a search result. But if our visitors do choose to travel down it (and a lot of them do), they will encounter a number of elements that tell them more about the type of institution Birkbeck is:

  • Hero image: this is the big image that loads whenever someone visits our homepage. We have deliberately chosen an image that is both large and striking, because we know this is one way to attract the attention of our visitors and, yes, encourage them to explore. But it isn’t just the size and quality of the image – this image also conveys something about Birkbeck, buttressed by the message ‘Join London’s evening university and transform your life’. And now that we have one image to grab people’s attention, we make sure it works hard. (For example, one of our previous images – a bus driving past the SSHP buildings in Russell Square – tells people that we are in the heart of historical London.)
  • A prominent course finder: we have emblazoned our course search across our homepage, after the hero image. Why? Because the art of a successful homepage is to enable visitors to get to where they want to go, quickly. In the last academic year, people pulled up our course information 6m times, so we know this is important to them. Our course finder makes it quick and easy for them to find our course information – and by including all the level options, they can see that our courses span the breadth of higher education offerings.
  • Research stories embedded across our site: We are proud of Birkbeck’s research profile and know how important it is to Birkbeck staff that we tell people about it. To help us share our research stories more widely, we have embedded news, events and blogs/podcasts on all of our landing pages – not just our homepage – including our course listings. This means our research information – which comprises the bulk of these channels – is accessible almost anywhere people travel on the redesigned pages – and by showcasing our research through these different channels, we are giving people loads of ways to engage with it.
  • Obvious USPs: no more hiding our light under a bushel. Our new image-based ‘statement tiles’ give us the chance to tell visitors about Birkbeck and what makes us unique. On our homepage, for example, we tell people that ‘Birkbeck is different: our classes are held in the evening so you can fit study into your life and build your future’. But this isn’t the only message on our site (because we know that our homepage isn’t the only place people look for information about us) – on our ‘About us’ landing page, we tell visitors that Birkbeck is ‘A leading research university and vibrant learning community’; and so on. If someone engages with our website, they should be in no doubt that we are a unique evening teaching institution with a world-class research reputation, and our statement tiles are designed to reinforce this message.

But that’s not all. In addition to these elements, you will find that we offer routes to destinations across our site through large visual signposts; that accessibility is at the heart of our design and our Reciteme bar means all visitors can access our information more easily; and that our redeveloped pages are responsive, which means they change, depending on the size of the browser you are using to access them, in order to provide an optimal browsing experience.

Is our homepage working the way we wanted?

Two of the objective set for Stage 1 of the Digital Transformation Project were to:

  1. Support student recruitment by making it easier for prospective students to navigate our site.
  2. Better promote our research.

Since the new pages and design went live on 16 May, we have seen a number of results that suggest that we are meeting these objectives. For example, compared to the period immediately before the go-live, prospectus requests have gone up 200%, Open Evening registrations 70% and applications 50%. And we’ve seen a 130% increase in views of our research content.

Of course, we know these results aren’t solely due to the work we did on the web, as these objectives are shared by colleagues across the college, and we work collectively to achieve them. However, we can at the very least be reassured that our website is helping us to meet these objectives and, as we track user engagement with our site (through user testing and the use of online tools like Hotjar), we can see that it is now easier than ever for our users to find the content they need to decide to study with us – and we can also see that they are engaging with our content in the way that we hoped (watch this video of someone reading our home page).

It’s early days and there’s still a lot to do and a lot to learn – but the work undertaken so far has greatly improved the website for our users and who are now able to quickly and efficently find out about Birkbeck and what we offer.

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Birkbeck’s Digital Transformation Project

Ben Winyard, Digital Publications Officer at Birkbeck, discusses Stage One of our online redesign.

Stage one of Birkbeck’s ambitious Digital Transformation Project went live on 16 May 2017, with the launch of a bold new design and layout for our homepage, corporate site and online prospectus. Since then, External Relations and the ITS Web Team have busily continued with improvements that, while less dramatic in terms of immediate, aesthetic impact, are just as important for bettering the user experience, optimising the accessibility of our website for all users, and making sure visitors can get the information they want quickly and easily.

A core principle of the Digital Transformation Project is that our decisions should be evidence-based and user-focused. In pursuit of this goal, we regularly test users’ responses to our website. Since February 2017, we have run around 50 user testing sessions, which covered the pre-launch, launch and post-launch phases of stage one. Some initial changes we made as a result of user feedback were adjustments to styling and making information clearer and easier to find.

During the June user testing sessions, we looked at how users search for courses and judge their quality, using Google, UCAS, and other comparison and rating sites. As a result, we implemented improvements to usability on our online prospectus, including: rewording and redesigning buttons and signposts; adding links to other available years of entry and to other versions of the same course (‘Related courses’); retitling fields to make browsing easier; and adding career destinations information (pulled from Unistats) to all of our full-time undergraduate courses.

As well as identifying usability issues, regular user testing is also increasing our understanding of how people use our website, which informs future developments. This feedback is proving vital for the next part of the Digital Transformation Project, which is focused on improving our site and course search. We know that the majority of our visitors come to us via Google. But we have learned that an increasing number of visitors – especially younger users – primarily navigate our site via internal course and site search, or externally through Google, rather than using our menus. This makes it even more pressing to ensure our search facility is the best it can be, which is one of our primary aims for the immediate future. User testing sessions in August concentrated on course and site search; they confirmed that improvement is needed and provided vital information on how users expect a search facility to work on a university website.

We are also looking at how students use school/department content on the Birkbeck website and how this content fits into the user journey. This is with a view to launching a project to bring our school/department content into the new visual identity and web design, which will also include rationalising and improving content and navigation, in order to enhance the user experience and ensure all of our users can find the information they need.

In External Relations, our focus so far has been on improving our online prospectus, the most visited and the most important part of our entire website. Depending on the time of year, our online prospectus can total well over 4000 pages, each with its own unique content and each playing a vital role in telling prospective students about Birkbeck and encouraging them to apply. Improving our online prospectus has two strands: rewriting descriptive text for our courses and improving all of the modules that are currently available for undergraduate and postgraduate students. In both instances, we have been applying our new house style and polishing content to make our course and module descriptions accurate and engaging. Our primary aim with any online course description is to grab the reader’s attention and let them know about what is unique, interesting and exciting about the course and about Birkbeck.

An example of a programme page in our new design.

On our programme pages, we have focused attention on the overview, highlights and course structure fields. We know from heat maps and analytics that these are the most visited parts of every programme page, so we wanted to dedicate time and attention to making this text really sing. It’s important to us that we do justice to the intellectually stimulating content of our courses, to the dedicated, world-leading academics who teach them, and to the life-changing opportunities offered by Birkbeck’s unique model of evening study. We have also been working hard with colleagues to ensure our online course pages are compliant with new legal requirements from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). These changes will increase the usefulness of our online prospectus by presenting important information on student contact hours, independent learning, learning development and support, and how students are taught and assessed across Birkbeck.

Our module improvement project has one primary focus: ensuring that every available module at Birkbeck is part of our online prospectus and includes rich, appealingly written descriptive text that adheres to our new house style. We have been working closely with our colleagues across Birkbeck’s five schools to source content and have updated and improved around 200 modules so far.

So, what difference has our redesign made, in terms of the number and quality of visits? An important measure of improvement and quality is the increased amount of time people are spending on our site; visitors spend longer engaging with the improved content and are finding it easier to navigate between different areas. There has also been an increase in the number of returning visitors, so we know that people are coming back to us.

Our online prospectus remains the focus of most visitors’ attention and continues to attract the highest interest. User testing and analytics reveal that, for many visitors, our course pages are their first interaction with Birkbeck, so one of our primary aims with the new web design has been to convert each of our online course pages into a ‘mini-homepage’, with links to news, events and research across Birkbeck and to vital information, such as financial support, student services and accommodation. To this end, we added tertiary signposts to every programme page and we are now seeing that people use our course pages as their main entry route into, and the jumping-off point to, other parts of the Birkbeck website. Other parts of our site have been dramatically upgraded: there are far fewer pages and we have consolidated information in one place and converted old information into downloadable documents, where appropriate. This has led to a significant increase in engagement: visitors are now spending more time on these pages and going through the information more thoroughly, because it’s all in one place and easily navigable.

Meanwhile, we have instituted a regular weekly maintenance slot, during which three web editors in External Relations make requested changes to all areas of our new site. Since May, we have implemented hundreds of such requests, all with the purpose of improving the accuracy and helpfulness of our content.

We have also developed an entirely new Digital Standards area on our website, which provides advice, information and support to all Birkbeck staff who need to convey information online. You can read our house style guide, find out about search engine optimisation, get practical information on links, files and redirects, and learn more about our visual identity and our social media guidelines. We are working hard to supplement this online support with bespoke face-to-face training, which we are in the process of developing. We have also begun using new software that identifies accessibility, content and coding issues across our site, which is greatly helping us continually maintain and improve the new site.

We have a series of ‘conversion goals’ on our website, whereby a user’s visit is translated into an action. We primarily want visitors to: order a prospectus; or book an Open Evening; or submit an application to study. We have seen a dramatic increase in these since we launched the new website, so it is pleasing to see that our work continues to support and advance the primary objectives of the Digital Transformation Project.

 

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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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