In his book, “Rocket Surgery Made Easy,” Steve Krug promotes an excellent “do-it-yourself” approach to finding (and fixing) website usability problems. While he recommends hiring professionals for evaluation, he also admits few can afford that luxury and, instead, provides tips for simple user testing that most anyone can perform to expose problems.
Krug’s type of informal, do-it-yourself tests are definitely qualitative in the sense that they cannot prove anything, nor are they used to gather data. Rather, they involve observations of tasks being carried out by the test participants while they think out loud. Krug suggests this simple approach works because most serious problems tend to be easily identified and because watching users improves the designer’s skills and intuition.
Even if you’ve never done user testing in the past, you should consider performing this type of checkup periodically to gain insights for improvement. Some website owners are reluctant because their production schedule is too tight for this “extra” step, or maybe they are hesitant to reveal their work before it’s finished—after all, “Why expose problems we already know about?” Maybe you feel as though you lack experience, don’t have a large enough test pool, or can rely on Google Analytics (GA) to tell the story. But one participant is really all you need, and data from GA can’t tell you why users do what they do.
Even if you don’t have firsthand experience with testing, it can be a valuable exercise that saves you time later on. It doesn’t have to be a big production, but chances are, you’ll be surprised at what you uncover. You can start small—just get started!
In the 2012 edition of the “Voice of the Student Report” by IntelliResponse, we discover some of the trending questions and areas of interest that occupy the minds of today’s prospective students.
Questions about campus life, how classes are structured, extracurricular activities, and key academic focus are all of primary importance to this group. Although insights into the inner workings of potential target schools (including academic requirements for acceptance) are key, many students still feel uninformed when it comes to the processes involved in applying and gaining acceptance to a prospective school. These findings speak loudly to the importance of managing the student experience in terms of recruitment, and it’s likely that you can make improvements when it comes to providing the right information during the college search and application process.
Top 10 Questions (asked by prospective students)
- What majors or academic programs do you offer?
- What are your admission requirements?
- How much is tuition?
- How do I apply?
- When is the application deadline?
- What are your ACT/SAT requirements?
- Do you have an Academic Calendar?
- How do I apply as a transfer student?
- How do I contact a student, staff member, or department?
- What is the status of my application?
As you plan your information architecture, be sure to address the questions students are asking. An online experience that is smooth and efficient largely depends on the ability to find the instant, accurate answers they’re looking for.
Recently, a few users have been inquiring about embedded hyperlinks and how they should be used. In addition to navigational links that connect pages within a site, authors often use embedded links to offer parallel material they believe will enrich the page’s content. While embedded links often fulfill that goal, poor placement or overuse can be distracting and disruptive. Fundamentally, embedded hyperlinks disrupt the flow of content by encouraging the reader to leave the page, but they can also change the context of information by taking the reader to an unfamiliar destination without warning.
According to Lynch and Horton of the Web Style Guide, “The primary design strategy in thoughtful hypertext is to use links to reinforce your message, not to distract users or send them off chasing a minor footnote in some other website.” If you must lead your readers away, make it clear that they will be leaving your site. Most of the time, however, illustrative or parenthetical material can be placed at the bottom of the page, where it is helpful but not distracting.
While we have visited the topic of descriptive links in earlier posts, the need for links that use clear and meaningful text can never be overemphasized. When addressing “information scent,” I chose the oft-used phrase “Click Here” as an example of text that not only lacks description but promotes the outdated assumption that all users are “clicking” the link. The argument against its use is bolstered even more when you consider that “click here” contributes nothing to search engine optimization since search engines consider the relevance of linked text when ranking the page.
The bottom line is that hyperlinks, whether embedded or part of a navigation menu, are more than just words and deserve special consideration. At the same time, stay up-to-date with your content and don’t allow it to become stale. Nothing chases away readers more quickly than pages full of broken links.
12. It allows you to share assets, i.e., “borrow” information from other sites (PDF documents, images, etc.), and make updates in one place.
11. Your pages will look good on tablet and mobile devices as well as desktop computers (using responsive design).
10. The “portable” system can be accessed from any browser with an Internet connection; no special software is required.
9. Good development support means that extra features can be built as needed/requested.
8. The CMS is SEO-friendly, with modules that optimize the use the title tags, alt tags, etc.
7. You’ll have a broad group of colleagues to share knowledge and offer support.
6. Our ready-made templates take the guesswork out of structuring pages.
5. It’s easy to enhance/enrich your site with built-in widgets for slideshows, video, etc.
4. It allows for broader visitor tracking with Google Analytics across sites on campus.
3. Your site will further the Miami brand without even trying!
2. A WYSIWYG editor makes authoring easy for people of all skills levels.
1. Finally, ease of use means that the time you save can now be spent cleaning out your Inbox!
Since our website launch last week, we have been busy fixing, adding, tweaking–addressing issues as they surface and weighing concerns that are otherwise brought to our attention. We have a ways to go in perfecting functionality, but recognizing that it is very much a work in progress, we remain optimistic and confident that our development team is up to the task.
After meeting with UCM on Tuesday, Admission is now working to review their content in earnest. Movement to a new system represents a good opportunity to identify just what information you currently provide and to uncover the old, abandoned content that you’ve long forgotten about. Once the Admission team constructs a rough outline of the content they want to use going forward, we will follow up to determine authoring needs, provide layout suggestions, and construct a new architecture together.
We continue to invite your feedback—good and bad. Writing the webmaster at email@example.com is a good way to communicate your questions and comments, and we will respond as quickly as possible. Again, we say “Thank You” for your patience and understanding during this time of change.
Wednesday night marked our new CMS debut—and we hope you like what you see! We are generally satisfied with the results to date, although we are by no means finished! Much work is still ahead. Now that our first “soft” launch has passed, we will continue to refine the published site as well as begin our migration of the News and Admission sites.
Of course, many are wondering what comes next and when their sites will be targeted for migration. We have crafted some new FAQs to address your questions at this point in the project. (See navigation bar above.) We thank you for your patience and ask that you follow our recommendations outlined within those answers.
As our first launch nears, concerns have been raised about expectations that templates will be readily available for updating the look of current websites. It is imperative that only sites migrated to the new CMS reflect the new template designs. In the past, site owners have copied elements from the new template to reconstruct pages for use in their current sites. Trying to “retrofit” the new Cascade CMS design to house current content without first migrating to the new system will only create further complexities and delays down the road, and we cannot support technology issues that might occur in the attempt.
In efforts to update your site, we recommend that you prepare for migration by performing a content analysis. This review will uncover content that is redundant, out-of-date, and/or trivial and can be expunged from your site. Since sites can quickly and easily grow to thousands of pages, it is important to take this kind of inventory, considering every page that you might otherwise waste time copying into your migrated site.
Once you have completed this important phase, you should plan to attend one (or more!) of our CMS workshops to be held every other week, starting in July. There is plenty to learn even before you are granted access to the system, such as how to do the following:
- Write for the web and create SEO-friendly content
- Map your content to available page types, modules, and other features
- Prepare your images for page banners, modules/widgets, etc.
- Ensure site compliance with ADA guidelines (which include video captioning and PDF accessibility)
A lot is happening in rapid succession, and our launch is just a few days away! In our next post, we will discuss the criteria used to prioritize sites for migration.
We are now about two weeks from “going live” and working diligently to ensure a smooth launch. Yesterday afternoon, the web team was invited to share progress with the President’s Executive Cabinet. Page designs were shown as well as spreadsheets outlining pages to be migrated for launch, which include 50+ top-level pages and several within the SCA pilot site. We are grateful for the PEC’s commitment and support of the website redesign and are optimistic about the upward direction Miami web communications is headed!
Our SCA training was followed up with workshops last week, and we are encouraged by the work we’ve seen so far. Our new users have been patient with us as we continue to work out kinks in the system, and we are hoping their reward will come with the final “reveal”! Their feedback has been essential to making this an even smoother process for the rest of the campus community.
While we expect more discussion on the matter, we are currently advising users to make sure that any video they intend to feature includes closed-captioning. This requirement reflects a necessary component of 508 compliance, and while we want to adhere to guidelines, we also want to send a message about our commitment to inclusion. The “wheels are turning” to determine what is required by law and then hone directives that we can disseminate campus-wide. A series of meetings and inquires are taking place, and we hope to be able to provide some recommendations soon.
What You Can Do
Considering how much students rely on websites in their college search, keeping your content up to date is critical. Also, feel free to review our January posts that cover some content fundamentals, including how to conduct a content analysis and how to determine your site’s organizational structure. As many have already discovered, these preliminary steps are time-consuming but make migration a quicker process and ultimately yield a more satisfactory result!
Even though the official training of SCA staff is behind us, we are working diligently with developers from mStoner and IT Services to “smooth out the wrinkles” in the new system. In addition to getting the staging server up and running, we are finalizing styles, fine-tuning functionality, and gaining proficiency with some of the more advanced features–all in preparation for our SCA workshops next week.
We are also working to establish and implement a sustainable support model that includes regularly scheduled training sessions, which will start up this summer in King Library. Every other week, we will be training new CMS users as well as inviting current users to attend for a refresher course, consult with their peers, or simply drop by with a quick question. These sessions will actually be designed more as workshops, intended to provide hands-on assistance within a comfortable atmosphere that fosters collaboration as well as learning. The ultimate goal is a CMS community that facilitates partnership across all departments/offices on campus.
While SCA sites are being migrated for April’s launch, mStoner is wrapping up the building phase of the Admission and News templates. Before we know it, migration will begin for those groups as well. It looks like we’re going to have plenty to keep us busy in the foreseeable future!
We’ve had a fruitful week with our SCA pilot group. The first round of training has been a process of discovery for all of us, but the web team is feeling optimistic about the project, and we trust the trainees are sharing our outlook! Although a wide range of skill sets were represented, we were encouraged by everyone’s interest and eagerness to learn. We are confident that once these users begin building in the system, they will progress quickly; we are planning a series of workshops in the next few weeks to provide further support and ensure that the School is ready for launch.
In addition to the web writing guidelines referred to in the last post, the trainees are now equipped with a beginner’s “Content Editor Guide,” which orients users to the system and offers instructions on such tasks as creating a page and building the navigation. They were also provided with the first draft of our Web Style Guide (PDF 78KB), which contains a few basic rules of punctuation in addition to recommendations for term usage.
While we continue to teach our pilot group how to use the CMS, we are grateful for what those new users are teaching us! We recognize that much of our supporting documentation is rudimentary at this point, but our observations and the feedback we receive will help us establish a more targeted training process and continually expand and refine our materials. These improvements, in turn, will be a tremendous benefit to the CMS users who follow! Thus, as we embark on this adventure together, we appreciate your patience and look forward to a long and successful partnership!