Fastspot recently interviewed Tracey Halvorsen and Roberta Diehl, who spearheaded the 2014 redesign of Bucknell.edu, to talk about the evolution of the project, its challenges and successes, and what they’ve learned along the way.
Fastspot worked with Bucknell to redesign its website from 2013 into 2014. When the new site launched in March of 2014, it was instantly one of the most visible and most controversial websites in the always-fascinating .edu landscape. Love it or hate it, this site represents a new way of looking at navigation and user experience in higher education web design.
Fastspot recently sat down with Tracey Halvorsen and Roberta Diehl, who spearheaded the redesign at Bucknell, to talk about the evolution of the project, its challenges and successes, and what they’ve learned along the way.
How did this website redesign come about?
Roberta Well, we had had our previous site for about five years, and the landscape had changed a lot during that time. It wasn’t responsive and it just wasn’t scaling to the new display dimensions. And we wanted to build a new site that would help us with a redefinition that we were going through.
“We spent a lot of time looking around at other university sites and discovered that often, if you cover up the name of the school, they all look very much the same.”
We were in the middle of a campaign at that time, and we’d had a change in the leadership in Admissions. With the previous website, we were not trying to increase the number of applicants so much as trying to increase the number of well-fitting applicants. We had new leadership and were trying to diversify the student body more, economically, geographically…in all different ways. So that was an institutional change that was going on. The website was everybody’s first point of contact out with the public for those changes.
What stood out to you as you began to consider a new website for Bucknell?
Tracey Obviously, one of the most interesting parts of this redesign is that Fastspot had also designed the last version of the website. We knew Bucknell was probably looking for something (and someone) new and fresh and we took it as a challenge. ‘How can we critique our own work and really look at this university from a completely different perspective?’ I think we did a good job at breaking the site down and identifying where it might be limiting. We recognized places where the site had created editorial burdens for the Bucknell team. Right away we started brainstorming about new ideas and different approaches. We wanted to deliver something that wasn’t just different but was also strategically successful. And it turns out there was already a great deal of institutional support around the idea of pushing the boundaries.
During the pitch, Pete Mackey [vice president for communications and community relations at the time] said, ‘We want a site like no other .edu site. We want all the conventions to be thrown out, and we want something different.’ The president also recognized that the site had the potential to convey the innovative thinking and openness to new ideas that are a strong suit of Bucknell’s. Of course, when someone throws down a challenge like that, it’s great.
“You can’t expect an outcome to be different if you don’t change the approach.”
The Bucknell website really does break convention, which is exciting, but challenging. Roberta, what can you share about building institutional support for innovative ideas like this?
Roberta We spent a lot of time looking around at other university sites and discovered that often, if you cover up the name of the school, they all look very much the same. We heard this from the students too. We asked first-year students to tell us about their college application process, and they would describe how the websites started to blur after a while. We talked a lot about that internally. What could we do to make our website stand out and be memorable? It gets at that notion of conveying an entrepreneurial spirit, and a willingness to take risks. We wanted something that would have substance to it, but would also stand out as being fundamentally different, conveying to prospective students how you could think once you were at Bucknell, how you could behave, and how you could grow.
Within communications, we all agreed that we had to be willing to be bold. We kept presenting that idea out to larger concentric circles on campus as needed. Fastspot became involved early on in the process of course, but every time we talked to people about the site, we kept saying, ‘We want something that will still look fresh in five years. We want something that’s going to be bold enough to maybe make you uncomfortable at the beginning. And if we build a site that doesn’t make our viewers uncomfortable, we’ve failed.’ We kept saying that over and over to everybody who came into contact with us on the project, and people started to buy into it. They understood the concept of wanting to stand out in a good way and not just for shock value.
“We wanted it to feel useful and sustainable, but in a different way.”
Tracey I’m glad Roberta mentioned the notion of making everyone feel a little bit uncomfortable, because Pete and Roberta really did repeat that multiple times as part of the big mission for this project. We had many internal conversations about this. What does that mean for a website? How ‘uncomfortable’ is good, and when does it become negative? We talked about user experience and creating discomfort through a sense of ‘Wow, this doesn’t look like everything else I’ve seen. I’m gonna have to work a little bit to figure this out.’ We wanted it to feel useful and sustainable, but in a different way.
And to Roberta’s point, we did want people to ask themselves, ‘Am I someone who can be comfortable with something new? Am I someone who’s comfortable with exploring a different kind of idea?’ Because that’s the kind of student Bucknell wanted to attract, and also the kind of faculty member Bucknell was seeking to attract.
From our Process
It’s easier to say ‘We’re going to do something radical,’ than to actually do something radical. How did you come up with the concept for the website?
Tracey Well, you can’t expect an outcome to be different if you don’t change the approach. We didn’t start anything without having this in mind. During discovery, we were looking more for individual points of view than for a consensus. We wanted to grab some of those unique ideas and people and perspectives, and let that be the inspiration.
Once we started looking at information architecture we said, ‘Okay. Normally, we would do a content audit, we would look at what the site has, and then we would do an IA and match it up and find the missing areas or decide what we’re going to get rid of and what we’re going to move.’ We threw that completely out. Instead, we started with who’s coming to the site. We focused on the personas, the audiences, and their emotional states. Rather than just auditing the content from the perspective of, ‘Does it need to be refreshed? Is it easy to read?’ we tied it directly to personas and audiences. This let us completely blow up the idea of the information architecture.
Our organizing idea was, ‘What can we do to get people into this content and engaging with Bucknell with a different approach to the conversation that the site is having with the visitor?’ We came up with a whole new framework of how the site was providing information, and a lot of that is what you see on the site today.
Roberta, did it get harder or easier to convince people to get on board once this unconventional idea started to take shape?
Roberta Yes, in some ways it did get harder. Once we all started actually seeing the concept taking place, and seeing how bold it was, even the people most intimately involved in the project got a little nervous. We had to keep reminding ourselves that a certain amount of discomfort was a good thing.
To go back to Tracey’s point about changing your approach in order to change the outcomes – I wanted to mention that from the outset, we took a very different process even before we started talking to any firms about what we wanted to do. We started by doing hour-long interviews with each of the firms before we sent an RFP. This took a lot of time but was so worth it. We asked all of the questions that you normally would have asked on the RFP. We then sent the RFP to the firms that we were interested in and who were still interested in our project. So with the actual RFP, we were really trying to get at bigger questions — what kind of thinkers are they? What kind of risk-takers are they? What kind of energy are they going to bring? And that was really successful! We’d gotten so much farther by the time we sent out the RFP, so we didn't get any standardized responses.
Another part of the project that we were able to get people behind was the idea of the two audiences: the one who’s coming to explore and the one who knows what they’re looking for. There’s always such a struggle with a university site, trying to make it work for parents, alumni, donors, students and faculty. It’s easy to end up with a very watered-down site. Taking a different approach really allowed us to come out with a product that was indeed different and fresh.
Tracey I think the other fun part about this project from a creative perspective was that the two designs that weren’t chosen had very, very different ideas of a narrative, story-based approach. We really did throw three very different concepts at the Bucknell team. All three had strategies that we felt could result in exciting new websites. It was important for us that everyone was attracted to one particular approach so that we could all work together to make it as good as possible.
“So with the actual RFP, we were really trying to get at bigger questions — what kind of thinkers are they? What kind of risk-takers are they? What kind of energy are they going to bring? And that was really successful!”
“We really did throw three very different concepts at the Bucknell team. All three had strategies that we felt could result in exciting new websites.”
The Bucknell website certainly made a splash in the .edu space. How was it received on campus?
Roberta Well, the students barely responded. They just started using the new website. They were remarkably adaptable. When people are upset with a website, they let you know. When they can figure out how to use it, you don’t usually hear from them. We had some faculty and staff who weren't crazy about the changes. But for the most part, they either told us they loved it, or they just took some time to learn how to navigate the new site. When you get that kind of silence from the people that work at your institution or your organization, that’s good. That means they can still find what they’re looking for.
We did have a small number of very vocal complaints. These complaints came from parents of current students and alumni. Maybe a total of a dozen contacted us and said, ‘What have you done? Give me back the old site!’ And this goes back to that idea that, ‘If we haven’t done something to make you uncomfortable, we’ve failed.’ Those people were so vehement that we knew we had struck a chord. The site mattered to them, the school mattered to them, and getting their business done mattered to them. Even though they were angry, they cared enough to reach out. I did a lot of listening, and in the arc of those conversations they would say, ‘I really appreciate you taking the time to listen. I know I’m not your target audience. I bet your students love this, and thanks for listening to me.’
Tracey There’s never going be a situation where feedback is going to be unanimously 100% positive. We were prepared to experience both the highs and the lows of extreme reaction to something new. I think when you put something that’s really truly different out there, you know you’ve succeeded if people care enough to love it or hate it. Otherwise, you’ve just put a gimmicky spin on the same old thing and everyone can just see that you’re trying to get some attention. So I was prepared for some strong reactions to not all be positive. We really appreciated having the time post-launch to listen to the feed back and determine what was important and what could be adjusted accordingly.
Would you like to comment on the reaction to the site from people outside the Bucknell community?
Tracey This is probably the most talked-about project in the EDU space that we’ve ever done. Everyone says they want innovation and they want to be forward-thinking and explore new things, but it’s very hard to get a large group of people to agree to that. It’s uncomfortable! In terms of the critique that was out there initially, I found it interesting that most of the negative critique was that the site was breaking convention. Just the act of not doing the norm was seen as a negative by certain voices in the field. But again, we really just tried to pay attention to the target audiences and their reactions to it. We kept it all in perspective.
“Bucknell had a 38% increase in applications the next fall after the launch of that site, which is phenomenal. There were of course other things at play, but this site was definitely a part of it.”
And with that in mind, let’s talk about results! Has it done what it should do?
Roberta Definitely. Fastspot won two awards for the site. Not too shabby! Bucknell had a 38% increase in applications the next fall after the launch of that site, which is phenomenal. There were of course other things at play, but this site was definitely a part of it. If the site had failed in some of the ways that the initial naysayers had gotten all up-in-arms about, we would have seen your typical number of applicants or a very small increase or no increase. The 38% increase was enormous! The site intrigued people, it caught their attention in a good way. That’s our target audience, that’s the future of the University, that’s the core of it. The site is continuing to bring in that new talent and those new students.
In terms of the traffic to the site itself, the average time spent on all of the main pages went up significantly and so did the number of people who stayed with the site instead of leaving after one page. The stickiness of the site went up significantly. In that light, I think we were right on target, and Bucknell saw really measurable, great results.
Is there anything that you would change or anything that you learned that you would apply in a different way?
Tracey I would say that if you’re going do something really different and you don’t have convention to rely on in terms of usability and user experience, you should boil in more time for post-launch revisions and post-launch work. When you’re working with something that’s a big change, you really can’t test accurately within a small framework. Once it’s out in the world and being used, the data becomes a lot more interesting. So in retrospect, I would have planned for a built-in, major moment where we evaluate the site, dig into the analytics, and take the time to adjust if and where we need to. I don’t think it was necessary, but we had a lot of ‘What if we did that?’ moments. It’s would be have been nice to build in more room to react.
Roberta I agree! I also think at the start of a website redesign, it would be really helpful if you could assess at the very beginning, ‘What are the editorial burdens of our current design?’ We should surface those at the beginning of the project. Otherwise, you just end up with a different set of editorial burdens. So I would say, lesson learned: at the start of the project, assess the editorial burdens of your current site no matter where you are now to help you get your bearings for the new one.
One other ‘lesson learned’ - though I don’t know how many times I’ll have to go through this until I find a solution to it - when you get to the point of a project where you’re actually migrating your site from your old design into the new framework, somehow that part of the project is always so much more time consuming than anticipated. I want to learn a way to build more time into that.
Tracey The Bucknell project allowed us — even required us — to try new things. That’s a great engagement. We can really flex our creative muscles and our strategic brainstorming muscles on a project like this, and we love doing that. It takes us to new places. This was such a fun project to work on for all of those reasons. If every project could be as challenging and as rewarding as the Bucknell project, there would be a lot less aspirin consumed in this office. Or maybe a few more, I don’t know!
“The site intrigued people, it caught their attention in a good way. That’s our target audience, that’s the future of the University, that’s the core of it.”