It's not everyday that a client asks you to really challenge them and to create something that's never been seen before in the competitive market. It's particularly rare in the .edu world of higher education websites.

How important is a website to a college or a university? I'd say, critical, as in, life or death. I'm not making that up, I'm basing it on hundreds of focus groups over the years with young people who increasingly state that a bad experience on a website can get a college wiped right off the list of schools they are applying to. Harsh, but true.

Today's savvy website users expect perfection, eloquence, engagement, authenticity and flawless craftsmanship - or they are on to the next site, likely to never return. And to make matters worse, this all is probably happening in less than 15 seconds.

As Tony Haile, CEO of Chartbeat (an analytics and data company) so correctly pointed out in his recent TIME article, "A web where quality makes money and great design is rewarded? That’s something worth paying attention to."

Things are changing on the web, and today it's all about creating quality content.

A website is never complete, for better or worse. And it makes no sense to throw hundreds of thousands of dollars at it every few years to completely recreate it. It makes much more sense to invest in your content and an iterative approach for a long term game plan. Having a productive and streamlined content creation process, and a flexible system that can evolve with your organization over time is the ultimate goal. Constant user testing should be performed on the site, at strategic times during the year, to learn more and more about your users. Engagement tracking should be integrated to see what content is getting the most attention, and your team should be focused on serving up more and more of that good content (and spreading it all over your site).

Users don't want to find the diamond at the bottom of your website coal mine, they don't want to have to dig that deep and get that dirty.

Bucknell University realized this, which is why they hired us, and why we ended up doing what we did for them.

One of the first things we all agreed upon was that the site would undergo a radical streamlining.

We would not only weed the garden, we would shrink it, remove old growth, and put up some fences to prevent it from ever becoming what it had grown into.

As Haile so accurately observed, today's web users value quality over quantity, and good content over an encyclopedia of data.

There were thousands of pages that were rarely visited (as shown by Google Analytics), had conflicting information on them, were outdated, or were just plain poorly written. We took an axe to all of them, with the institution's blessing.

Next, we took a deep dive into a "Reverse Content Audit."

Basically, before we looked at what Bucknell had on the site, we needed to get into the minds of the people using it.

What are they looking for? What do they need to do? What kind of emotional state are they in? How can you ensure they have a pleasant and positive experience while on the site? How many times a year are they coming and for what?

What would really irritate them? What would give them joy?

After we did this work, we began to match users and their needs to the existing content in more meaningful ways and we performed a gap analysis. Most importantly, we ran everything through a new set of content strategy guidelines to ensure it came out looking, sounding and feeling like the new website needed it to, like the audiences wanted it to.

Then our team took a hard look at the Information Architecture.

Were we really best serving our audiences with the same old thing we see on EVERY higher ed website? Could we do a better job at inviting users to explore and complete tasks while getting away from the "here's everything - now start digging" approach? We happily ditched the entire notion of a traditional navigational structure, and instead approached the site as a series of experiences, uniquely suited to a visitor's needs and perspective.

Of course, all of this would be lost without a bold, engaging and beautiful user experience design. 

We wanted Bucknell to push fresh glimpses of what was going on that day to their site, in an easy but compelling manner. Our concept evolved into the "Isms" design, where daily snapshots and statements were paired to show a visitor what "Bucknell is...." today.

The structure of the concept, design and content strategy guidelines actually freed the Bucknell staff to do so much more with their homepage, and have an ever-growing interactive timeline that offers a glimpse into an evolving University, one day at a time.

We wanted the site to seem "conversational" to each user based on who they were, and what kind of emotional state they might be in.

We also wanted to offer three very distinct ways to navigate the site's content. The first is through an audience identification process - inviting you to tell the site who you are. The second approach is what we called The Everything Directory. It was a new way to offer up a quick indexed approach to, well, everything. Lastly, we wanted to re-examine the traditional search function. We added some functionality there to quickly show a user live results, as well as some fast categorical distinctions related to where the search data was coming from.

In order to ensure all three of these navigational functions were easy to find, we borrowed a lovely convention we first spotted on MailChimp's redesign, an elegant "lock to top" approach for the main navigation - ensuring it was ever-present for a user when they were most likely to need it. This ever-present main navigation bar also gave us some comfort in our unconventional approach to the site's information architecture.

Another innovative distinguisher we implanted into the Bucknell site was to give the user a set of customization controls. While this might harken back to a customized browser home page for some of us who remember when that was all the rage. But today’s 16-year-old expects to have some say in her online experiences. Today’s college-bound high schoolers have been told they are special flowers for their entire lives, and a special flower wants what it wants, and nothing else.

These web users are growing up with wearable technology that reminds them when they should stand up straighter. They have super-computers in their pockets that allow them to be part of a global experience from their high school math room in Ohio. They are not expecting the same online experiences we are, and we need to remember that and embrace it.

They want things to be helpful for them.

Much emphasis is placed on the "prospective student" in a higher education website redesign, and rightly so. That audience likely knows the least about the school, and is the most likely to make snap judgments and move on. However, there are other audiences who frequent a school's website, and it should be just as useful for them. The customization tools built into the site ensured current students and other audience types could also easily "set and forget" their content preferences, ensuring more frequent return visits and higher levels of engagement.

I constantly remind our clients, "This website is not for you."

Moving away from convention is always a nerve-wracking endeavor, after all, how will the audiences react to something so unfamiliar? We spent a good amount of time working with the internal teams to explore possible variations, discuss what made the most sense for Bucknell, and also helped ensure internal stakeholder audiences were behind the idea and would support it long-term.

We also conducted both internal and external usability testing on the site.

We tested it during its "beta" stage, ensuring users could find what they were seeking, and that the overall impression was favorable. Then, once the site was live, we ran it through more formal usability testing, which gave us two things. One, it confirmed our beliefs that the target audiences would be receptive to the slightly unconventional structure. An overwhelming number of test subjects referred to the site as "very modern," which was definitely a major creative goal for the project. Next, the testing let us know where slight tweaks would make a world of difference to the users, and that is the input we are actively working with Bucknell to implement today.

The communications team at Bucknell can now rest easy knowing that their site will not blend into the sameness that is fast becoming the landscape of higher education. They can know this because their site, while housed in a non-conventional design and structure, is really all about the content. No one can replicate your unique stories, and your unique conversations you have with your audiences. That is the one bit of currency you own that no one can steal from you.

The challenges still remain, and there is ample room for failure.

With any new system or different way of doing things, there will be conflict and some level of expected failure. We will only know how to make this system better as we continue to see users interact with it, and study their behavior and feedback. Getting the information architecture, the search and the navigation "just right" is an imperative, but it will take time, and iteration. We wouldn't presume to say the Bucknell site in it's current form is its best form, but we do believe the platform is there for greatness to be achieved.

What comes next will be to let the site iterate and respond, and to ensure we are constantly listening to the constructive feedback of the users. 

Share on Twitter or Facebook Published April 22nd 2014