Friday, August 7, 2015

Case Study: Southern Cross University Website Refresh

In 2011 I was recruited to Southern Cross University (SCU) as their Web Content Editor with responsibility for the public facing websites. The first task assigned to me with great urgency was to refresh the SCU website and enhance the user experience.

My strategy was to conduct expert analysis on the website, conduct stakeholder engagement activities, conduct a user survey to guide design direction, review Information Architecture (IA) and navigation, develop initial design wire-frames, develop the web design with graphic designer, conduct user and accessibility testing of designs, prototypes and development websites. Then to launch, review and repeat.
Before: this is the SCU home page as I found it in 2011

I started by conducting an initial round of analysis and  engagement with stakeholders including:
  • University Executive
  • Schools
  • Students Services
  • Library Services
  • Marketing and Recruitment
  • Media and Publications
  • Community Engagement
  • Information and Communication Technologies (ICT)
  • Student Union
  • Students
I soon discovered in meeting with ICT that the major impediment to the redesign project would be the limitations of the dated in-house web Content Management System (CMS) Websys. Websys would turn out to be an extra challenging dimension to this project and the rest of my time at SCU.

Early on I engaged Peak Usability to assist with conducting a website user intercept survey which would be used to guide the development of the proposed new home page and school site designs and information architecture. I also brought in Cool Planet Design, a graphic designer with extensive experience designing university websites, to assist turning my concept wire-frames and mock-ups into something closer to the final designs. These were then made into prototype websites which I demonstrated at stakeholder engagement and testing sessions, feedback from which was further incorporated into the designs. Peak Usability was again engaged to provide expert review of the resulting designs and IA at this stage.

Early on we also began running into the limitations of Websys CMS and began the numerous fixes, work-arounds and compromises we’d have to make in order to progress our designs. For example, to conduct a simple site-wide update of the corporate logo would normally require a simple global image replacement process. With Websys it turned out this would require many hours of developer time manually updating each of the many non-standard templates assets that were used to build each of the child sites. While many of the child website templates appeared to be nearly identical, each was a unique version of the main template. To complicate issues further templates included varying levels of embedded inline code that was incompatible with the global code and code libraries. It also turned out that parts of Websys itself included embedded inline code that would need to be removed.

I decided on a strategy to have Websys to be fixed to a reasonable standard, create a new master template and progressively review existing content and migrate across into new sites based on these new templates in the improved Websys CMS. The child templates would inherited properties from the parent master template and therefore make global changes much more efficient. We would also use a system of code snippets to further customise specific design elements such as local navigation and local colour schemes. This strategy required buy-in from project sponsors so my task was to convince them that this was the correct course of action for the immediate redesign project and the longer term management and stability of the SCU website assets. At this point the possibility of upgrading to a different CMS was floated and rejected. Either way, it would be a much more complex and time consuming process to redesign and relaunch the SCU website than initially expected.

In September 2011 I was given authorisation to conduct a research project in collaboration with the ICT web development team to find a suitable replacement CMS. Our preferred candidate we recommended ended up being Squiz CMS which at that point closing in on 50% of the Australian University market. News from management was that we would migrate to Squiz at some future date yet to be announced. As a result the official policy towards our CMS changed which resulted in halting any further development of the Websys CMS beyond “mission critical” support. The unintended consequence was to cripple our ability to make further improvements to the design and function of the SCU website via the Websys CMS platform. To my knowledge a replacement for Websys CMS has not been implemented to this date. (update 18/11/2015: Its rumored that the aGov flavor of Drupal has been chosen for CMS migration and implementation in 2016)

In October 2011 to ensure our compliance with the Australian and New South Wales government’s mandate for all government websites, including universities, to comply with the recommended WCAG 2.0 Accessibility standards I engaged Vision Australia to conduct an Accessibility Assessment on our development websites. As a result we were able to incorporate most of the required changes before launch and continue to improve our processes to ensure compliance before and after the compliance deadline.

Prior to roll-out I conducted a round of engagement with stakeholders to review the designs, gather feedback and provide rational for various design decisions. The initial redesign roll-out including the SCU home page and top level pages and sites began in December 2011. As part of the launch strategy I arranged for the inclusion of Google Analytics tracking code into the new website templates. Up to this point, surprisingly considering I had setup Analytics at NC TAFE in 2006, I had only been successful in having Analytics installed on the SCU home page. This would prove to be a major advancement from using server log files to report on web traffic to tracking user behavior at SCU.  As part of this strategy I had Analytics setup to generate custom monthly reports for Marketing and Recruitment and other stakeholders.

After: this is the resulting "refreshed" website design launched in December 2011

The progressive rollout of new design for all associated sites continued for most of 2012. The maintenance strategy has been to conduct development sprints to incorporate feedback and results of further testing into regular minor monthly or major quarterly iterations for navigation and design improvements.

My preferred user experience methods include:
  • Developing scenarios, tasks, personas, surveys and reports
  • Conducting research, reviews, interviews, card sorting, presentations and observations
  • Facilitating stakeholder engagement meetings, workshops and usability testing studies
  • Monitoring website tracking and search behavior
Other functions of my role at SCU included procuring content and managing the SCU on iTunesU, UniSCU YouTube channels, monitor and provide advice on the operation and administration of official Twitter and Facebook accounts and reviewing and developing policies and procedures relating to social media at SCU.

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