Want Badass User Experience? Do Your Research!
in Digital Marketing Strategy & Trends | by Emily Joseph
Florida Polytechnic University is preparing 21st century learners in advanced fields of STEM. With a commitment to providing the best high-tech education in Florida, Florida Poly continually pushes boundaries in technology. As their trendsetting partner, Sparxoo redesigned their website to reflect a user experience aligned with their refreshed brand. The result? An interactive site that not only caters to a variety of users but also exudes the core value of the university: innovation.
I sat down with Erin O’Donnell, Sparxoo’s Director of Digital Experience, to discuss the thought process behind the new site. (Go check it out and then come back to this article. Even better—open two tabs. You’ll want to see it for yourself.)
EJ: What makes this site unique?
EO: There are so many aspects that make this site stand out in an industry where uninspiring websites with poor user experiences are far too common. In any design project, it’s so important to keep your end goal in focus. Our goal was to create a website with a unique, modern look that appeals to prospective and current students—while also elevating Florida Poly’s academic differentiators to academic and community audiences.
From the simplified navigation and the dynamism in loading modules to the bold color palette (purple with pink and blue accents) we think the site offers a fresh user experience. Additionally, it allows the creative and change-making Florida Poly brand to shine.
EJ: What was the research leading up to it?
EO: We started with market research to understand the landscape and what best-in-class user experiences were out there. We found that while some universities were doing interesting things, there was still a lot to be desired. We actually took inspiration from websites outside of higher-ed. However, the majority of our research revolved around current site users.
It was a redesign, so instead of starting from scratch, it was important to understand what users liked from the old site and where the opportunities were. We utilized surveys to reach those audiences and created focus groups, including a website steering committee, inclusive of professors, students, faculty, staff, advancement, and university leadership.
We also reached out to prospective students via surveys to uncover what would make them want to apply. For example, we found that prospective students were looking for academic calendars, degree descriptions and faculty listings to be easily accessible throughout the site. We took that knowledge and then applied it to the navigation and layout.
EJ: So what was the thought process behind the navigation?
EO: Based on our research, we had three key learnings that guided our thought-process with the navigation:
- The university has multiple personas with varying priorities
- Important information was not always intuitive to find
- The navigation was cluttered and not prioritized for the university’s most important personas
With these findings, we decided it would be valuable to explore persona-driven navigation. This allows users to get where they want to go and optimize the site structure to better align with the user journey. We knew the new navigation should be clean, attractive and easy-to-use. This meant we needed to prioritize the top navigation categories and better utilize the Quick Links.
There are two ways to navigate the site. One is more traditional and designed for the user who knows what they want. The other way is through the Quick Links tab, which includes a curated list of the most utilized links by user persona, informed by our research. This is a 400-page site and surveys indicated some of the most important information was getting lost. We wanted to make it as easy as possible for the user to get the information they came for.
Notice the Quick Links on the right side:
EJ: You mentioned personas. How many different personas were there for this site?
EO: In an effort to simplify, we prioritized four primary personas.
- The prospective student
- The current student
- The current faculty/staff member
- Community leaders and tech companies, as many work with the university for internships and research partnerships
EJ: What trends do you see in persona navigation?
EO: One best-in-class method is to call-out personas right on the homepage. For example, the page would have a box saying “I’m a student, click here” or “I’m an alumni, click here.” It’s very explicit, which is one way to approach persona navigation. We found through research that our personas were split on the more straightforward versus guided navigation, so in working with stakeholders at the university, we ultimately decided the more subtle Quick Links and search combo would be best suited as a secondary option.
Particularly on websites with a lot of content, the trend will continue to be: how can I make it super easy for the user? As the average user visits approximately two pages on a site, you have limited time to direct them to the content they desire.
EJ: Backing up to your initial research. What trends do you see in stakeholder validation?
EO: It’s important to know your stakeholders upfront. The format we used with surveys and focus groups made sense for the university, as there were lots of stakeholders across many departments. The focus groups allowed for healthy conversations focused on prioritization of content and refinement of designs. We utilized a tool called InVision to help us create prototypes of the navigation and designs, which enabled us to easily distribute the designs to large, remote groups for timely feedback.
Our team understands that any change is hard, so it was really important to show the stakeholders and users a range of possibilities to come up with a design that would resonate with them.
Some earlier versions of the navigation:
EJ: Where do you see the future of higher ed websites?
EO: It’s all about experiences—both on websites and on campuses. More and more you’re seeing schools emphasize campus life with videos, student stories, vivid imagery and even virtual tours. Academics will continue to be important, but look for more schools to really use technology and design to highlight their differentiators.
EJ: What elements of the design are you most proud of?
EO: I’m most proud of the thought and time that went into the research, which, in turn, led to a simple but effective navigation. On the surface it doesn’t look like a big deal, but behind-the-scenes there was a lot of unraveling and cataloging of the current content to decide a) what was most valuable, b) what needed to be streamlined and c) what needed to be brought up to the surface. At the end of the day, the navigation is so important.
Also, I love that the site doesn’t scream “university.” We were able to use very dynamic elements—from the way the pages loads to the micro animations. The site really tells the story of an innovative and industry-leading STEM university.
What do you think lies ahead for higher education websites?