The University of Portsmouth is one of the highest ranking UK universities for student satisfaction and climbed 30 places to join the top 50 in the in the Guardian 2014 league tables. The University conducts world-leading research in subjects like Cosmology.

Portsmouth approached Clearleft to redesign their site, primarily for students considering a degree in a very crowded marketplace, and cater to a multitude of other audiences including staff and current students.

The process

The project comprised of workshops, research, UX design, visual design, and front end development to create a set of responsive templates and a pattern portfolio, for maximum re-use on Portsmouth’s very large site.

Our initial discovery clarified the strategic goals. We followed this with research on students, which produced a set of design principles that guided the rest of the project. Information architecture, a competitive review, and usability testing confirmed that many universities were overburdening their users with navigation. We created a stripped-down, minimal site structure, in conjunction with a content audit. 

Clearleft helped us raise our game editorially and gain senior management support for our role in governing the site.

Claire Brookes, Head of Corporate Communications

We mapped the mapped year-long journey through the UCAS application process that students go through before starting a degree course; then determined the emotional journey we wanted them to undergo when finding courses on the site.

Collaborative sketching was used to re-think how users would discover information about the degree courses and the University in general. We did testing on a clickable prototype of the site, with very positive responses from potential and current students, and a few corrections.

The University website has many content contributors, so advocacy work was also undertaken to explain the wider impact of the redesign. A multitude of University faculties and departments all published content of their own but with little thought to the user and regard to any content strategy.

At the end we handed over a pattern portfolio that comprised a browser-tested, responsive design system intended for reuse long after our involvement.

What we learned

The size and diversity of a typical university means that control over content, out of necessity, is de-centralised to some extent. Content is accidentally repeated and sometimes inconsistently structured, with some departments historically opting to have their own site using their own technology. Helping Portsmouth advocate with staff for a change in process was critical to making an effective design a reality.

Most universities describe their courses in functional, academic terms in marketing materials. We interviewed second year students who had enjoyed their first-year experiences and ascertained from them what made their course stand out. As a result, we worked closely with the client team to fully express the benefits of the degree courses to prospective students; bringing the course pages to life - showing as well as telling what a Portsmouth degree offers through powerful photography, case studies and videos.

The impact

The new site is performing well for our key users and Portsmouth have had excellent feedback from both within and outside the University. The marketing team at Portsmouth now find that courses are much easier to present to prospective students in home and international markets, and feel much more able to engage users emotionally.

The courses are easy to find via a smaller number of subject areas, and the course pages are now engaging as well as informative. Portsmouth bucked the national downward trend in UK undergraduate student recruitment in 2012.

Internally, the templates and pattern portfolio have added value through the ease of reuse and optional elements available. The new website has placed great emphasis on quality content, and the corporate communication team gained a lot of support from senior management to govern the site. As a result, the University departments are putting more effort into the content about academic and student life. 

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