How we put our students at the heart of web design

Emily Cranmer, Project Manager, discusses the upcoming changes to the student web-pages


What are our students trying to do? This is the question we’re asking ourselves over and over again in one of our newest projects. We’re supporting the web team to develop new student-facing web pages which will, in time, replace the existing internal web pages. That’s a pretty clunky sentence for my first blog. You can call it an intranet, a portal, a hub, a sub-domain. You can call it anything you like. I’m calling it exciting and long overdue.

These web pages will enhance the overall student experience, and help the services SAAT has been supporting by making it easier for students to find out about and access services online. It’s a big project, so we’ll only talk about one of our approaches today: creating content based around tasks and user needs.

To do this we ask ‘what tasks are students trying to accomplish on our website?’

  • Trying to book a counselling appointment.
  • Trying to find out how to prepare for a job interview.
  • Trying to report a broken kitchen tap in their campus accommodation.

If the task is more complex, it might need to be broken down into multiple smaller tasks. From these tasks, we can develop ‘user needs’, which sound something like this:

As a final year student…

I need to find information about interview skills…

So that I can get the graduate job of my dreams.


As a new student…

I need to find out how to register with a local GP…

So that I can access health services while I’m at university.


User journeys

We will be working with the teams which deliver the services that meet these user needs. Together, these tasks will be mapped into user journeys, which helps us make the online experience quick, simple, and enjoyable for our students.

Design sketch

To do this we need to ask ‘how are students currently completing the task?’ For example, students might be completing that task by:

  • Using a search engine
  • Navigating through our site
  • Following a link from an email sent by their school office

The ‘as-is’ journeys will be improved by refining our site’s navigation, the way we lay out and present information and our search function to create new journey maps.

We’ll also be creating a list of the tasks and journeys we deliver, to help us recognize any gaps, and understand ownership.



It’s good to know what students are trying to do, but what’s more important is observing them doing the actual tasks. This allows us to understand how they perform their tasks, why they do it the way they do, and if/how they achieve their goals. As staff it’s easy for us to make assumptions like ‘students know where to go for X’ or ‘students will ask if they need Y’. Easy but wrong.

This article by references that ‘in their book User and Task Analysis for Interface Design, JoAnn Hackos and Janice Redish note that performing a task analysis…helps you understand what experiences (personal, social, and cultural) users bring to the tasks’. The only way of truly understanding our wide and varied audiences, is by speaking with them, observing them, and making changes based on what we discover.

Making sure that students can get to the information or complete the task they need easily is just one part of the battle. We’ll also be looking at how the content is written, the language we use, the design of the pages, meeting accessibility standards, how we deliver the pages on mobile devices and countless other areas.

This project will be called a success if at all times, we keep our students at the front of our minds and the front of our designs.

Posted in Web pages
One comment on “How we put our students at the heart of web design
  1. Emily Cranmer says:

    Huge thanks to our resident UX guru, Ed Jenkins, who co-wrote this post.

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