The new look site: designed by users, for users

Designing for our users

When we create new web content in the Web Team, we focus on how the content and page design meet our users’ needs.  As a university, we have to make a good impression online. After all, 86% of applicants say they used our website to find out information about studying at Sussex (Undergraduate Acceptors Decliners Survey 2014).

At every stage in our latest project of redesigning the home page and Study with us sections, we considered the needs of our main site user group, prospective students.

As User Experience Manager, my role is to make sure that our website has a great user experience and usability.

What is user experience? Is it the same as usability?

Usability and user experience are two slightly different ways of assessing whether a website is both useful and enjoyable to use. User experience research looks at the attitudes of people using our site. By talking to site users, we can answer questions like:

  • do prospective students enjoy using our site?
  • is it visually appealing?
  • is the information useful?

Usability is more about people’s behaviour. By observing people using our site, we can see how easy it is to find information or complete an important action. This includes how easy it is to find course entry requirements, book an open day or find out what the campus social scene is like.

a person looking at the University of Sussex website on a mobile phone

Testing out the new site on mobile

Measuring usability and user experience

We want to make sure that all new web content is evidence-based and informed by user feedback. Since August 2015, we have been developing our site using an iterative process of testing, analysis and implementation of user-led improvements. Once we have made improvements, we test again to make sure the changes benefit our target audience.

However, our work is never done and we are constantly improving.

What have we done?

We have carried out user testing, web analytics and introduced a ‘Was this helpful?’ feedback tool on the site.

User testing

We measure user experience and usability qualitatively, by inviting people to complete a number of realistic tasks on the site. We might ask a user to complete a direct task like; ‘You have a budget of £150 a week, show me how you would find accommodation on campus.’ or ask a question like, ‘what do you think about the information on this page?’

A girl being observed user-testing the new Sussex website

User testing the new designs

We kicked off this work with a large-scale usability audit conducted by Webcredible, a digital agency. We asked students and parents in the UK to give us face-to-face feedback on the site, as well as talking to international students using Skype and screen-sharing software. Over the past few months, we have completed further rounds of testing in local schools and on campus, making improvements at every stage.

Quantitative feedback

As well as the feedback we get from user testing, we also use Google Analytics to quantify the user experience of people on the site.

part of a line graph showing web traffic in Google Analytics

A screenshot of our data in Google Analytics

We use statistics like time on page and bounce rate (the percentage of site visits where the user just looks at one page and then ‘bounces’ off again, rather than explore the site further) to see how well users are engaging with our content. We also measure how many people click on important calls to action like ‘Book an Open Day’. We compare these statistics month by month so that we can understand how user behaviour changes throughout the academic year. It also helps us to measure the impact of any changes we make to the site.

Was this helpful?

You might have noticed a feature on the site inviting people to report any problems they have identified with the page they are on, or to tell us if we are doing something well.

a screenshot of the feedback widget on the University of Sussex website

Our feedback tool. You can find this at the bottom of most pages on the University of Sussex website

We have received lots of positive feedback from users as well as some ‘constructive criticism’. All site users, including Sussex staff and existing students are invited to use the ‘Was this helpful?’ feedback tool to let us know if something is not easy to use. These comments help us as a team improve various areas of the site. For example, we recently had a lot of feedback from staff members when we moved some links on some internal pages. Thanks to the feedback, we quickly amended the pages and improved the user experience of staff members using that part of the site.

What’s next?

Any large site changes will now be subject to user testing. In the short term we intend to test our mobile site and make some navigation improvements. We know that the new look site will be received well by users because it is all based on evidence from testing.

That said, the work of the Web Team is never done and the site will be constantly evolving and improving. We will be monitoring Google Analytics and site feedback after we launch the new look homepage and Undergraduate 2017 prospectus to make sure that users find our site engaging and useful.

Next week, our Web Content Officers will update you on the work we are doing to improve the quality of information on the website.

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Posted in Short-term web development

Short-term web project.

We are excited to announce our latest project – rolling out the new look University brand to the website and restructuring the Undergraduate 2017 prospectus so it is more user focused.

The project

We are currently undergoing a brand refresh, and it is our job to roll this out to our website.  We are also working on improving the end user experience to make sure our potential students find the information they require easily and have a lasting good impression of the University from using the website.

We set out to

  • Create new templates by taking on board the findings of user testing, data from Google Analytics, key user journeys and our brand messages
  • Work with digital agency Precedent to create a ‘clean’ and easy to use design
  • Meet students’ needs by filling the prospectus and homepage with content they want and need.
  • Improve the usability of the site

What challenges have we faced?

  • We have thousands of pages on our website, meaning the new templates can only be rolled out to a small section initially. The rest of the website will receive changes to the header, footer, navigation and content
  • We worked hard to minimise the disconnect between the new and old styles. We handled this by keeping the design work within some of the elements of the current site, including the width of the page.

What we did

Work began in the summer when we joined forces with two website agencies, which helped us look at how easy our website is to use. They also helped us to look at the quality of our content.

The work highlighted some major problems:


  • Hard to find
  • Difficult to understand
  • Unclear who the audience is
  • Poor presentation
  • Lots of duplicate, out of date and unnecessary copy

User experience

  • Users found it difficult to use the navigation and find information
  • Too many pages, and pages were disjointed making the user journey too long
  • User journey is not clear- what do we want users to do next?
  • Large gaps in content that users need and want

Our design process

We completed an iterative cycle of design, user-testing and amendments to make sure our site is evidenced based and user friendly.

  • User research and analytics informs development of wire-frame prototype – September 2015
  • Wire-frame prototype tested with Sussex students – October 2015
  • New prototype designed based on user feedback and brand – November 2015
  • Prototype tested with A-level students – December 2015
  • Design and content updated based on user  feedback – January 2016

post-it notesWire-frame homepage

Wire-frame course page

What improvements have we made in the new design?


  • Optimised: Designed for users and supports our strategy
  • Clear: New content which is easy to understand and needed by students
  • Modernised design: Reflects our brand



Undergraduate Prospectus 2017 (Study with Us)

  • Focused: More course specific content
  • Targeted: Clear next steps (calls to action). For example, users are driven to apply for an open day
  • Relevant: Strong student and staff testimonials. Course content structured by year
  • New content: Sourced new academic profiles, social media and student life content
  • User friendly: Short, snappy and less repetitive content. Electives and pathways re-categorised to be more intuitive. Tool tips implemented to help students understand our terminology

Course page

Improved navigation

  • Calls to action now follow the user as they scroll down the page. This means the user can apply or book an open day at any stage during their journey

Course page with floating navigation


  • Improved navigation
  • User focused templates more engaging

Mobile responsive templates

What did our users think?

We went to a local school and asked students to use the new designs and feedback their thoughts. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

Students said

  • Information is easy to find
  • The design is ‘clean,’ and ‘modern’
  • Open day booking form is easy to find and simple to do
  • Finding a course is easy and quick

What are our next steps?

We are really pleased with the response we have received so far, but there is still more to do.

We are now building and developing the new pages. We plan to go live with these pages at the end of February.

We need to look at

  • Terminology: This is still confusing to some users, for example pathways and electives
  • Lack of content about student lifestyle
  • Content: Ensure this is targeted, relevant and engaging.

We will also be

  • Monitoring and generating user feedback
  • Planning a new template and content rollout to other parts of the website.

We will be tackling the more fundamental issues with the information architecture and content across the website. These are longer term projects and we will keep you updated on this blog.

Posted in Short-term web development