The first step in a website project is not visual aesthetics or functionality. Start by considering what your users' needs are, the information they want and how to present it to them. Better still, ask your audience instead.
In this article:
Define your audience
Your audience has characteristics and preferences. For example:
- Prospective students – are they undergraduate or postgraduate? Taught or research? Are they mature students returning to study? Will they study part-time or through distance learning? Are they international students? Will they be continuing study after an undergraduate degree?
- Current students – again, are they undergraduate, postgraduate, taught or research? Are they doing a joint degree with another department? What time of year is it? Is it the start of term or exam season?
- Academics – are they from your department, elsewhere at Warwick or another university? Do they want to collaborate on research? Are they looking for job vacancies?
- Research funding bodies – are they currently funding research in your department? Are they potential funders?
- Press and media – are they local, regional, national or international in scope? What sectors do they serve? Are they generalist or academic? How influential are they?
- Parents and guardians – are they the parents or guardians of prospective, current and international students?
You'll probably find several different audiences for your website. The aim is to identify those audiences who are most important to your department now and focus on them.
For example, if your department needs to improve undergraduate recruitment, focus on prospective undergraduate students. If your department wants to boost its research profile, feature academics and their work, and focus on funding bodies and the press.
The next step is to work up a profile for each of your key audiences and prioritise them.
Consider your audience's goals
Take each of your most important audiences in turn and consider:
- what information they want to find on your website
- what tasks they need to do on your website – for example, book an event or apply for a course
Why do people visit your site? What are the two or three most important pieces of information they want?
It helps if you put yourself in their place. Even better, talk to them in person.
Identify the most important information and tasks
Approach individuals from each audience and ask them what they would typically do on your website. It's better to base design decisions on actual user insight through conversation instead of assuming you know what they want.
Once they have suggested, say, three to five tasks, ask them to prioritise the tasks. You can then turn this into a top tasks list for your website.
Creating example personas can help clarify your thinking at this point. They will be useful to refer to later too. You could use this persona template .
Your top tasks list should give you a clear guide of what content you need to provide.
Check your current web content
If you already have a website, imagine yourself as your audience and try to complete the top tasks. Try to discount your existing knowledge of the website. Trying to find specific information or complete a task, can quickly identify problems.
Consider your department's goals
Your department has goals too. Maybe it's student recruitment, enhancing its research profile or raising awareness of particular success. Consider:
- What do you have to communicate?
- What do you want to achieve?
- Do you have a course to promote?
- What makes you different from similar departments in other universities?
Keep in mind that your department's goals should always be secondary to your audience's goals. A common cause of frustrating online experiences is when organisations design websites based on how they work, their internal structure and sector jargon. Keep your site focused on your audience to avoid this common pitfall.
Investigate the competition
Finally, look at your competitors' websites. This can give you inspiration and ideas, especially when you adopt your audience's perspective. You'll quickly see aspects of your competitors' websites that you like and those you don't!
Advice and support
webteam at warwick dot ac dot uk