When you browse the web you work fast and make quick decisions to find the information you want. When building a website you need to put yourself in your users' shoes and imagine what they want – and how to give this to them quickly and simply.
The starting point for website projects isn't visual aesthetics or new functionality. Start by considering what your users want and how you can provide this best:
- Define your audience(s)
- Consider their goals
- Identify the most important information your users are looking for or the key tasks they need to do
- Check your website provides this information or facilitates the task
- Check how easy it is to find this information or complete the task
- Consider your department's goals
- Investigate the competition
Define your audience(s)
Your audience (or audiences) will have certain characteristics and preferences. Consider whether they are:
- 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 or 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, 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 – Are they parents of prospective or current students? Are they parents of international students?
You'll probably find many different audiences for your website. The trick is to identify those audiences which are most important to your department now and focus on them.
For example, if your department needs to improve undergraduate recruitment, you should focus on prospective undergraduate students.
If your department wants to boost its research profile, focus on academics, funding bodies and press.
The next step is to work up a profile of your key audience(s) and prioritise them.
Consider your audience's goals
Take each of your most important audiences in turn and consider:
- What information they might want to find on your website
- What tasks they might need to do on your website (such as book an event or submit a document)
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. Does your website give them what they need to know quickly and easily?
Identify the most important information and tasks
Ideally, approach individuals from each audience and ask them about the tasks they would normally carry out on your website. It's better to user get 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 really help clarify your thinking at this point, and they will be useful to refer to later. The Web Team use a persona template when researching audiences for Warwick's websites or tools.
Your top tasks list gives you a clear focus to target the content, structure and design of your website.
Check your current website
If you already have a website, put yourself in each of your audience's shoes and use your own website to find a specific piece of information or complete the top tasks.
Imagine you are using the website for the first time and try to discount your existing knowledge of the website. Trying to find specific information or complete a task (say, find a course contact or register for an event) can quickly highlight problematic areas.
Consider your department's goals
Your department will have goals too. For example, improving recruitment, enhancing its profile or raising awareness of particular success. Consider:
- What do you have to communicate?
- What do you want to achieve?
- Do you have a particular course to market?
- What makes you different to similar departments in other universities?
- Do you want to improve your online service to current students?
Keep in mind 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 website focused on your audience and you'll 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 spot aspects of your competitors' websites you like and those you definitely don't!
If the website has any useful facilities or features, consider whether you might want to include something similar on your own website.