Collaboration and improving undergraduate courses content

Last week we were proud to launch our new undergraduate course pages. This represents the culmination of several months’ work by Web Services and other teams including Marketing and Admissions as well as our implementation partners Manifesto and Aquia. As the first part of the new University website to go live it’s an amazing achievement and a true team effort.

Medicine course page
Medicine course page

The improvements to these pages are extensive and probably worthy of a separate blog post but for now I thought it would be worthwhile looking at how we approached the project from a content perspective.

Our undergraduate course pages are amongst the most visited part of the University website. In a typical six month period they account for around 600,000 page views (or 8%) of all our web traffic. They play a vital role at various stages of an applicant’s journey. Despite their importance we were acutely aware that these pages weren’t meeting our expectations – and more importantly those of our users. Content quality was at times patchy and often failed to meet the content standards and guidance on voice, tone, and style set out in the University brand guidelines.

For a long time there was a desire to look at the content of these pages in its entirety and to improve it in a systematic way. The launch of the first part of the new website with the new CMS, design, and functionality for courses seemed the perfect time to do this.

Improving user experience

The previous version of these pages listed around 115 undergraduate courses but in reality there are many more you can apply to. This was partly due to courses such as joint honours being listed on single honours pages. For example, in our course finder if you had followed the suggested search link for ‘History with Spanish MA’ you would have found yourself on the History MA page. From a user experience perspective this was obviously confusing and less than ideal.

Testing with current and prospective students showed that they wanted to access content like entry requirements and fees quickly and easily. They also wanted course information to be presented in a much clearer way. In the digital world clarity builds trust and trust builds a brand so it’s something of a marketing no brainer to improve this. We therefore decided to move to a content model of one course per page. Doing this would increase the number of undergraduate courses on the website to 248. This gave us scope to highlight the individual selling points of each course and the differences between similar courses if relevant. Conversely it also presented us with a somewhat daunting content rewrite project.

Rising to the challenge

Never ones to balk at a challenge, our intrepid team consisting of five from the content team (from Web Services) and seven marketing officers (from Marketing) assembled back in March 2019. Through a combination of good planning, communication, hard work, and considerable talent we were able to have 248 courses rewritten by mid-June. No mean feat.

How did we achieve this? Collaboration is one of these words that you hear a lot working in a university, particularly in the context of research, but perhaps less so in the area of professional services. We know that it often leads to interesting and unexpected results. It can lead to increased efficiency and better working practices. It can help break down institutional silos and foster understanding between colleagues. All of this was true in our case but the conditions needed to be right for it to happen.

A space to collaborate

Having a shared project space (thanks to those lovely people in the School of Humanities) certainly helped encourage collaborative working. We were able to work together as a team, talk through different content problems, share knowledge and experiences, and visualise things on the walls with print-outs.

Project room wall
Project room wall

The right project for collaboration

This project lent itself well to collaborative working. Courses present an interesting challenge. There is a marketing imperative to convey each course in the best way possible and sell them to potential students. Alongside this there is the challenge of designing content that allows users to access and understand the information they need simply and quickly. These two approaches shouldn’t be mutually exclusive but working together helped us understand different aspects of each. As content designers we were able to demonstrate how course content should be accessible to all through the use of plain English, effective page summaries, short sentences, good use of headings, less jargon, and fewer buzzwords. As marketing professionals we were able to use our in-depth knowledge of the brand, subject matter, and our understanding of audiences and stakeholders to articulate the unique selling points of each course.

Student testing

A crucial part of designing effective content is of course understanding user needs. Where possible we engaged with current students to get an insight into their own experiences using the website and also to understand more about the courses they chose to study. Getting students involved was an invaluable part of the process. At times it forced us to revise our thinking about certain aspects of the content – perhaps a word or phrase, an image choice, or even an entire description. I’ve included just a few of their comments below.

“I like the format it’s nice and concise”

“I understood the progression route when I applied for Law”

“The main reason I came to Dundee was that the Open Day was spectacular”

“The course page says you will code but didn’t explain I didn’t need to know how to code”

“There’s a lot of jibber jabber on here isn’t there?”

“The page is too complex, it’s trying to do too many things at once”

Tools and workflows

Past experience had taught us that using Word documents to work collaboratively on content was usually a recipe for chaos so we opted to use GatherContent for the project. This has some obvious benefits like being able to structure our content properly, character counts on fields, real-time shared editing, and commenting. We created a workflow (see below) to define the various stages of content production to the point where it was moved to the CMS.

Workflow in GatherContent

 

On the whole, the process worked really well. Would we do anything differently next time? For sure and by a not so strange quirk of fate we now have to do the same thing for 240+ postgraduate courses! Here’s just a few of my project takeaways.

  1. Speak to students early in the process

Speaking to students was incredibly useful but it wasn’t always easy to get hold of them. Sometimes we were only able to do it once we had a basic draft written and then they would give us feedback. Ideally you want their views and insights at the start and this will inform your approach to writing.

  1. Be ruthless in removing poor quality existing content

If something was really bad we found it was better to remove it early rather than waste time trying to improve it.

  1. Speak to subject matter experts in person 

When you’re face to face with an academic, natural conversation is a much easier way of establishing the facts than sending a list of questions by email. It helps build relationships, always a good thing working in HE. Recording the conversation with a dictaphone was super useful too.

  1. Read out loud group reviews are great

Yes it almost killed us but we group reviewed 248 courses! The true test of whether something makes sense is to read it out loud. To celebrate the end of each group review we would ring a reception bell – a strangely satisfying experience.

The content bell
The content bell

Make it end

On a content project this big, not matter how well planned and managed, you experience a wide spectrum of emotions. I was at the ContentEd conference a couple of weeks ago and watched a great talk by the author Austin Kleon about creativity and inspiration. Borrowing from Maureen McHugh he presented a slide which conveyed the highs and lows of a typical writing project. It struck a chord with me and reinforced my feeling that in order to see a content project through to the end you need to be aware of your own emotions and celebrate each milestone and breakthrough along the journey. I’ve adapted Austin’s conference slide for our purposes below to give you a sense the project journey.

The life of the undergraduate courses content project
The life of the undergraduate courses content project

 

Ok, I don’t think we ever experienced our own dark night of the soul but making progress in a content project this big can sometimes feel like wading through treacle. Working collaboratively helps ensure that nobody gets stuck for too long.

What have we achieved?

Better course summaries and descriptions

All course summaries have been rewritten to 160 characters, these are now easier to read and are search engine friendly.

Course descriptions now follow University brand writing guidelines. The principles that inform these guidelines are based around making our content more accessible. This should translate to a huge improvement in user experience.

Course descriptions are also now significantly shorter, in most cases 1500 characters or less.

Teaching and assessment introductions have been rewritten and now reside on a separate child page. This means we still have scope to add additional content on this subject but we’re not overwhelming the user with walls of text by placing it on the same page as the course description.

Improved marketing copy

We now highlight the unique selling points of each course as well as explain the differences between similar courses if appropriate.

A better first impression

We know that prospective students often look at lots of different university websites when deciding where to study. Their time is precious and first impressions count. Our undergraduate course pages now make use of the stunning photography available to us. I’ve included a few examples below.

In the coming weeks analytics data will provide a clearer picture of how users are interacting with the pages but early indications are very positive and we’ve had some great feedback. Now it’s time to do it all again, this time with postgraduate courses. See you on the other side!

Written by:

As Web Content Manager for the University, my role is to improve our website through better planning, creation, delivery, and governance of content.

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