JISC website user evaluation 2009

We made some fairly big changes to the JISC website last year, including the ability to navigate JISC activity by topic, homepage customisation and enhancements to site search. Last Autumn, we asked Pure Usability to conduct an evaluation of the website with a focus on these changes; this comprised an online survey, some user testing and a review of the topic-based taxonomy. The results are now in.

First, the positives:

  • I think we’ve got the high-level structure of the site pretty much right as it matches our users’ key tasks i.e. access funding opportunities, keep up to date with news and events, download publications and find information on programmes and projects. It’s at the lower levels that the information architecture needs some work (see below);
  • Satisfaction levels with the effectiveness of the site search have risen significantly since the last time we ran a similar survey in 2007. This is pleasing as we put some effort into widening the scope of the search (to search JISC Services sites) and providing auto-suggest functionality for key content areas. However, the site search still needs more attention as the research shows it is great for known-item searching but not so good if you don’t know exactly what you want (fuzzy search);
  • Users value the content, rating it as high quality, comprehensive and trustworthy. As this is the ultimate test of a website, this is good to hear 🙂
  • The new, topic-based approach to JISC activity was confirmed as the right way to go. For years, we struggled with a major usability problem in the ‘what we do’ section. Users not immersed in the inner workings of JISC just didn’t understand the difference between projects, programmes and Services – and why should they? They’d heard of TechDis, say, but didn’t know what it was and the website navigation didn’t support them in finding it. So we introduced a set of topics (e.g. Accessibility & Inclusion) that aggregated content from all areas of JISC activity. The concept tested well, but there were some problems with the implementation e.g. topic pages overwhelmed the user with information instead of providing a clear overview and highlighting key activities.

And in the ‘could do better’ corner:

  • Homepage customisation has not proved popular – despite previous user research that suggested this was an approach that people would value (fickle things, users!). User either were unaware of it (despite the link on the homepage) or were nervous about customising their homepage in case they missed important information e.g. funding calls. I think we made a number of mistakes in the implementation but I wonder if the concept really works for a site like JISC. I can see why people would make the effort to set up personal portals like Netvibes that aggregate content from multiple sources, or personalise their BBC homepage because its remit is so vast and it provides ‘essential’ services. But for anything else, why would you bother? I’m not sure if we will continue with the development of the customised homepage, given this feedback. With diminishing resources, we’d be better off concentrating on other areas;
  • The What We Do section is now too complex. We left the programmes, projects and services routes open for users ‘in the know’ and then introduced the concept of ‘topics’ and ‘activities’ on top of this as an alternative navigation mechanism. Rather than providing multiple ways to cut JISC content up, I fear it might have confused the issue by introducing new terms while leaving the old hierarchy in place. Is it now time to radically simplify this section by introducing a single ‘finder’ tool for all JISC activity and dispensing with all talk of projects, programmes and Services?
  • Some people liked the new design, some didn’t. To be expected of course; design is such a subjective thing, but the feedback did illuminate the subtler issues with the design that we’d missed and these should be fairly quick to fix. I think the comments that the site is too text heavy and the default font size is too small are both fair.

So lots of food for thought to inform the next phase of website development. I’m very keen to separate the ‘quick wins’ from the larger pieces of work so you should see some of these changes taking place on the site over the next few months.

Thanks to everyone who took part in the surveys, the taxonomy workshops and the user testing.

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