The University of Pennsylvania is well-known for encouraging students to rethink the status quo in favor of creating their own path in life. The website we created for their Undergraduate Admissions department had to do the same.
With a dynamic and energetic new visual brand in process, we were chosen to explore the extension of the new approach to the digital space. Penn’s team was drawn not only to our belief in the value of a strong digital-first strategy but also to our work on Next Stop, the innovative digital viewbook we created for Temple University. In this particular project, we sought to combine the experiential elements typically found in a digital viewbook like Next Stop into a complete and ambitious admissions website for Penn’s four undergraduate Schools: the College of Arts & Sciences, the Wharton School, School of Nursing, and Penn Engineering
We began inspired by the overarching concept of Penn as one cohesive university that offers limitless paths that students can take both in their academic and personal lives — driven in large part by the vision of founder Ben Franklin, whose own life and astoundingly diverse career were dictated only by his passions rather than the expectations set by society.
Our discovery process started with analyzing user behaviors and search patterns on Penn’s existing Admissions site and conducting a unique big data competitor analysis of traffic and content in the web ecosystem, which provided their team with an objective content gap analysis that clearly showed how their current site compared to their competitors and how well they met the users’ needs. We validated our findings with user testing by recruiting outside prospects as well as current Penn students and parents, prospects, and counselors to view a sitemap and complete a series of tasks related to finding site features through a series of “where would you go/what would you do” scenarios.
While most academic websites force users through a path of siloed information and series of directories, the new Penn Admissions site offers a much more organic experience. Our past work and research has identified that many incoming undergraduate students not only may not be ready to use a directory to find a major, but also often don’t understand the language used by universities to speak about the academic experience or in the naming of programs and majors. An incoming student may know they want to study business and assume that the Wharton School is right for them, for example, but this site sets out to show them that there are many other options at Penn beyond the expected.
In this case, we opted to create ways for users to explore and discover content through identification of their own personal interests, and then deliver relevant programs and related content. All content is structured around a series of personal and academic interest categories that were defined in the research phase of the project, and a site visitor can select those interests to explore related information. When one or more interests is selected, the site begins to filter and reshape content around those areas — and the user can also opt to manually change their selected interest categories, as well.
Running throughout every facet of the experience are student stories that illustrate the unique and unexpected paths Penn students have taken and what their personal experience was like, whether it included pursuing multiple degrees, selecting inter-school majors, getting involved in student groups and civic engagement activities, and so on. For example, one story illustrates a student who was passionate about history but also ended up teaching nutrition to local schoolchildren, and another showcases a student who wanted to be a doctor but also explored his creative side by taking acting classes. In each case, stories are punctuated with prompts to learn more about potential areas of study and involvement that speak to the viewer’s interests. In addition, a future student-authored blog feature will provide a wide variety of personal insights into student life at Penn.
By navigating the rich content collection organized within three main content categories — Learning at Penn, Living at Penn, and Admissions and Financial Aid — along with respective intuitive menu and link structures, visitors can efficiently find exactly the information they seek without getting lost or wasting time. And regardless of the customized path they take through the site, they are led toward the vital next steps in the admissions process: Visit, Apply, Get in Touch, and Learn More.