When a university is as large as Penn State — with more than 98,000 students at 24 campuses — the Student Affairs website has to be many things to many people.
Over time, this type of content-rich site that serves many functions, departments, and audiences can start to stray from its vision, becoming difficult to navigate and even harder to manage. For that reason, we were called in to create a web strategy and consolidated infrastructure for thousands of pages on more than 30 of Penn State’s existing Student Affairs and related websites; reorganize their broad information collection to make it easier to find, navigate, and maintain; and create a new cohesive visual identity that ties everything together under the Penn State brand.
This project probably was the most significant identity change we have ever made in terms of the purpose of a website. At the outset, the old site was a directory of loose sites all separately managed by a very large group of stakeholders, leading to duplicate content, challenges with keeping information updated, and inconsistent use of language and contact information. In fact, the site — as well as the overall purpose and offerings of Student Affairs — was an unknown to students that they usually found by accident when searching for something more specific.
Discovery began with a full content inventory and analysis, and led to stakeholder questionnaires and a series of on-site content workshops to determine which departments own which content, what connections exist between content, which audiences use the content, and how visitors interact with the information. Keeping the student perspective as our top priority, we conducted focus groups and follow-up user testing to see what they did or did not know about what Penn State offered them in non-academic support, as well as what terminology and organization they would comprehend.
Our findings guided the new design, which streamlines information and improves overall navigation, accessibility, and usability. They also shaped the new user-centric site architecture, which organizes content by topic or service area of interest rather than by office or department. Now, visitors to the homepage start with a limited set of easy-to-understand options that guide them towards content they are interested in, and as they progress through the site, they follow an intuitive path with clear connections to related content from different areas relevant to their needs as students, parents, alumni, staff, or employers. For site managers, the unique module components of the flexible design system can be repurposed and applied to different pages or sections in a consistent way. In the process, we were also able to create a smart design that advanced the University’s web styles for a more contemporary and up-to-date look that is currently being applied to other projects.
The new website positions Student Affairs as a super-powered handbook containing the up-to-date information students and related audiences need in specific situations — and also leads them to discover important university services they never previously knew existed.