Creating a user-focused website: organisation, collaboration and creativity

By Charlie Rex, Web Communications Officer. Charlie has recently redesigned the Researcher Development web pages to better serve our PGRs, research staff and supervisors, and we are delighted to re-launch them this May!

screenshot of the Researcher Development home page
The Researcher Development home page

I am proud to say that one of my defining personality traits is that I am organised. My love of to-do lists, colour coding and inbox zero has endured throughout my educational experience, and I have loved picking up new hints and tips along the way. Transferring this into the workplace environment during my 12-month PGR Team internship with Researcher Development was a challenge that I relished, and I thoroughly enjoyed finding new solutions to keep on track of my responsibilities whilst organising events, creating content for social media, and running the PGR Blog. Little did I know, in early August last year, that my greatest organisational challenge was yet to come. 

A new challenge

It was during a weekly check-in with Dr Joanna Royle, Researcher Development Advisor, that she raised the prospect of overhauling our outdated webpages for PGRs. PGR Induction Week was approaching, and we were aware that our online presence did not accurately reflect the provision of the PGR-facing part of the Researcher Development team. Equally, in their current state, the webpages did not allow PGRs to easily find information; something which is especially critical at the start of the academic year. These failings meant that the webpages were crying out for a redesign, however with only a skeletal structure in place, I knew that a great deal of careful thought was required to achieve this successfully. Thankfully, with the invaluable support of PGR Intern Emily Hay, and with almost a year of experience working within the PGR team myself, it was possible to start brainstorming what a solution would look like. 

Nailing jelly to a wall

A key principle of web design is the organisation of information, and it became immediately apparent that the best approach to this problem was to ignore the actual content of the existing web pages, and start by collating, sorting, categorising and grouping the team’s responsibilities into a structure (somewhat like a virtual version of Netflix’s The Home Edit). This is a straightforward exercise when the information you are trying to organise is already defined, however, we were wrestling with a combination of existing web content, an awareness of things we knew were missing from the web, and our own perception of what we would expect or like to find if we were accessing this website from a PGR perspective (which I actually am, when I’m not working in the Researcher Development Team!). This was much like trying to nail jelly to a wall at first but became easier with each ongoing discussion with other team members, and of course a good amount of time staring at a series of floating concepts on a page and trying to sort them into categories. There are lessons here for how it feels to write your PhD thesis.

Once the structure was in place, the technical element of our redesign began, as I contended with UofG’s web design platform T4. Naturally, some ideas that we had intended on bringing to life were unfeasible within the platform, but other solutions presented themselves and after quite a few screen hours, the team were proud of the result. The webpage was organised, visually appealing and contained the key elements of information that were so desperately needed to help our PGRs navigate the service we provide. We had successfully nailed the jelly to the wall, and it was colour coded. Life was good.

So, what next?

However, as any of you who have organised your home before will know, once you finish one organisational project, the often-stark contrast with what remains will force you to leap immediately onto the next. Dr Kay Guccione, Researcher Development Manager, approached me in the autumn to discuss expanding the redesign to the remaining Researcher Development webpages, which would additionally encompass both our Research Staff-facing and Supervisor-facing work, as well as the overall Researcher Development homepage, which would act to link these with the already complete PGR pages. 

It would be on this homepage that we showcased the work of our team, plus how we work, and our priorities and important educational frameworks that guide to Researcher Development.  It was too good an opportunity to miss, and when my internship came to an end, I moved into my current web design role.

New project, new challenges (and solutions)

There were some clear similarities between the PGR pages and these yet un-developed pages, however there were some new challenges which accompanied this larger project. Firstly, the existing content for both groups (research staff and supervisors) was much sparser, meaning more had to be created from scratch. 

Secondly, I did not have any lived experience as a member of staff, nor a great deal of knowledge of the work Researcher Development did in this area, as it was not a large part of my internship work. This meant that I would be challenged to learn what provision was available and how best to present this information to an unfamiliar target audience. 

And thirdly, I knew that once the redesign was complete in April, I would be handing the pages back to the team to maintain and grow in the future, meaning that whatever I designed needed to be sustainable.

Much like when tackling the PGR pages, input from other team members was incredibly useful in contending with this much larger project. The knowledge of Dr Rachel Herries and Dr Sam Oakley was vital in compiling lists of content ideas, requirements and themes, and the whole team was incredibly helpful in contributing new content where my own knowledge was sparse. 

One new approach which we applied to the research staff pages was to align the flow through the website with how the team naturally describe their work. I developed an understanding of how Research Staff approach their development by listening to these descriptions, which allowed me to design a layout which makes sense to this user group, overcoming my lack of personal experience. 

Nailing down the information for these webpages was even more of a team effort than before, and as a result the process was more fluid, requiring me to focus on finding a ‘home’ for lots of new content, and re-evaluating the overall structure continually to ensure it still made sense. Throughout, I was mindful to create clear zones on each page which required regular updating, and others which were ‘evergreen’, minimising upkeep for the team. 

Alongside this, I focused on extending my web design work beyond simply organising information, particularly when focussing on the Researcher Development homepage. It was important that this page became the hub of the team’s online presence, providing a platform to showcase their important work and develop an online identity for the benefit of other UofG and external parties.

Design, rather than categorisation, was the principal tool used for this element of the work, and I was able to build our existing brand and carry this visual identity throughout. As satisfying as organising vast amounts of information can be, I came out of this part of the experience with an even greater respect for the importance of visual cohesion and brand familiarity in enhancing the web user experience.

Reflecting on where we started

Once the website was complete, I was struck how far my own abilities (read: knowledge of T4!) and my understanding of the policies and frameworks that guide Researcher Development had grown during the experience. It was at this point that I circled back to the PGR pages and applied some of the lessons learnt – in design, tone and approach – to this part of the website. I was delighted that by going through the whole process we were able to find even more elegant solutions and improve our first attempt. This is something that I sincerely hope will continue with this website even after my greatest organisational challenge ends and I leave the team to finish my PhD. 

And the best advice I can give? To always seek out the advice and help of others. Because the more hands you have to hold it in place, the easier it is to nail jelly to a wall.

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