The University of Southampton
Digital Team Blog

The back-stage work that’s essential for our digital team’s shows

There’s something exciting about the alpha phase of developing new website products for the university. After researching what needs to change with the website in a Discovery’ phase, it’s when we start to make those changes happen.

If the alpha phase were a theatre staging rehearsals, screen prototypes would be the main event on the stage. They are the visible sign of what visitors would see.

The prototypes we’ve developed in the alpha were led by our user experience and interaction designers. They show how we’d make it easy for anybody reading a news article to connect with the academic experts important to the stories. We’d found huge latent demand for this in our Discovery research.

Prototyping goes beyond what the website visitor sees when they get to a news article, however. It covers how they even stumble across the article in the first place.

Our Digital UX team also worked back-stage, to continue the metaphor, on prototyping ways we might organise news on the site. So that visitors come across news articles that will be helpful to them to make fruitful connections.

What we did back-stage so the right news is shown in the right places

We developed the idea of having one news index page, to try to solve the problem that most news sections are little found. We worked together, with our SEO (search engine optimisation) manager devised a format for web addresses and our UX designers developed an idea for a filter.

This way, we’d have an index that’s easily found, and when a visitor arrives they can easily call up only the articles for one department or centre.

At the same time, we were thinking about all those visitors who’d never seek out news, but who might be helped in their tasks by some categories of news. So our content designer and senior analyst also audited news content and explored data on journeys where some news might be useful. We found:

  • that researchers’ looking to collaborate took journeys lacking information on opportunities and who to contact
  • that there was a potentially related behaviour from over 84,000 visitors a year to click in, and out, of several staff profiles
  • that some categories of news could fill the gaps in information on who could help these visitors if placed in their journeys through the site
  • a taxonomy could help to place useful news content in these journeys

For example, the University announced last year was that we’d set up a new institute to work on ensuring ‘artificial intelligence for good’. Our research area, institute and staff profile pages do not make clear who to contact about the opportunity to collaborate on this. We asked ourselves: how might news content help in scenarios like this?

Designing how to showcase news in journeys across the University website

Our user experience professionals grappled with how and where we’d give research pages visitors previews of news content that might help with their tasks.

We needed to surface the value relating to their task of finding work to collaborate on. But we needed to do this without getting in the way of users searching for different things. We sketched how a ‘teaser card’ might indicate a collaboration opportunity, rather than assuming visitors will find news valuable.

We found in testing that flagging fleeting announcements in the middle of permanent content on what a department or centre offers might confuse. The teaser would need to both clearly be a news article, but also clearly show how it is related to collaboration.

In addition, giving a preview of a number of articles might be obstructive for those on mobile devices, magnifying or listening to content, as they have to spend more time scrolling through irrelevant content.

Thinking about how to help publishers to tease the right shows

This made our other back-stage work, improving the authoring experience for news publishers, all the more important. We explored whether a simple taxonomy and content management system fields could give publishers control over what is, and is not, previewed to users on department and centre pages.

As one stakeholder said: “You want these categories so that you can feed the right content to the right people.”

We need to engage stakeholders further on this in the next phase of the project. So that we do not take a billboard-plastering approach to the many news ‘productions’ publishers will be able to stage with our screen prototypes. Instead, we carefully curate news content based on what different visitor groups might engage with.

With thanks to product, analyst and user experience colleagues who I worked closely with on the show!

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