Collaboration and improvement of degree course content | firez
Web Services

Collaboration and improvement of degree course content

Last week we were proud to launch our new Bachelors Pages. This represents the culmination of several months of work by Web Services and other teams, including marketing and admissions, as well as our implementation partners Manifest AND Waterfall. As the first part of the University’s new website to go live, it’s a tremendous achievement and a real team effort.

Medical course page

The improvements to these pages are extensive and probably worthy of a separate blog post, but for now I thought it was worth looking at how we approached the project content-wise.

Our degree course pages are among the most visited parts of the University website. In a typical six month period they account for approximately 600,000 page views (or 8%) of all our web traffic. They play a vital role in the various stages of an applicant’s journey. Despite their importance, we were acutely aware that these pages did not meet our expectations and, above all, those of our users. The quality of the content was sometimes uneven and often failed to meet the requirements content standards and drive up voice, tone and style required by the guidelines of the University brand.

For a long time there has been a desire to look at the content of these pages in its entirety and to improve it systematically. The launch of the first part of the new website with the new CMS, design and functionality for the courses seemed like the perfect time to do it.

User experience improvement

The previous version of these pages listed about 115 graduate programs, but there are actually many more that you can enroll in. This was in part because courses such as joint honors were listed on the individual honors pages. For example, in our course search tool, if you followed the suggested search link for « History with Spanish MA », you would have landed on the History MA page. From a user experience perspective, this was obviously confusing and less than ideal.

Testing with current and prospective students showed they wanted to access content like admissions requirements and fees quickly and easily. They also wanted course information to be presented much more clearly. In the digital world, clarity builds trust, and trust builds a brand, so it’s kind of a no-brainer in marketing to improve that. We then decided to move to one course content template per page. Doing so would increase the number of degree programs on the website to 248. This gave us the opportunity to highlight the individual strengths of each course and the differences between similar courses where relevant. Conversely, it also presented us with a rather daunting content rewrite project.

Take the challenge

Never one to back down from a challenge, our intrepid team of five from the content team (from Web Services) and seven marketing managers (from Marketing) came together in March 2019. Through a combination of good planning, communication, hard work and remarkable talent we managed to have 248 courses rewritten by mid-June. All meritorious.

How did we achieve this? Collaboration is one of those words you hear often when working at a university, particularly in the research arena, but perhaps less so in the professional services arena. We know that it often leads to interesting and unexpected results. It can lead to greater efficiency and better working practices. It can help break down institutional silos and foster understanding among colleagues. All of this was true in our case but the conditions had to exist for it to happen.

A space to collaborate

Having a shared project space (thanks to those lovely folks at the School of Humanities) has certainly helped encourage collaborative work. We were able to work together as a team, talk about different content issues, share knowledge and experience, and display things on the walls with prints.

Project room wall

Project room wall

The right project for collaboration

This project lent itself well to collaborative work. The courses present an interesting challenge. There is a marketing imperative to deliver each course in the best possible way and sell it to prospective students. Alongside this is the challenge of design content that allows users to access and understand the information they need quickly and easily. These two approaches shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, but working together has helped us understand the different aspects of each. As content designers we have been able to demonstrate how course content should be accessible to all through the use of plain English, effective page summaries, short sentences, good use of headings, less jargon and fewer buzzwords. As marketers, we have been able to use our in-depth knowledge of the brand, the subject matter, and our understanding of audiences and stakeholders to articulate the unique strengths of each course.

Student testing

A crucial part of designing effective content is obviously understanding user needs. Wherever possible, we have engaged with current students to gain insight into their experiences using the website and also to understand more about the courses they have chosen to study. Engaging students has been an invaluable part of the process. Sometimes it has forced us to rethink our thinking about some aspect of the content: perhaps a word or phrase, a choice of images or even an entire description. I’ve included just a few of their comments below.

“I like the format, it’s nice and concise”

“I understood the progression path when I applied for Law”

« The main reason I came to Dundee was that the Open Day was spectacular »

« The course page says you’ll be coding but didn’t explain that I didn’t need to know how to code »

« There’s a lot of jibber jabber here, isn’t there? »

« The page is too complex, it’s trying to do too many things at once »

Tools and workflows

Past experience had taught us that using Word documents to work collaboratively on content was usually a recipe for chaos, so we decided to use Collect content for the project. This has some obvious advantages such as being able to structure our content correctly, counting characters on fields, real-time shared editing and comments. We created a workflow (see below) to define the various stages of content production up to the point where it was transferred to the CMS.

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Workflow in GatherContent

Overall, the process worked very well. Would we do something different next time? For sure and in a not so strange twist of fate we now have to do the same thing for over 240 postgraduate courses! Here are just a few of my takeout projects.

  • Talk to students at the beginning of the process

Talking to the students was incredibly helpful but it wasn’t always easy to connect with them. Sometimes we were only able to do this after writing a basic draft and then giving us feedback. Ideally you want their opinions and insights early on and this will inform your approach to writing.

  • Be ruthless in removing existing poor quality content

If something was really bad, we found it was better to remove it early than waste time trying to improve it.

  • Talk to subject matter experts in person

When you’re face-to-face with an academic, a natural conversation is a much easier way to establish facts than emailing a list of questions. Helps build relationships, always a good thing to work at HE. Recording the conversation with a dictaphone was also very useful.

  • Reading group reviews aloud is great

Yes, it almost killed us, but we reviewed 248 courses as a group! The real test of whether something makes sense is to read it aloud. To celebrate the end of each group review we would ring a welcome bell – an oddly satisfying experience.

The content bell

The content bell

Let him finish

In such a large content project, no matter how well planned and managed, you experience a wide spectrum of emotions. I was at the ContentEd conference a couple weeks ago and witnessed an amazing talk by author Austin Kleon on creativity and inspiration. Borrow from Maureen McHugh presented a slide that conveyed the ups and downs of a typical writing project. She struck a chord with me and reinforced my feeling that to see a content project through to the end you need to be mindful of your emotions and celebrate every milestone and turning point along the journey. I’ve adapted the slide from the Austin conference for our purposes below to give you an insight into the journey of the project.

The life of the project on the contents of the degree courses

The life of the project on the contents of the degree courses

Okay, I don’t think we’ve ever experienced our dark night of the soul, but making progress on a content project this big can sometimes feel like wading through molasses. Working collaboratively helps ensure that no one gets stuck for too long.

What did we get?

Better course summaries and descriptions

All course summaries have been rewritten to 160 characters, are now easier to read and are optimized for search engines.

Course descriptions now follow the University brand writing guidelines. The principles behind these guidelines are based on making our content more accessible. This should translate into a huge improvement in the user experience.

Course descriptions are also now significantly shorter, in most cases 1500 characters or less.

The introductions to teaching and assessment have been rewritten and now reside on a separate subpage. This means that we still have room to add additional content on this topic, but we are not overloading the user with walls of text by placing them on the same page as the course description.

Improved marketing copy

We now highlight the unique strengths of each course and, where appropriate, explain the differences between similar courses.

A better first impression

We know that prospective students often look at many different university websites when deciding where to study. Their time is precious and first impressions count. Our degree course pages now make use of the amazing photography at our disposal. I’ve included a few examples below.

In the coming weeks, analytics data will provide a clearer picture of how users interact with pages, but early indications are very positive and we’ve received great feedback. Now is the time to do it all over again, this time with postgraduate courses. See you on the other side!