The Nittany Leopard: Usability Testing and the Penn State Website Redesign

Dave Housley | Penn State University

In February 2013, Penn State launched its first redesign in 12 years (yikes!). It took a couple of years of planning, research, and testing to take their problematic old homepage, to the final product of today.

Argue Less, Test More
The team learned early on they could sit around and argue about things for months, or they could test in a room in one afternoon and have results immediately. Their opinions could be wrong, but the data isn’t. We can know certain things in wireframes, comps, navigation, but we also need to know its not perfect. Testing can confirm whether the team is heading in the right direction with the project.

To begin the process, Penn State started benchmarking what other peer institutions were doing, how they were handling their branch campuses, and how to structure complex structures. They created a scoring matrix to grade the visual appeal, branding, layout and navigation, clear visual hierarchy, obvious links, clearly defined areas, and minimal noise on the page.

The team learned the benchmarking process was much more useful than they thought it would be. Much of what they learned and was inspired by in the benchmarking process was used in the final website. They also learned their content strategy should answer “what do we want the user to do other than click/read?”

Quick and Dirty Testing
When the team reached the testing phase, they used several tools to test different aspects of the site.

  • Usertesting.com: Video based, remote usability testing. They provide the testers and you can narrow down on five demographics. The test records the screen and voice. This test is useful to confirm suspicions about the website. ($50 per test)

  • Usabilitest: Card sorting and site architecture work testing. Penn State used this to settle arguments on site structure. ($25/mo)

  • Usabilla: Great for wireframes and design comps. Just use a flat image before anything is developed. Penn State used this tool to confirm labeling of links and the effectiveness of graphics on the page. “Debugging the design”. ($50-$90/mo)

  • Loop11: Test on the live website for a pre-launch task oriented usability test. Penn State conducted one test on the old site, one test on the new site. They were able to show data how the new site does certain things better. ($300 per test)

The new Penn State homepage is a great improvement over the old site. The homepage should be a link farm to get people in and then ship them where they need to go. The team felt like they achieved that (and the testing shows that) however they learned that once those users left the homepage, they started to experience frustrations with the inner pages of the site. Those pages will need to be addressed in the very near future.

Photo credit: Flickr user daveynin