This summer I will be redesigning the first of four sister-like websites (departments in an engineering school). While each departmental website has its own particular style and initiatives, the structure of each of the four sites is pretty much identical. It’s my hope that design decisions, observations and hunches I have now will be finessed in each departmental iteration, with a retro-active trickle-down where necessary.
I will share my process in an ongoing series entitled “Research for a Website Redesign” and I’ll be sure to follow up on those steps that worked particularly well and those that didn’t make the mark.
Why collect feedback via a web-based survey?I wanted to give a certain user group a voice without giving them a lot of influence in the actual design process. I went with a web-based survey because:
- It generates valuable feedback.
- The user-group will feel like their opinion matters. (And it does.)
- The survey gives a voice to an important user-group without giving them decision making control. (A nice alternative to design by committee.)
- I have the opportunity to ask my users specific questions.
- A large group of people can be polled in a short amount of time. (No appointments to make.)
- It requires little commitment from the user. (The survey is on the website they are familiar with, is unobtrusive and all questions are optional.)
Creating a mechanism for collection.I wanted a system that kept users on the website they were already familiar with and also gave a visual cue when feedback was given for a particular page. Here’s what I came up with (to be released in shareable format, once I clean it up and package it).
I created a beta version of the site (e.g. beta.domain.com) that had a clickable red bar with the instruction “Click to provide feedback for this page.” at the top of every page. When a user clicked on the red bar, a survey dropped down. When the user submitted the survey, I was sent an email with their feedback and the color of the bar changed to green. The idea here is that a user can go through the entire site using the navigation and at any time, they can easily tell if they’ve left feedback for a page already. (They also have the option to leave additional feedback on pages they’ve already submitted feedback.)
Technical Stuff: The system is written in PHP and uses a single-line include in the header file. It sets individual cookies for each page where feedback is given. Right now the file just sends an email, but I am considering upgrading it to a database so that tallying results is easier. The drawback, of course, is that installation would be more complex. I am open to hearing your preference if you are interested in downloading the code for your own website.
Asking the right questions.Having a web-based survey allowed me to ask some questions that I didn’t know the answer to (or to confirm some things I knew all along). The questions in the survey are highly dependent on the reasons for the redesign. Many of my questions were geared towards gauging the purpose and placement of content and improving the maintainability of the pages, post launch. Here are the questions that I put on the survey, all were optional.  for a checkbox and () for a radio button.
-  This page does not belong in this section.
- [fill in the blank] is the primary audience for this page.
- The purpose of this page is to:  Recruit  Promote Research  Satisfy ABET  Inform  Perform a transaction  No purpose/unnecessary
- The content on this page should be updated this often: () Frequently (several times a semester) () Every Semester () Every Year () Never (the content is evergreen)
- [fill in the blank] is missing from the page.
- This page would be more appealing if [fill in the blank]
- [fill in the blank] should “own” the content on this page.
- Additional thoughts/comments (strengths, weaknesses, etc.) [fill in the blank]
Getting answers from your users.I gave the beta url to a small committee of departmental faculty members first, with a deadline of two weeks to fill the survey out. After the initial run, I opened the survey up to all departmental faculty, with another two week turn around time. In a month’s time I had well-documented and mostly valuable feedback for every single page of the website. About 95% of that feedback came in the first two weeks, I only received a handful of additional comments from the faculty-at-large.
The point is this: A light-weight and integrated web-based survey is an easy way to get feedback from a large user group. It communicates that you care about your users opinions without relinquishing control over design decisions. In the end, you have well-organized and well-documented feedback to use as justification for your redesign decisions.
Next up for this series…Tallying results for the second question “[fill in the blank] is the primary audience for this page.” led me to my next step. Faculty felt, overwhelmingly, that prospective and current students (both undergraduate and graduate) were the primary audiences site-wide.
My next step will be to survey those user groups about the current website, but with a different strategy. I’ll recruit several students (ideally five for each audience) and give them specific tasks (I will outline these later) to be performed in-person.
I’m also preparing an entry about using Google Analytics and mind-mapping software to redesign information architecture.