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At a recent meeting, I and a bunch of our decision-makers were trying to make changes to how we use some of our brochures. Costs are rising, both in terms of printing a piece and the cost of postage to distribute them, and budgets are being cut back, so it was time to take that hard look.

And I finally heard one of the sentences I’ve been waiting for out of our Executive Director’s mouth:

People are looking for this information online.”

. . .

Thank you. And darn right they are.

Even putting aside the fact that we created this piece because the colleges stopped printing their own pieces with similar information, there’s the doubles and triples that students get of the same brochure, not knowing it’s in their folder already or that there’s one in the mail to them, etc.

And besides which, they’re getting the information the way they want to already. The related pages in question on our site are our most popular pages. We know people are accessing this information there. Even our Knowledge Base entries show it’s the most popular question people have in mind when they get to our site.

So I presented a mock-up of a new landing page for the subject in question. I poured all the information we had about the subject onto a page and then faithfully trimmed it by half.  I did not go the half again that Steve Krug recommends because–frankly–this was just a mock-up. I didn’t have the go-ahead to spend more time on it, really.

And the first response? “Awfully cluttered,” and “wordy,” to quote the two folks in question. Absolutely right, and I’ll admit it. I could certainly spend more time and cut it back more.

And thank you for recognizing what people want on the web: clarity and simplicity.

Be succinct. That’s my best web writing tip.

This is, however, super difficult to do when you’re dealing with a multi-campus system that’s truly (more or less) integrated in terms of curriculum and admissions. With 12 academic colleges at this campus and another 6 throughout the rest of the other 19 campuses scattered across the commonwealth. And especially when multiple campuses offer majors that have the same name, but are different programs with different curricula and options.

Not an easy task. But one I have to tackle.

But tomorrow. I almost missed today’s post-per-day due to midnight hitting, and that just won’t do, now will it?

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So as of yesterday, I’ve been approved to move forward with some usability testing on our online application for admission. As an excellent bonus, I’ll be allowed to waive the application fee of the students who help us by letting them observe them.

Our Directors Planning Team, which collectively makes most of the important decisions in the office (which I’m a member of), was somewhat characteristically interested in the details. Who are we testing? Just students who visit? Out-of-state students? Students in the different regions of Pennsylvania? Those who visit our Community Recruitment Centers? I took it a step farther to make it clear that breadth isn’t necessarily our aim considering our resources for the project–as of yet, I have no further funding approved–by suggesting transfers and international students. Further than that, we should look at adult students. But if I intend to test 5 – 10 students, there’s no way we’ll hit all these populations. How do we balance my funding, resources, support, and time? Not to mention equipment and travel, possibly?

The easy answer is: we don’t. Keeping it simple and keeping it close to home (so to speak) keeps it feasible. And we’ll get plenty of useful feedback just with that, potentially more than we can change in the time we have. If I get the funding and time I need, though, the equation changes completely.

This morning (during the Spend a Summer Day admissions presentation, I’ll admit, with the caveat that I’ve seen it five times now) I started mulling over my own questions about the project, which in some ways I find more important. What should we ask on a pre- or post-survey? Do we really strip this down to make it fast and easy and not have either? Do I want to publish/speak on this topic and thus slow us down with the IRB process? (No, probably not. What we do now falls under process-improvement and hasn’t required one thus far.)

Should I contact my Usability Engineering instructor from last semester and see if he knows a student who might be interested in helping with this very important research? Do we want to try to include someone with accessibility issues to make the point that we need to work on that end of things? (One rule of usability testing is not to go in with an agenda, so I probably shouldn’t pursue this.)

The questions go on and on.

In the end, we’ll probably end up on the end of a stripped-down version, because doing that way gets it done. Getting ambitious may mean it doesn’t happen, and I’d hate for that to occur. We need to know what real students do rather than continuing to make suppositions.

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