The inside story of how the University built its new website from scratch.

The University’s website recently has a massive overhaul. Here, we talk to the Suzi Ardley, the University’s Head of Digital Communications, to find out what the process of building a University website from the ground up is like.

Firstly, let’s make sure we understand the size of the task you faced. How big is the University's web presence?

The University has more visitors to its website than most other UK universities — somewhere in the region of 1.75 million visitors per month. Which is huge. That’s growing by about ten per cent each year, too, and approximately 45 percent of our web traffic comes from outside the UK. In terms of content, we had over 1,000 pages to migrate, and there are a further 600 pages or so to migrate throughout the coming year. It’s a huge job.

Where do you start on a project that big?

We started with considerable amount of planning, which involved ensuring that we incorporated the deadlines of all our internal stakeholders and that work was clearly scheduled between them and the development agency. We also had to ensure that a lot of the work was delivered before the deadline, to accommodate for the delays that were going to be inevitable with so many people involved. The web development agency used an Agile project management technique and the University uses a Prince2 based model. They’re quite different, so that was an... interesting combination. 

What prompted the decision to overhaul 

The website hadn’t had a significant overhaul since 2007, which is a long time between web developments. That meant that both the style and the technology were quite out of date. The content management system that the site used was actually being retired by the company who created it too, so it will no longer be supported after the end of 2014, so now seemed like a good time. We were also very keen to develop a website that highlighted imagery, video and audio content, and that it worked effectively on mobile devices, too.

And what were your priorities for the redesign?

To make the website look fantastic and user-friendly! We wanted to give it a contemporary aesthetic while maintaining the integrity of the Oxford brand, as well as making sure everything was easy to find. It had to showcase all that is unique about Oxford — hence a  lot of large-format images and an emphasis on all the rich and varied video and audio content produced by the University. It was also very important that the design was responsive and worked on mobile devices, which involves a huge amount of testing and checking. As well as all that, we had to ensure that the site worked well at the back-end, too — so that it was straightforward for the eighty or so staff that we have updating it on a daily basis.

What are the main improvements that have been made?

The website now has a greater capacity for us to showcase some of the great content that’s being produced in Oxford, and to present it in more engaging ways. We’ve also been able to ensure that the content and the structure of information is more consistent across the site, so people can always find what they need. In fact, we did a lot of user testing with our external audiences, such as prospective undergraduate students, so we were able to make changes based on their feedback. The whole process also gave us a great opportunity to review and re-write content to ensure that it was all as up-to-date and accurate as possible. 

What were the biggest challenges along the way?

In a project like this the budget is always a significant challenge, but that just takes very close management. Also the number of stakeholders: trying to achieve a consensus on issues like design with a large and varied group of people was challenging!

Is there anything that you love about the new site that you think visitors might not notice?

I particularly love the video wall which you can see here. To come up with that idea we looked at a lot of different video walls and we liked the style of one in particular called the Louisiana channel, so we used some of those features. We’re going to make some improvements to how we display video, too — so stay tuned. 

And, overall, how happy are you with the final result?

I'm happy with it in that I think it’s a significant improvement on the previous website! We’re continuing to make changes to the site all the time, though, and we have a plan of work for a series of enhancements. The new site is very much a starting point which we’ll continue to develop and improve based on analytics and user testing.