Research: Answering the Big, Tough, and Scary Questions

By Brian Bessire, October 13, 2017
"What does the research say?" — a common refrain among our overhaul team over the past year or so of working on the site.

"What does the research say?" — a common refrain among our overhaul team over the past year or so of working on the site. It didn't take long for this to become habit among the whole of the group, and for good reason.

In asking big questions at the outset of the project (What are the top ten goals of a revamped public website for IC? or How much can we actually improve student experience, enrollment outcomes, alumni engagement, faculty and staff recruitment with a website?), we had an intensive, enlightening 'discovery' phase that helped us formulate and coalesce values and vision for the site early on, leading us to some great external partners to gather further insights.

From there, we began work on the tough questions: How can we determine which users are most important for each page? or How can we display this type of content cleanly on a mobile device without removing helpful peripheral pieces?, among hundreds of others. We dove head-first into the data, arranged interviews, conducted user tests, sent out surveys and more, all trying to answer difficult questions, both big and small. Our research included:

  • Online survey of current & prospective students, alumni, faculty, and staff (3,000+ responses)
  • Simpson-Scarborough brand research survey of prospective students and families (2,100 responses)
  • Google Analytics audit of over 30,000 unique pages on our site
  • Personal interviews with IC stakeholders (30+) and IC content managers (200+)

After getting enough clarity to build things to a good starting point, we then needed to answer the scary questions. What if we can't roll out the new site at the level of refinement that we want to by the deadline? or How will we know if the website is successful? These questions are perhaps the easiest to imagine answers for, but the hardest to be confident those are the final answers. Instead, we have to learn to use the best answers we have for the moment, and be open to changing our minds down the road, just as we're pledging to never give up on the site's continued growth and evolution on a permanent basis.

From the very first conversations about this overhaul, it was clear to everyone on the team that we could not build a good website without a sound technical, creative, and strategic scaffolding to hold it. And without the knowledge and understanding that only good research can provide, we have no foundation to even build those scaffolds upon. So even after the structure and content of our site take shape, we will continue asking questions of ourselves and our audience, figuring out the answers no matter how hard, and making sound decisions for all to benefit from.