Information, Technology & Consulting

Dartmouth’s Admissions and Financial Aid Sites Get Revamped

ITS Web Services worked with project staff to update design, improve usability, and clarify language on critical Dartmouth gateways.

By Elizabeth Kelsey, Editor of Interface

When Dartmouth’s Admissions Department needed to update its website, the project posed unique challenges.

“Content redevelopment for large websites is always more time consuming than one initially imagines,” says Katie Santos-Coy, who served as Admissions’ Associate Director for Communications and Social media and was the project manager for Admissions’ new site.

When any organization decides to revamp its web presence, its project team must develop copy that is accessible to different audiences, and review content with precision. Employees end up adding new tasks to their current full-time work responsibilities to devote their skills to the project.

As the Admissions site developed, Santos-Coy and her team realized they needed to adjust the project’s scope and timeline. They decided to decouple what had initially been conceived as one comprehensive website —Admissions & Financial Aid—and establish two different launch dates for each, now separate, project.

The Admissions Site

Santos-Coy worked on the Admissions site with the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, Maria Laskaris, and the Director of Admissions, Paul Sunde, who oversaw the project and reviewed new content as it became available.

Their goals included updating the site’s design and achieving consistency with the 2012 rebranding of Dartmouth’s homesite; improving usability and accessibility to application information for prospective students, families, and student advisors; and installing a CMS (content management system) that was easy to edit.

The Admissions team met on a weekly basis with ITS Web Services: Director of Web Services Susan Lee, Web Architect/Engineer Christina Dulude, User Experience Designer/Information Architect Ben Morgan, Web Content Strategist Sarah Maxell Crosby, and User Experience Designer for Accessibility Matt Richardson. The team collaborated on user experience, architecture, design and engineering—all driven by communication and content strategy.

“Our experience with Web Services was very positive,” says Santos-Coy. “Despite the sheer volume of the work the team was handling, all members were available to respond to questions on a regular basis.”

The Financial Aid Site

Shelley Richer, Admissions and Financial Aid Communications Specialist, was an essential contributor to the development of both sites and worked extensively on coding. Virginia Hazen, Director of Financial Aid, and Patricia Briggs, Associate Director, guided financial aid content and improved usability on their department’s site.

Briggs says the project had a large learning curve for her, and was more time-consuming than she had anticipated.

“Navigation and accessibility issues—both ADA rules and reading level—proved a challenge,” she says. “We had many charts on our previous site and they were no longer considered accessible.  Presenting our complicated information without charts felt, at times, like we were going backwards.”

Ed. Note: Web accessibility refers to the inclusive practice of removing barriers that prevent access to websites by people with disabilities. When sites are correctly designed, developed, and edited, all users have equal access to information and functionality. Learn more about accessibility.

Briggs says the biggest lesson she learned was that the site was not intended for Financial Aid staff, but for prospective and current students and their families: “Of course, in theory, I already knew that,” she says. “But in practice, it didn’t really happen. It is very hard to separate from one’s own perspective.”

Overall, though, she finds the new site an improvement. “I like our videos and the entire site is much less wordy,” she says. “We tried to get more concise and I am sure we can continue to improve upon that going forward.”

Communication and Content

Language was a key part of the web redesign from the beginning, since the admission and financial aid process is challenging for applicants to understand.

The Admissions Department hired Heather McCutchen ’87, a notable playwright, as an external team member to work on the two sites. Web Services’ Content Strategist Sarah Maxell-Crosby performed a final edit of the text, which involved reviewing every site page to make sure the content was clear, well-structured, and appropriately formatted.

“We knew it was essential that text be clear and easy to understand for everyone who might need it,” Maxell Crosby says. “That would include users who had limited education or for whom English is not their first language.”

In order to ensure the text was clear, Maxell Crosby and the rest of the Web Services team used an online analyzer that assigns scores to evaluate a text’s reading ease and grade level. They establish target score ranges based on user demographic data. View an online analyzer.

“We were delighted to find that most of the pages were at or very near our targets,” Maxell Crosby says. “Those that weren’t were flagged for revisions, and we were able to revise the text until it hit our targets.”

Often, minor revisions have a major effect on readability. “Swapping short, simple words for longer ones—for example, ‘plain’ instead of ‘uncomplicated’—makes a passage much easier to read,” Maxell Crosby says. “The great thing about using plain language on the web is it improves the experience for all users; it fits how we read on the web, which is to quickly scan and read only the parts that seem important to us. Cutting the fat makes it easier to get to the meat.”

Information Architecture

The project team aimed to provide a consistent user experience across both the Admissions and Financial Aid Sites. Admissions launched first, in June 2014, and Web Services wanted to make it easy for users to navigate to its sister site when it launched in October 2014.

But according to Maxell Crosby, the first round of testing showed the team was too consistent: they had actually made it too easy for users to get to Admissions, because users consistently navigated there without realizing they were on a completely different site.

To solve this problem, the team changed the site's information architecture and design: They altered top-level navigation labels on the Financial Aid site so they wouldn’t be identical to the Admissions labels. They also restyled the site’s navigation and banner so it would look more distinct from the Admissions site. A new round of user testing showed the IA design changes were successful.

“This project was very enjoyable to me because it really demonstrated the value of user testing and the importance of being willing to make changes to get a better result,” says Maxell Crosby. “I’m so glad that we were able to do the testing and learn from it, rather than learn after launch that the first path was not clear to users. The web is always changing, and building the web must be an iterative process. You have to be willing to be flexible in order to best serve your users.”

From the Admissions standpoint, Santos-Coy hopes the new sites provide better access to the services her team provides.

“The new site fits more seamlessly into the family of sites that make up the new top-level pages of Dartmouth’s web presence,” she says. “The Admissions team is pleased with new navigation and the better usability. We hope that prospective students and families feel the site meets their needs in terms of application information, getting a good sense of our community, and of the benefits of a Dartmouth education.”

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