Photo by Bob Toy
With over 18,000 students, the Academy of Art University is the largest private art and design school in the United States. The University aimed to drive interest in their diverse academic offerings and increase applications, but their own website was over a decade old and had become a sprawling mess. JVST was briefed with creating a refocused site that represented the innovative and forward-thinking spirit of the school- one that posited AAU as a leader in providing quality art and design education fit for all types of students.
The old AAU site lacked focus, organization, and suprisingly, art.
Our findings from stakeholder interviews, competitor research, and consideration of AAU's marketing goals informed our vision for the overarching user path: to inspire ("I know what I want to be"), inform ("I know what's going on"), and equip ("AAU will get me there"). This meant making it easy for students to clearly see what career paths each department offered upon graduation, highlighting past/current/future school events and student success stories throughout, and emphasizing the ease of contacting admissions for more information.
Sampling of competitor and best practice research, user personas and goals
The personas and user-goals we used to craft UX included prospective/current undergraduate students, graduate students, international students, online-only students, continuing education students, the parents of prospective domestic and international applicants, industry professionals, and finally school faculty and staff.
Plotting out content and relationships between content in the new sitemap
I tried to create a sitemap of the old site's structure for use as a starting point and as reference of what existed, but the site was so broken and so large that it proved impossible. I decided to start from a clean slate instead and start with the basic needs of every school- sections such as 'Academics', 'Admissions', 'About Us', 'Financial Aid', etc. Then I used personas and stakeholder interviews to map out what their main goals in visiting the site were, and gradually added additional branches as needed. When I finished covering the essentials, I created an interactive wireframe prototype and ran the site structure through several rounds of task-analysis testing to verify we were on the right path.
Experimenting with various sitemap structures to strike a balance between shallow and deep content to avoid overwhelming a potential applicant.
Evolution of our wireframes, from sketches to interactive prototypes.
I used methods such as card-sorting, personas, task analysis, and user testing to test the effectiveness of our sitemap, wireframes, and terminology. The results from testing were invaluable- for example, we found out that users loved our approach of featuring career path summaries on each department homepage. In another instance, we learned that the label 'AAU Jobs' was being perceived wrongly as jobs for students through the school's career services center (it was actually for outsiders to apply to work at the school), and that many students didn't know what 'Accreditation' was. These findings helped us fine-tune content hiearchies and context, as well as copywriting, to convey clear messages.
Multiple rounds of user testing with interactive desktop and mobile prototypes helped us gain insight on our audience's real-world usages, identify problem areas, and get confirmation on what was working well. I went back to the drawing board time and again to refine navigation, page flows, terminology, and balance a potential vs current student's needs in our wireframes.
The following are a mix of unused design directions for homepage and department pages, as well as concepts that heavily influenced the final design. They focused on highlighting student work and happenings at the school.