The New MIT Homepage: Response by the
MIT Office of Communications to the Article
in the November/December FNL
The MIT homepage, which launched in a redesigned form last summer, is the Institute’s face to the world. For more than a decade, its previous iteration served our various audiences, including prospective students and their parents, current undergraduate and graduate students, alumni, faculty and staff, and the general public. It was centered around a single spotlight image highlighting a timely, usually research-focused story from within MIT. There was a great affinity for the old homepage within the MIT community, but our research told us that it was time for a reboot – and one that would honor the best of what it would replace.
This change was not approached lightly or with haste. We began the project in early 2016 through a discovery process with an expert digital agency. This phase of work included:
- an in-depth review of analytics
- an intercept survey on the homepage, which received more than 2,000 responses over the course of a year
- a questionnaire for MIT’s senior leadership
- an analysis of 25 peer-university sites
A key part of this process was prioritizing among the audiences that use the homepage (and the second-level pages accessed from the top navigation). Prospective undergraduate and graduate students were identified as our top audience, in the service of MIT’s desire to attract the world’s top talent.
Of course, we realized that the site would also have to work well for the campus community, alumni, and a more general external audience: Ninety-five percent of the site’s visitors come from outside Cambridge.
Our main takeaways from our analysis of the previous homepage were:
- Across all audiences, users were struggling to find the information they wanted. Navigation/search was cited as the top frustration across all surveyed users except for prospective students, where it came in a close second.
- Search was the most used function on the old homepage – and the most frustrating. This was true for both internal and external audiences.
- Users didn’t click the majority of links on the homepage. Ninety percent of total site visits ended in one of the following seven actions: leaving the page, doing a search, or going to Admissions, Education, News, Research, or OCW. The vast majority of the 65+ links on the old homepage were used by less than 1% of visitors.
- The old site was not responsive (optimized for mobile). The majority of prospective students access the site from mobile devices, and the percentage of mobile use across audiences is rising each year.
- For prospective students, the site’s feel was a top drawback. Many said the previous homepage felt “old,” “uninviting,” and “unimpressive.” Prospective students also cited navigation as a top concern, noting that specific program and course information was difficult to find.
After learning all of this, we spent additional months doing user research, including online card sorting and remote testing with representative audience members to validate navigation labels and confirm the information architecture. This work led us to create a new page that organized information the way our users did.
The old site’s search box was powered by a Google enterprise search appliance that was scheduled to be discontinued. Given that the search function was going to change one way or another, we worked closely with IS&T to find the best possible solution.
IS&T created a new search function using Google’s Custom Search Engine (CSE). (These are the results you get from the new homepage when you hit return.) This hosted service fulfilled the basic needs for our user base by displaying better formatted and more relevant results, but it was still not a great user experience. So, as a central part of the redesign project, we added the elastic search capability (a layer that sits on top of Google CSE), which:
- integrates web, directory, and map searches
- uses auto-suggest technology to display helpful results instantly, as a user types
- facilitates discovery of new content
- allows MIT to optimize results based on user analytics and institutional knowledge (people who understand MIT will usually make more insightful suggestions than an algorithm)
- allows MIT to compensate for search engine imperfections, such as duplicative and incomplete information
The elastic search provides a highly curated index of terms and results based on data about the most used search terms and the most visited pages in the MIT digital ecosystem.
Initial results from an intercept survey on the new homepage, with more than 2,500 responses, show that the homepage is performing well for these respondents. Two-thirds of visitors say they are “extremely satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their experience. Only 6% say they are “slightly satisfied,” and 4% are “not at all satisfied.”
When we compare this to intercept data from the old homepage, we see that the new site is performing better with key outside audiences. More than 70% of both prospective undergraduate and graduate students rate their experience as “extremely” or “very” satisfying on the new website, compared to approximately 58% of prospective undergraduates and 62% of prospective graduate students on the old site.
Finally, we’ve learned that the overall homepage system, inclusive of the landing pages linked from the top of the homepage, is doing a much better job directing visitors to the pages across MIT that help them understand and learn more about the Institute’s academic programs. These results are the fruits of the research we did to understand what our audiences want and how they organize their own thinking.
We have paid close attention to what we’ve heard from the MIT community since the new site launched. We learned that many within the MIT community were using the old homepage as something akin to an intranet, and therefore found it frustrating that links to heavily used internal resources had been moved.
- The most frequent initial complaint was that people missed the direct link to the old people directory and the campus map, so a few days post-launch, we added those links to the footer of the homepage.
- Additional refinements, in the works, will give the MIT community more direct access to the pages they habitually access from the homepage.
- We’ve met with the Administrative Advisory Council II to get their feedback on the site.
- We’ve also been conducting user testing with prospective students and staff to further determine how we will tweak the site. Faculty are also welcome to participate; we invited more than 25 faculty members to participate in post-launch user testing, but didn’t get much response. Faculty who would like to participate in future user testing are invited to contact us at email@example.com.
Getting the MIT homepage right is a balancing act: We must excite and welcome newcomers while also serving our core community. We will keep making changes as we learn how best to strike that balance: We seek to attract the world’s greatest talent to MIT– and serve it ably once it’s here.
?Editor’s Note: The above article is in response to the recent Faculty Newsletter article “Lamenting MIT’s New Web Portal.”