By Judy Thai. The University of California’s (UC’s) systemwide admissions website received a record 12.7 million visits in 2021, partly as the result of a major upgrade that took place between 2018 and 2019, and involving coordinated work across UCOP Marketing & Communications (UCOP MarComm) and Information Technology Services (UCOP ITS). The teams’ successes included numerous measurable results, tracked and documented by them, in addition to industry-wide recognition by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) District VII Awards.
The systemwide admissions website is a critical step in the application process, which resulted in 251,179 applications for admission for fall 2022, up 0.5% from 2020 and up over 16% from 2019. Before prospective students apply for admission to the UC’s nine undergraduate campuses, they visit the site to get information they will need to complete the application journey.
UC’s Office of the President (UCOP) is responsible for ensuring that the systemwide admissions website is effective in delivering content to diverse audiences across the state and the world. Students, guardians, college counselors, school administrators and UC’s campuses rely on the systemwide admissions website as a centralized resource for applications deadlines, admissions criteria and financial aid information, among other important information.
Redesigning the Site
When the upgrade was initiated in 2018, the original systemwide admissions website had been in use for almost a decade. It was clear that, due to the rapidly changing market and customer needs, the site’s outdated construction, design and content strategy needed to be revisited and improved. In addition, a new, redesigned ApplyUC undergraduate application was poised to launch.
Further, a redesign would provide an occasion for UC to highlight its essential nature: a pioneering place that foments societal, cultural, technological and intellectual progress for its students and the world; and a place that offers tremendous educational value, especially when compared to the cost of private universities and the academic prestige of other public universities.
Given these opportunities, the UCOP Marketing Communications department (UCOP MarComm) saw an opportunity to align two essential web properties, visually, and create a more seamless and relevant experience for users in all regards.
First Stop: User Input
To prepare for a redesign, UCOP MarComm conducted extensive analysis and research, which included:
- Evaluating the systemwide admissions website against a list of usability principles and accessibility standards
- Assessing other university websites
- Reviewing the content and its organization on the existing website
- Identifying content gaps, irrelevant or redundant content, and opportunities for new content
- Reviewing Google Analytics data for the past few years to identify the most popular pages, how users are getting to the website, top abandoned pages, and demographics
The UCOP MarComm team also added a pop-up survey to the systemwide admissions website to identify prospective applicants (high school and community college students) and support figures (parents and counselors/teachers) they could contact for follow-up interviews to gather input about the website.
During the follow-up interviews, the team asked users to perform usability testing tasks, such as having the participant independently complete tasks displayed at the top of the screen, and to talk through their thought process as they navigate the website.
Through this process, the UCOP MarComm team identified a number of usability issues:
- Dense walls of text
- Buried, key information
- Multiple audience segments/types of people
- Generic language
- Opaque labels
UCOP MarComm next identified five key areas that the redesign would need to address:
- Modernize and make mobile-friendly. The primary audience is young and principally uses their cell phone to access the internet. It was therefore imperative that the redesigned website function and display properly on a mobile device. The website also needed to meet the latest accessibility standards to ensure that it was usable by everyone, including people with disabilities.
- Improve content hierarchy and site architecture. The website needed to clearly delineate content for different audience types. The redesign separated the section for counselors from the student-facing admissions site to reduce confusion. With the former navigation structure, students may have unintentionally stumbled into content that was not intended for them.
- Refine messaging. The website’s messaging needed to communicate key action-oriented messages around the application cycle and also convey UC’s core messages of accessibility and affordability.
- Update visual design. The site’s original design was the first deployment of UC’s systemwide brand, which has evolved since it deployed nearly 10 years ago. It was therefore outdated and visually did not correspond to UC’s more recent web properties. Creative execution needed to balance prestige and proven excellence with a modern aesthetic, including the use of a vibrant, energetic color palette, and incorporating photography that evokes awe at the beauty of California and represents the UC campuses.
- Add searchable database of majors. Major and program availability is one of the most important factors that prospective students consider in choosing which college to attend. The original systemwide admissions website lacked a convenient and easy-to-use index of majors and programs. The Information Technology Services (ITS) team developed a front-end user interface to make the majors searchable.
Creating the New Design
During this phase, the UCOP MarComm team also worked closely with the UCOP Information Technology Services (UCOP ITS) web accessibility team to advise on, and test for. accessibility.
After the design was finalized, UCOP ITS built the redesigned website in the UCOP content management system, taking into account how—and how often—the MarComm team would need to update the content.
The redesigned systemwide admissions website launched in July 2019, in tandem with the redesigned application itself called the ApplyUC undergraduate application.
It’s a Winner!
Creating a mobile-friendly website was one of the primary goals, and it has paid off. The redesigned systemwide admissions website resulted in an immediate increase in mobile traffic, from 34% to 49% between 2018 and 2019, as well as a notable drop in bounce rates.
Further, the redesigned website won a Gold Award in the 2021 Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) District VII Awards.
In the words of Vanessa Correa, former chief marketing officer of UCOP at the time of the upgrade, “As the front door to the best public university system in the world, the new admissions site not only supports prospective students in their college application process, but also highlights the transformative impact of being part of the UC community—a place where paradigms shift and opportunities are boundless.”
We are grateful for the skills and teamwork of cross-functional UCOP teams, spanning MarComm and ITS, whose collaboration resulted in the advancing the UC mission and supporting our students with this successful new website.