A Call to Universities: Make Your Websites User-Friendly!

I believe I exasperated my user with my latest UX research challenge. The task seemed simple enough: invite someone to be observed while completing three challenges on a selected website. Unfortunately, 20 minutes in and she had only found 1/3 so we decided to call it a day - I had the information I needed and a new friendship I wasn’t keen on destroying.

User Research

User: Mari, 36, female, Brazilian, married, lives in Barcelona.

Background: Marketing degree, just moved to Barcelona for husbands’ work. Loves travelling, going to rock concerts, hanging out with friends.

Selected website: Brown University — chosen as it’s an ivy league school so I expected a great quality website, and as it’s not as familiar as the likes of Harvard, I was guaranteed my user would be seeing the website for the first time.

Task 1: Look at the website for 7 seconds. “What are your first impressions?”

User:I don’t know if I should say this but the university is called Brown University and there are lots of ‘afro-americans’[sic] in the picture, is this the focus?”

Challenge 1: “Find their Mascot.”

  • Fourteen clicks and several minutes later with no result we decided to move on.

[It’s a bear — which I found by typing it in the search box, it was the only way I could find it.]

Challenge 2: “Can you study the Arabic language at Brown?”

  • Six clicks — success. “Yes, they teach Arabic!”.

[The courses are listed under Middle East studies.]

Challenge 3: “What is the nearest airport?”

  • Twelve clicks and several minutes more with again no result we ended the challenge.

[T.F Green Airport, 4.4miles away. Again I only found this by typing it in the search box; it was on Brown’s Computer Science department webpage.]


The website was in dire need of information organisation. To be fair to Brown, this is a common problem for universities. Several years ago when I worked at a university as a student adviser/International Student Liaison, I often spoke to students who were 2–3 years into their studies and were still clueless as to how degrees and majors worked. I saw first hand that despite the necessary information being available to students, the presentation was not geared towards those unacquainted with university systems. Further, as part of my job was to check the degree and course credits of transferring international students, I became proficient at searching through different university websites, but it was easy to see that they were not user-friendly.

So, here are three pain points that I discovered with my user.

  1. The search box is labelled ‘Google custom search’. Although my user didn’t use the search function she asked if the search function was an internal or external search.
  2. Information overload ….there’s just too much information on home page.
  3. Labels are too similar leaving the user confused as to which label is correct. This is made worse by the fact that there are no drop down menus so the user must go into each page to check if it’s the page they want.

The main pain point I wanted to focus on was #3 because by clearing that up it would also help reduce #2.


  • First I did a quick sketch of the homepage and colour coded all similar labels.
  • Then I wrote out alternative lists that could be included as drop down menus so users don’t have to go to every page to know what is there.
  • I deleted the ‘I want to’ and most of the bottom sections as they could be incorporated into the top drop-down menus.
  • All news, research, and events I kept on the page for marketing purposes.
  • I kept the ‘Information for’ navigation bar as that is used on all pages within the site.
  • Note: It should be Brown University not Brown Uni on the top banner of my paper prototype.

For comparison, the following images include Brown’s homepage, my sketches, and paper prototype.

Home page (all screens shown when page is scrolled).
Quick sketch, listing, and colour coding.
Paper prototype — full page excluding physical address at end.
Added a drop down menu for ‘About Brown’ section.
Added a drop down menu for ‘Academics’, plus additional options for ‘course catalogue’ and ‘student status’.
Adde drop down menu for Admission.
Added drop down menu for research.
Added drop down menu for ‘On Campus’ with additional options for ‘Calendars’, ‘Tours’, and ‘Maps and Directions’.
All drop down menus (excluding the additional options).


Having a lot of experience with university websites had an advantage as I had unknowingly been doing unofficial user research on students for years. Based on my previous work experience, I went into this project predicting that my user would not be able to find the information so I was not surprised when she only found 1/3 challenges. Universities need to research their website users and adapt their information accordingly. Not all users know the difference between a ‘major’ and ‘degree’, or ‘school’ and ‘department’, and with this in mind, the websites should give labels that lead the user to the information they need. In reflection of my design process for this challenge, I think it’s fair to say that it started years ago when I was a student adviser navigating through various university websites on a daily basis.