There’s a lot for new college students to accomplish before the start of classes; between finding room assignments, selecting a dining plan, filling out health forms, and connecting with new roommates, it’s enough to overwhelm even the most organized of students. And since many of these processes have independent timelines and deadlines, it can be quite a challenge for students to manage all of them.
Several years ago, the University of Pennsylvania had created an online hub to give incoming students key information and a path to completing the tasks that would prepare them for an amazing first year. While the site functionality had continued to meet the needs of the university, by 2018, the navigation and user interface needed to be modernized to better meet the needs of today’s students.
So, we began working with Penn with the primary goal of updating Penn Campus Express to help students understand and prioritize the tasks they were required to do. Additionally, Penn wanted to encourage students to visit all sections of the site so they would be aware of the range of available options that would be helpful in the transition into college life. Finally, they wanted incoming students to feel welcomed into the Penn experience.
And, since the site was used by graduate, undergraduates and transfer students, it had to be dynamic enough to evolve to meet the individualized needs of students’ entry into Penn. But this hub had to be more than just functional and fluid – it also had to have an innovative design and engaging navigation that spoke to a student population with varying levels of familiarity with the college onboarding process.
Planting the Seeds
Keeping all of this in mind, we got to work, reimagining this critical student onboarding tool to encompass all of Penn’s current needs and to continue to meet those needs well into the future. And soon, we were all aboard the Penn Campus Express.
The site needed to be tailored specifically for Penn students, so, naturally, our first step was user research. This included a thorough and detailed process the included the following:
- We conducted interviews and workshops with the team stakeholders to understand the site’s functional needs as well as the unique needs of various types of incoming Penn students. We thoroughly reviewed the previous site’s analytics to understand how students were using the existing resources available and where they weren’t as engaged.
- We surveyed students who recently went through the onboarding process, then interviewed them to understand the kinds of questions they had as new students, areas in the current onboarding experience that confused them, and to understand where they looked for the information they sought.
- Those findings informed our proposal for the new site structure, which we then assessed with a tree test – an analysis of a website’s navigation structure and labelling – to evaluate how well students could find the information they were looking for in the fewest number of clicks.
The result? This data enabled us to optimize naming conventions and informed the hierarchy we built into the live website.
Many Resources, One Portal
We streamlined the presentation of all the deadlines, tasks, forms, and decisions that are involved in preparing students to arrive on campus into a central portal that encourages students to complete them on time. To help guide students, we created a dynamic task list with progress-tracking so students always know exactly what they need to do to be fully up and running – from finding their first-year residence to registering their property with campus security, it’s all right there, centralized, categorized, and guided. We even included a handy way for students to share their progress with parents who may want to ensure their kids are on top of their to-do list.
Ultimately, we created an engaging interface to help students more easily access what they needed and complete tasks independently, ensuring that by the time they arrived at Penn they could spend time exploring campus and making friends. Through intuitive design, a methodical approach, and close collaboration with our client, we reconceptualized and delivered an updated site in a manner consistent with Penn’s commitment to being a welcoming and diverse community. And, according to the Penn team, it’s been a huge success, with a significant increase in site usage and a decrease in student inquiries to various administration offices about onboarding tasks.