Redesigning the Washington University Undergraduate Admissions Website – Part I

| By: Nathan Sprehe
Nathan Sprehe

Recently, Almanac was selected by Washington University in St. Louis (or WashU, as it is affectionately known to alumni and local St. Louisans) to reimagine the website for the Office of Undergraduate Admissions—the primary gateway for prospective undergraduate students. Ranked in the top 20 universities in the United States, WashU is known for its academic rigor and world-changing research, all set amidst the backdrop of collegiate gothic buildings dating back to the 1904 World’s Fair. They also host presidential debates from time to time.

We worked closely with the Undergraduate Admissions team and WashU’s office of Public Affairs through an extensive discovery process, followed by design prototyping and front-end development. The website was built in Sharepoint, so our role also included coordination with the Sharepoint development team.

This is the first of two blog posts about the project. This post will focus on our discovery and the second on the design and development. You can always check out the project case study to learn more.

Visit the Project Case Study:
Washington University in St. Louis Undergraduate Admissions Website

Immersion and Goals
We kicked off with a full-on immersion into the undergraduate admissions world. We interviewed the admissions team and reviewed everything we could get our hands on—marketing collateral, brand and digital audits, and user data. We reviewed the current admissions website and took a look at peer and model example websites to get a solid understanding of the current landscape.

With brains bursting, together our teams set goals for the new site:

  1. Modernize the website: The current site was several years old and badly needed a facelift. This was the impetus for the entire project.
  2. Align the design with the University’s new branding: WashU had just finished an extensive rebranding effort including new positioning and an updated visual identity for all academic units.
  3. Help prospective students see themselves at the university (paint a picture): You know, classic “show, don’t tell.”
  4. Position the UA website within the university-wide web ecosystem: While our work needed to align with the broader WashU brand, it was still necessary to convey a unique Undergraduate Admissions voice.

Understand the Audience
After defining our goals, we set out to learn as much as possible about who would be using the website. We developed user personas—profiles of our primary target audience website users: high school students and their parents. These personas are useful for decision making and inform usability, functionality and content. Best of all, they allow everyone on the team to focus when new ideas are proposed. Questions like “Would Paul use this feature?” are easily answered by referring back to his persona.

With our users in mind, we developed Undergraduate Admissions positioning, key messages and voice and tone.

Map it out
The admissions cycle is complex! In order to fully understand all the touch points and get crystal clear on where the website fit in, we outlined the entire process that prospective students and their parents go through when choosing a university, by creating a Decision Map. One of our clients loves to say, “Your worries are our worries. We understand the monsters under the bed.” I love that metaphor, so I’ll use it here. The decision map allowed us to look at each stage of the application cycle, plot out all the “monsters,” or concerns, our users had and match them up with options to address them. The answer may be an existing direct mail piece, a visit to campus or specific content and functionality on the new website.

Armed with a clear understanding of what our users need and how we’re going to deliver on those needs, we hit the ground running with design prototyping.

Stay tuned for Part II where we’ll dig into design and development.