SDSU Extension serves as the outreach arm of the state’s land grant. This means that they provide farmers, ranchers, agri-business people, communities, families, and youth with the research-based information they need to succeed. SDSU Extension’s objectives are to serve these communities by facilitating networks of community members, establishing connections to SDSU Extension and partner experts, empowering the community with unbiased, science-based research and facilitating growth and change through SDSU and partner programs.
The website serves diverse audiences with different information needs and objectives. Being able to serve these audiences both together and individually can present a conflict of opposing interests.
The SDSU Extension website helps to serve these objectives by showcasing products and programs of SDSU Extension and its partners and making content easily searchable and findable. It also elevates SDSU Extension as the go-to source for information in the space. It is intended to be a resource that is mobile friendly, easily printable and meets federal standards of accessibility.
SDSU Extension was suffering from some of the typical problems faced by large content-based websites and wanted to make a number of improvements. These included:
- Serving multiple audiences with different needs and objectives
- Making content easier to find
- Encouraging the discovery of content
- Providing the appropriate information for visitors’ questions
- Ensuring visitors they are viewing the most recent and up to date content
Identifying audiences and their needs
Before we could suggest any solutions to the problems, we needed to understand SDSU Extension’s audiences so that our solutions would match the audiences’ needs and expectations. A point that differed from many other Four Kitchens clients is that SDSU Extension staff members have direct interaction with their diverse audiences. They would often see their audiences in-person at conferences, educational sessions, and meetings. They also had regular phone and email exchanges. This meant that they had vast knowledge about their audiences, but it was spread out among their staff in bits and pieces. There was no centralized or shared understanding of this information. We created audience personas to gather this information and made use of them when making design decisions.
We created working drafts of personas during our in-person Discovery workshop. At the workshop, we had at least one staff member that had direct interactions with an audience type present. During a series of activities we learned about the audiences’ goals and frustrations, desires and wishes and content they currently use and the content they wish SDSU Extension provided. We also learned the value they perceive in content provided by SDSU Extension. We collected direct quotes and comments to get a sense of their priorities on a focus-based sliding scale.
During stakeholder interviews, we gathered additional persona information from SDSU staff members that were not present during the workshop. Then we validated these understandings through interviews with actual end users. Information gathering and validation for the personas continued throughout all of the other user research conducted on the project.
Multiple ways to improve finding content
Our user research revealed that many users were not able to find the resources they were looking for on the site. We knew we needed to consider a fresh navigation. But first, we needed to discover the best terms, groupings of terms, number of navigational level depth, functionality and design. In order to gather these understandings we asked questions during our interviews, conducted open card sorts to discover how end users grouped content and topics, and validated our navigation with a tree study.
Gathering Information During Interviews
During our interviews, we asked end users about their process to discover answers to their questions and whether the website’s language and terms match their preferred language and terms. We also asked what content or topics they refer to most often and how they discover new interests or other topics that might be of potential interest.
Conducting Card Sorts
Card sorting is a well-established research technique utilized for discovering how people understand and categorize information. Card sorting involves creating a set of cards. Each card represents a concept or item of content, and then end users group the cards in a way that makes sense to them. In an open card sort, end users will label each of the groups they created. Because SDSU Extension serves many very diverse audiences, we conducted four topic-related card sorts. This individualized approach allowed them to see the content that related most to their needs.
In total, 196 end users each completed one of the four card sorts. Within each card sort, we analyzed the results to find similarities, differences and overlaps. In addition to noting which items were grouped together, we also reviewed what they labeled each group.
Though we conducted four distinct topic-based card sorts, we ultimately needed to develop one overall sitemap that included all four topic areas. The separate card sorts were very helpful in allowing for understanding deeper levels of a sitemap. This knowledge made it then easier to identify which topics could be grouped together for the higher levels of the sitemap.
We reviewed this initial sitemap with SDSU Extension’s subject matter experts, helping us to further finetune the sitemap wording. This resulted in Version 2 of the sitemap, which was used to validate with a tree test.
Making content more discoverable
Terms for Tagging (Taxonomy)
Previous SDSU Extension terms were used to label the type of content (event, news, article, publication) rather than identify content topics (weeds and invasive plants, cattle feeding, food preservation, robotics & engineering, soil management, etc.). By switching the terms to content topics we would be able to use the tags to improve search results, provide additional paths to navigate content, promote related content, and feature all content by topic on landing pages.
In order to develop a new set of terms or taxonomy, we analyzed search queries, then we audited existing content for word usage and topics. After that, we reviewed existing taxonomies for subject areas covered by SDSU Extension. Additionally, we worked with subject matter experts to provide suggestions.
When developing a taxonomy one must think about balance, ideally including terms broad enough to cover multiple articles while narrow enough to provide focus.
Making content relevant to the visitor
While the client chose to handle most of the content strategy process, Four Kitchens provided assistance in keeping both the user and business goals in mind when developing content for the website. We also suggested some editorial guidelines for rewriting and updating the content.
A lack of a content lifecycle in turn made the content audit and inventory time consuming. We thus developed content lifecycle based upon SDSU Extension’s cycles, staff availability, and best practices. Additionally, Four Kitchens incorporated automation within the CMS to facilitate with content lifecycle — including providing lists of content each month for review, as well as the auto removal of events and news items after their expiration date.
The SDSU Extension website launched in late December 2018. The updated visuals and improved navigation are better able to serve SDSU Extension’s various audiences. It is a true example of a well-researched, user-focused website in action.
- In-person discovery workshop
- Stakeholder interviews
- User research
- Creation of personas
- Site mapping
- Tree testing
- Card sorting
- Developing taxonomies
- Content strategy