Likely one of the most neglected parts of a website redesign, research ensures your team is taking a user-centered focus on your design and also validates design decisions to management and clients.  Below I'll outline some of our team's research tactics used for our university website redesign (some of which are still in progress), and lessons learned for each.


This is a great way to begin the design process.  The competitive analysis is a low-pressure first step, during which the team takes a look at the websites of competing organizations to develop an overview of what's out there currently.  Through this process, our team was able to identify features we wanted to try out (and ones we definitely wanted to avoid).

Personally, I could spend weeks looking at the websites of others.   It's really inspiring and, at this point in the research process, the boundaries are endless.  In our analysis, we focused mainly on other universities, but also included a few not-for-profit organizations as well.

Clearly, trending in the industry now is:


Primarily used as an idea generation technique, focus groups allow your team to interact with various audiences (students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents) and get an idea for their goals, likes and dislikes when interacting with a university.  Not to be confused with usability testing (see below), the focus groups should be ideally conducted early in the process and questions should be general in nature.  We conducted focus groups with alumni, parents and future students in high school.

In my experience, focus groups can quickly turn into a group-think situation, where louder voices become the deciding factor and snap decisions are made by the team too quickly, so proceed with caution when using this method.

A more useful method, which we tried with alumni and parents, were one-on-one user interviews.  Through an interview, the participant can feel a bit more at ease to speak more freely and they allow the interviewer to ask more probing questions, with better quality answers.


Surveys are helpful for gathering aggregate data from multiple audiences quickly.  While surveys may generate a thousand or more responses, usability testing is limited to 5-7 participants per each round, so it's helpful to conduct surveys when management wants to a large part of the population represented.  For a university audience, posting the survey as a link from your home page and in your student/staff portal is a great way of getting exposure.  Also, a good incentive is essential.

We conducted several surveys, first asking about user needs and then asking for feedback on 3 design concepts.  A few final surveys were targeted at specific audiences, such as high school students and current students.

My recommendation for surveys:  keep them high-level (you should not be asking very specific questions about labeling or navigation in the survey) and keep in mind that users who self-report on their own online activity may not accurately report their behavior.  For example, from my experience I've learned that people browse the web from their smartphone much more than they are aware.

Finally, I recommend only asking questions that your team is actually going to take into consideration.   Far too often, I see survey responses go unreviewed or ignored.


One of the most helpful research tactics in the redesign process is the usability test, a staple of the user experience design field.  Usability testing allowed our team early on to test user interface ideas, first on paper (paper prototyping) and then via high fidelity design concepts.

The advantage of testing on paper first is the fluidity in which you can rapidly make changes to design concepts based on real-time feedback.  I highly recommend this approach of rapid prototyping.  If something isn't working, there's no use continuing to test it.  A disadvantage of paper is that it does not give the user an accurate perception of the device's screen size, scrolling or user interface elements that might otherwise stand out due to color and interactive features.

The team went through several rounds of usability testing during the process, continually validating our decisions and ensuring our top tasks could be found and completed easily.  Usability testing sessions are typing taped for later review and validation.

Up next, I'll write a bit about our process for wireframing and designing the actual user interface using low and high fidelity prototypes.