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Case Study: Helping MSU Integrative Biology Students Succeed

Supporting student success at Michigan State University with a human-centered website redesign

Location: Michigan State University, Independent Study

Date: Jan 2019 – May 2019

Collaborators: Katie Oeschger (Supporting UX Researcher)

My Role: Project Lead, UX Research, Content Design

The Challenge: What do students need to succeed?

How can university units be assured that their ever-changing student body is receiving the resources that students actually need?

The department of Integrative Biology (IBIO) is home to more than 500 students majoring in Environmental Biology-Zoology, Integrative Biology, or Zoology. To help the greatest number of students, the department needed to become more strategic with its limited time and resources. The goal of this project was to understand what challenges department majors encounter and how to help these students achieve their academic and career goals.

I helped initiate, designed, and led this project for the Department of Integrative Biology at Michigan State University. This project was approved by Michigan State University’s Institutional Review Board.

Design Process

Discovery: What current resources exist? How do students use the website? Talking with real users. Device usage. Synthesizing interview data. Who makes up the student body? What is the student experience like?

Ideation: Brainstorming solutions. Are competitors already implementing these ideas? Design recommendation.

Design: Improving usability & findability. Preliminary design ideas.

Conclusion: Broader implications. Limitations. Future work.


Content audit + card sort – What current resources exist?

The undergraduate section of the Integrative Biology Website included 43 webpages, nine of which were listed under the main navigation. The older webpages were very text heavy. The information architecture and user interface needed improvement.

In the past year, only one new page was added, the Hands-On Opportunities Database. This database was developed based on real user needs.

To understand how to restructure the website’s information architecture, we asked students to complete a card sort activity. Each student participant was handed a stack of index cards (i.e., each card represented a page in the undergraduate section of the website) and asked to sort the cards in a way that makes sense to him/her. The purpose of this activity was to understand their mental models of the website’s information architecture.

Card sort data were analyzed by looking for themes and patterns.

Web analytics – How do students use the website?

One way to understand how people were using the website was to review the Google Analytics data. I evaluated the top-visited pages, landing pages, exit pages, bounce rates, and the content drill down. I found similar patterns in the data across multiple years.

The data suggested that users primarily accessed the website with their computer using Google. They used the search engine to go directly to the webpage of interest, circumventing the Homepage. These findings were later corroborated during student interviews. The top visited webpages are listed below.

PUT THIS IN A LIST PLEASE: 1) undergrad degrees, 2) advising, 3) overrides, 4) undergrad program, 5) hands-on opportunities database.

Student interviews – Talking with real users

My empathy and interpersonal skills have been exceptionally useful to build rapport with users quickly and collect valuable data. We interviewed 15 students from the Integrative Biology student body who met our participant profile. These participants were diverse across class standing, majors, gender, etc. We continued interviewing students until we reached the point of data saturation.

During these interviews, we sought to understand topics such as: -How do students get the information they need for their majors? – Academic and career exploration challenges. – What MSU correspondence do they read? – Communication preferences. – User feedback on potential web design ideas and student resources that were currently in development.

The interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed into affinity notes. The data were analyzed using flow models and an affinity diagram.

Flow models – Device usage

Flow models were created during each interview debriefing. Flow models were a quick, visual overview of the user’s interview data. The sample flow models accompanying this text show a visual representation of communication mediums used by a student, how he/she used them, the relationships between these mediums, and relevant pain points (designated with an X).

In general, students prefer to use a computer for academics. This finding was corroborated by web analytics. Students use their smartphones to look up quick information while they are on the go.

Affinity diagram – Synthesizing interview data

Interview data were analyzed using an affinity diagram, a hierarchical grouping of affinity notes. We selected an affinity diagram because: – It was an effective way to organize information across users to show common themes, challenges, and needs. – All data could be viewed in one place. – An affinity diagram allowed us to see patterns and themes in the data without losing the individual variation.

The affinity diagram was comprised of ~1,500 affinity notes (note: the photo only shows half of the completed affinity diagram). Key insights from the affinity diagram are listed below.

Themes for user data

Students are overwhelmed when they are provided too much information. It’s hard for students to use websites with too much information. They only want information that is directly relevant to them. Poor content organization and formatting are a turnoff for students. For example, they get burned out reading a bunch of text on a webpage. Instead, they prefer visuals. Students also reported that they get confused if there are too many pages or navigation options to choose from. They prefer simple, and easy to use websites.

Students have a hard time finding the information they need. Students only look for information when they need it. Students struggle to find the information they need because they either: – Don’t know where to go from information. – Don’t know what to search for. – Don’t know how to piece information together. – Don’t want to dig through a bunch of content to find the information they need. LIST HERE>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> They reported that the IBIO website is hard to use. Students would prefer to start with fewer options and funnel down to get more information.

Students find it helpful when information is consolidated. They like having all the information they need in one place. For example, students would like each major to have its own webpage which provides resources specific to that major (e.g., complimentary minors, careers, jobs, etc.). They also find hyperlinks very helpful.

Students don’t know what major is best for them. Students explore majors by comparing curriculums online. They would like more information about the majors online to help them determine which major is the best fit for them.

Students have a hard time connecting their major to a career path. Although students have begun career exploration, they don’t know what to do with their degree. They want to know what type of careers they can have with each curriculum, possible entry level jobs they can pursue, and the skill sets they need for these positions. They don’t understand graduate school. IBIO Students like to read examples of what their peers are doing with their major (or have done in the past). They said it would be helpful if there were stories about what alumni have done with their degree. They are also interested in learning about the career trajectories of their professors.

The best way to communicate with students via email. Students reported that they check their email at least one time per day. The subject line and who the email is sent from dictates whether they open it; they open emails related to their academics. The students like the IBIO Student eNewsletter and its current distribution schedule. => IBIO students don’t want to see school-related stuff on social media, and they don’t check the department website regularly.


Sketching – Brainstorming solutions

We generated more than 200 design ideas from user data. Sketching was used to brainstorm, capture, explore, and communicate my ideas. Ideas ranged from hosting student assemblies (with optional live streaming) or redesigning the curriculum to website enhancements. Design ideas were prioritized.

Competitive analysis – Are compedtitors already implementing these ideas?

I conducted a competitive analysis to get a better understanding of how MSU’s Department of Integrative Biology’s web presence compared with its namesake competitors across the United States. Only ten departments with the name ‘Integrative Biology’ were identified. All ten were included in the competitive analysis. The features compared across the websites were based on user data and potential design ideas for this project.

Findings suggest that most Integrative Biology Department websites provide their students with sample course plans and a course list, two areas where MSU is lacking. In general, these websites included very basic information for undergraduates and either limited to zero information about career preparation (a high priority topic to department undergraduates). None of the websites included in the competitive analysis had modern web designs. Similar to MSU’s current IBIO website, these websites were text-heavy and provided limited visuals. Overall, I discovered that many of my design ideas generated from the affinity diagram have not been implemented by MSU’s competitors.

Recommendation: A website redesign

A website driven by human-centered design is a powerful tool that had not been fully leveraged by the Department of Integrative Biology. The few webpages that were created based on user needs in the past have been very successful.

Redesigning the website (e.g., information architecture, content, and design) was the first step to bolster the academic and career success of department majors. The data suggested that students rely on the website as a reference. Improving the website could reduce the cognitive load of users and create an easy to use, informative, and enjoyable user interface for students. Providing students with useful, online resources could also help reduce the overwhelmed advising workload and serve as helpful artifacts for advisors to reference during advising appointments.

Enhancements began with high priority features that students could not find elsewhere.


Sitemap – Improving usability & findability

Using student data, the information architecture and content organization of the website (i.e., the undergraduate section only) were redesigned to align with students’ mental models. The total webpages were reduced from 43 to 27, and every webpage can be reached in 3 clicks or less.

Content design – preliminary design ideas

I began designing the website with a paper prototype because it was a quick way to work out our design ideas. I rewrote all the headers and web copy to be simple, and straightforward. More than 50% of the old web copy was eliminated.

Scans of the paper prototype were uploaded into MarvelPop, a tool that makes sketches interactive like a real website. I conducted moderated usability testing with ten students who were pursuing majors offered by the Department. => Overall, student feedback was positive. Students reported that the prototype was much easier to navigate than the pre-existing website (average student usability rating was 8.1 of 10). In fact, one student said, “I really like it. I want to use it right now. It’s a lot easier for arranging my internship.”The average completion rate across scenarios was 73%.

The big takeaway was that some of the designs included too much text. Feedback was incorporated into the next iteration of the prototype.


The findings suggest that students in the Department of Integrative Biology struggled to find the information they need for their major and career preparation. These students were overwhelmed by excessive information and they struggle to synthesize information. They want content directly relevant to their academics and career interests

Students were really excited about new features that emerged from our research insights. For example, one new feature is a webpage that compares, in detail, all the department majors. A usability participant commented, “That’s perfect. That’s what I always wanted. It would save me hours.” Students also liked that many academic resources that could only be accessed in person will also be available online. The impact is threefold: (1) access to critical major information will be more equitable and accessible to all students, (2) students will have more options for academic support to accommodate their needs and lifestyles, and (3) decrease the demanding workload of academic advisors.

Overall, student feedback was very positive. In fact, one student asserted, “It’s what I hoped it would be.” When students were asked how likely they would recommend this new website to a fellow student in their major (during usability testing), their average rating was a 9.5 out of 10, with 10 being the highest score possible.

Most surprising and complimentary was the noted comparison of this new design with other websites across the Michigan State University campus by students and colleagues. A student mentioned, “If I had this, school would be easier. It’s way more user friendly than any other MSU website. It has everything you need from starting here, classes, to find careers. It would be great for other majors across campus.” Meanwhile, an academic advisor (from another unit) who happened to see the prototype told me, “I’ve seen a lot of webpages in my nine years of advising at MSU. This one is by far the best I’ve seen.”

Broader implications

The implications of this project extended beyond what was initially expected. The data, findings, and design ideas generated from this project: – Helped guide the department’s strategic planning. – Was used as evidence of the department’s commitment to student success in Integrative Biology’s [undergraduate] annual program report that has been reviewed by the College of Natural Science’s leadership. – The data fostered the development of a new freshman course that has been incorporated into the department’s undergraduate curriculum. This new course connects students with peers and department faculty sooner in their academic careers.

We also discovered that Integrative Biology has been doing some things well: – All the participants really liked the IBIO Student eNewletter. – Students have found the IBIO Hands-On Opportunities Database to be useful. Enhancements were suggested to make this database even more useful and easier to use.


Like any study, there were limitations. For example, you can only learn so much from interviews. What people say and what they do don’t necessarily align. For example, some students said they used FAQs, but then they contradicted themselves later in the interview. If I could do the project over again, I would have supplemented the interviews with a diary study to better capture needs and technology usage. => Another limitation of the project was that students were only recruited using email. In the future, we should also recruit students by making announcements in MSU classrooms. It is possible that our results may have been biased towards students that read their email.

Future work

In the future, I plan build the high-fidelity prototype in the department’s content management system using HTML & CSS. Once a final product is launched, then lower priority design ideas can be explored.

Additionally, I would like to conduct a parallel project with the department’s graduate students. I’ve reviewed the Google Analytics data for the graduate webpages, but I want to dig deeper. How the graduate students currently use the Integrative Biology website and how they would like to use it (i.e., if changes were made) may not align.

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