Merging Intranets at QUT

In Uncategorized by richardbarrett

Introduction


The Queensland University of Technology (QUT) is a public research university located on two campuses in the Brisbane area: Gardens Point and Kelvin Grove and enrols around 50,000 students a year. This figure also includes around 9,000 international students from more than 100 countries.

Brief


At the time of starting the project, QUT was operating two intranets: A student portal and an academic portal. The primary goal of the project was to merge both systems into a single credentials governed intranet with the student portal subsuming the academic portal. The majority of UI features were duplicated across both intranets but each did possess a handful of custom components as well as its own unique information architecture. QUT management also decided to introduce a number of new features at this time to minimise disruption to its online student services.

Research


To gather data for the project, twice daily workshops were scheduled at QUT’s Gardens Point campus over a three-week period and included all student cohorts. Session exercises were designed and each session followed the same format.

We needed the following questions answered via the workshops:

  • Which features of the existing student UI are most useful
  • What features are missing from the existing student UI
  • What was right about the layout of the existing UI
  • What was wrong about the layout of the existing UI
  • Where would students expect to find specific sections and content

To understand which features of the existing UI were still applicable, participants were asked to place sticky circles on large printouts of the existing UI and to assign a rank to each with 1 being the best. To further complement this data, and to collect data relating to layout, each participant was handed a bag of printed cut out components, glue stick, blank sheet of A1 paper and asked to create a collage of their ideal homepage and to rank each component used.

After participants completed these exercises, they were asked to comment on their work and the interview was video recorded. Any data relating to new features was collected at this time when offered. The final exercise for the workshop related to the findability of content and was undertaken at a workstation set up for tree testing.

Data analysis


After the data was digitised and uploaded to network storage, my first activity was to turn it from data into information. Because not all participants had completed the exercises identically, the data required normalising before it could yield any useful insights. When normalising was complete, the data was charted and meetings were scheduled to present the information and discuss insights, deliverables and milestones with the team.

UI design and testing


To reduce development time, it was decided to retain as much as possible from the existing student portal. My first port of call was to perform a heuristic evaluation of the current portal before using the the research findings to evaluate which parts could be retained, modified or removed. Both the heuristic evaluation and the workshop research highlighted a number of usability issues spread throughout the entire portal and the findings were documented and discussed with the team.

The heuristic evaluation revealed the following issues:

  • Inconsistent styling
  • Misuse of navigation
  • Poor visibility of system status
  • Disorganised content
  • Misplacement of features
  • Non-standard custom components
  • WCAG 2.0 AA compliance issues

The research findings were useful in identifying which features of the site were the most useful to each student cohort. A particularly useful insight was that a prominent homepage component, ubiquitously regarded as both useful and relevant in the department, was used very little and was even confusing to students. Based on the research findings, the issue was resolved by extending the functionality of another component. A side-effect of this decision was that it freed up valuable real estate on the homepage.

Due to the extensive research effort at the start of the project and the resulting documentation, merging the two portals into a single seamless user experience was a straightforward exercise. QUT maintains a very large voluntary student test pool across all student cohorts meaning that a design could be tested the moment it was ready and the test results would be in by the following morning. Usability Hub’s online tools were used for testing purposes throughout the entire design phase of project. The team at QUT were so impressed with how well Usability Hub’s tools performed that they permanently integrated it into all future development projects.

Design system

After the final designs were signed off, I set to work building a design system to centralise and standardise the new portal’s visual identity. My reasons for doing were as follows:

  • Ensure design consistency
  • Remove friction and ambiguity from the design process
  • A shared design system encourages collaboration
  • A shared design system saves time
  • Enables designers to stop worrying about minute details

The design system was built in HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript. It is important to mention that I am not a thoroughbred JavaScript developer. However, I am competent enough to get the job done to professional standards. Notably, I have comprehensive HTML and CSS skills and a software engineering background, which supported my work on this project. All markup and code were fully commented. The design system took approximately two weeks to develop and was well-received by the team. Once signed off, it was uploaded to a subdomain of QUT’s intranet.

An early version of the design system can be viewed here.


Conclusion


Prior to the conclusion of my contract, I advised the team on integrating a usage metrics tool that would capture issues early on. I also suggested that a live chat support component would be a beneficial feature to implement at some point in the near future.

Working with QUT was a rewarding experience. My team colleagues were talented, fun and supportive. QUT also has great facilities and resources at its disposal to ensure projects achieve their objectives. I definitely would enjoy returning to QUT for work on future projects.