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What we can learn from usability testing

When working on or managing a site on a frequent basis, it is easy to forget that you are not the core user, and that the way you interact with it will probably be completely different to that of someone who has never seen it before. It is important to take a step back and get perspective from someone not familiar with the site to make certain that those who will actually be using it are able to, and at the forefront of its design.

What is usability testing?

Usability testing consists of short sessions whereby a web user, who is preferably of the intended audience of the site being tested, is set a number of simple tasks to complete. Whilst completing these tasks the user is encouraged to ‘think out loud’ before and during any interaction with the site. With permission these sessions can be recorded and then analysed further for useful feedback.

By undertaking this testing early, faults and flaws of all manners can be corrected before they become significant and difficult to fix later in the design process. The results are often surprising and always beneficial in improving the overall experience for our users.

Here are just a few of the valuable improvements you can gain from usability testing

1. Aesthetic improvements – Getting independent feedback from real users who can offer their approval or suggestions on the look of a site is a really useful tool in evaluating it’s aesthetic design.

2. Improved navigation – By observing how users navigate around a site, we can make informed and considerate decisions about where we place navigation elements, what we name them, and also make note of any navigational issues that become apparent.

3. Improved content – Is the text easy to read and appropriate? Are the images adding to the content? Is the content well-structured in a hierarchical manner? Additional suggestions such as videos or social media feeds? – These are all useful questions in appraising and improving the content.

4. Technical glitches – Technical bugs that may have been missed can show up and be noted when a user interacts with a site in an unexpected way.

5. User tasks – By setting key user tasks for the site and asking the subject to complete these, we can know for certain that the site is functioning as it’s supposed to and meeting the needs of its audience.

If you think usability testing could be beneficial for your site, please contact your web marketing officer or someone on the web team.

Frank Zirger
Web and Digital Communications Assistant (GBP)

Digital Marketing 2016 conference: 5 top take-away tips

Recently colleagues and I attended a digital marketing conference in Exeter provided by Optix Solutions, local digital marketing agency. Optix gave a review of digital marketing trends from 2015, forecast trends for 2016 and offered tips on how to improve your digital marketing.

These are our 5 top take-away tips from the event:

1. Think strategically first, then tactically.

Have a digital marketing strategy that encapsulates your aims, objectives, what you want to achieve, who your target audience are and what they want from you before you start to think about the tactics needed to meet your strategic objectives.

If you dive straight in and start with tactics you could find you are wasting a lot of time and using tools and platforms that are not appropriate for your target audience.

2. Focus on your own space

Digital marketing must start with focussing on your own website. It’s vital to position yourself online with a strong, professional website – it’s the online shop window to your organisation.

The key to creating a great website is to create the best possible experience for your audience. Visitors should easily find information, answer their questions or carry out tasks that they need to. A positive experience of your website also lends credibility to the organisation.

Tool tip: Generate heat maps to show where your visitors’ mouse hovers over, how far they scroll and where they click. This can give you an insight into what your visitors are looking for and the usability of your site.

3. Take video seriously

YouTube continues to offer an enormous opportunity for organisations. ‘Millenials’ – the demographic born from the early 1980s to the early 2000s – turn to YouTube before Google, offering an opportunity to target a whole generation.

Facebook’s video platform is also expected to rocket in 2016.

4. Be human

Have meaningful engagements and communicate authentically – remember there is a person on the other end of your digital platform! Being seen as ‘human’ helps you be transparent, approachable and trustworthy.

Create interesting, positive and relevant content that your visitors’ understand and can relate to, to build human relationships in a digital world.

5. Google is still huge

Google still drives more traffic than any other channel and is the most used search engine in the market. However Bing is now starting to see an increase in traffic due to its search being used in Microsoft Cortana and Apple’s ‘Siri’ assistant.

As such voice searches are starting to become more widely used, so when considering your SEO widen your net of key phrases to consider what questions somebody might ask when searching by voice.

Top SEO tips from the conference include:

  1. Visit to find out what questions people are asking about your topic, and integrate this into your SEO.
  2. Regularly review your content for key phrases and words. Offer quality content that is relevant to your audience.
  3. Interact with other people in your community to encourage online conversations or linking to you.
  4. Review your site structure and URLs to ensure your site is easy to navigate.

If you would like to discuss your digital presence please contact a member of the Web Team.

Rachel Dennis
Web Marketing Officer

How to blog

Firstly, ask yourself whether a blog is the right medium for the message you want to convey. If you have information-based content that will remain static over time, that users need to be able to access repeatedly, it is likely to sit better on a static webpage.

But, for content that will become out-of-date, information that is ‘nice to have’ as an addition to the essentials, or ‘opinion and insight’ – a blog could be the perfect way to showcase this. We can help colleagues from across the university get started with blogging on the domain. The Library News blog and The Exeter Blog are two examples from the University of Exeter where blogs are being used successfully to supplement pages on the main website.

If you think a blog might be right for your content, the first thing to do is have a chat with a member of the web team. They will be able to talk further about whether blogging is appropriate for your area, and may know of existing blogs that you could contribute to, rather than setting up a whole new one.

Whether you find another blog to contribute to, or set up a new one from scratch, the following tips will help.

Five top tips for blogging

  1. Keep it simple & not too long

300-500 words is a good rule of thumb

  1. Keep it up

You don’t have to blog every day or every week – don’t bombard people with posts if there’s nothing to say – but your readers will appreciate timely updates when you do

  1. Be personal and friendly (engage)

A blog’s a good opportunity to show a bit of your personality in your writing – it’s written ‘from a person’ rather than ‘from the department’

  1. Remember the difference between a blog and a web page

Link up the two where appropriate – use hyperlinks within blog posts (remember: these are best for opinion and insight) to link through to your web pages (static information.) Maybe you’ve got a new webpage you could talk a bit more about the process behind? Or perhaps a blog would work as a way to deliver updates on an ongoing project which also has a static web presence?

  1. Engage with your audience

If you get comments and emails from your readers – respond. Your blog is an opportunity to speak to your users in a more informal tone, so make the most of this.

Further reading from the web team blog



Handling questions and acting on behalf of the University on social media

In general terms, if you are acting on behalf of the University on any social media platform, you should always use a professional but friendly tone of voice. We want the University’s social media voice to be friendly and welcoming, not too corporate and anonymous. However, we should not slip into any sort of ‘banter’ or show any encouragement of, for example, silly student behaviour, drinking culture etc etc. If you are not using an official account, you should identify yourself as a member of staff so that it’s clear that you are acting on behalf of the University.

Social media is interactive and encourages discussion and this can be very useful for establishing communication and dialogue with your important audiences. However, you should always avoid engaging in contentious issues where you may not represent the University’s official view.

Our policy is to respond, where it is deemed appropriate, such as to congratulate people who get offers, address any complaints, correct misinformation, and answer any queries whereby we think we can provide assistance.  If you are unsure of the information you are giving, please check first and let the person know we will get back to them.

As Social Media Manager, I am always able to offer advice and guidance if required. You can email me on You may also wish to take a look at the University’s social media guidance and policy.

Hootsuite – an overview

Hootsuite is a social media management system that is used to manage multiple social media accounts from one ‘dashboard’. At the University, we use it to post messages to Twitter and occasionally Facebook, from the main @uniofexeter account as well as the @UofE_Students and @UoEPenrynCampus accounts.

As well as posting messages, we use Hootsuite extensively to monitor what others say about the University on Twitter. We run multiple search streams to try and catch all mentions of the University, for example ‘Exeter uni’, ‘Exeter University’, ‘Exeter students’ etc. This enables us to see what is being said about us as well as what is said directly to us when people include our twitter username.

Through this monitoring we can get a clear idea of the general sentiment about the University and it also allows us to pick up on problems and issues that we would otherwise be unaware of.

We also use the search streams when we’re promoting a particular hashtag. This allows us to see the extent to which a hashtag is being used. Examples include #ExeterForever for graduation, #ExeterOpen for open days and #ALevels for results day.

Hootsuite also enables us to schedule tweets and posts many months in advance so this allows us to manage our work load better and use our time more efficiently.

We use Hootsuite to manage our out of hours service as well. Hootsuite allows us to email tweets to other members of the team or assign them to someone else for an answer when the person on out of hours is unable to deal with the query themselves. By sharing the search streams as well, everyone who is managing the accounts can see all the conversation and which tweets have already been answered.

If you would like to find out more about using Hootsuite, please contact Charley Sweet (

Charley Sweet
Social Media Manager, Communications & Marketing Services

In late 2014 the University started an international marketing campaign with China as the focus. As part of this campaign we established our presence on several Chinese social media channels (read more about this in our introduction to Chinese social media blogpost). Having a presence on these social media channels meant that we were able to hear from our prospective students in China directly, and we found that quite a few students reported having problems accessing our University website. The solution to this problem was an easy one – we needed a Chinese website!

The internet in China is strictly controlled by the government and this can cause slow loading times for websites outside of China. To make the new site easy to access from China we needed to have a .CN domain name and to have the site hosted in either China or Hong Kong. After working with an external marketing company, MarketMe China, we were able to register our .CN domain and find hosting for the site in Hong Kong. Exeter is now the first Russell Group University (without a campus in China) to have a .CN domain name.chinese_website

You can take a look at the site here:

Our China site is designed to provide an overview of the University to prospective students and parents in China. The site is fully mobile responsive and features a parallax background when you scroll up and down. The website features an introduction to Exeter, videos about the University (all captioned with Mandarin subtitles), undergraduate and postgraduate course sections, student profiles and a map showing the location of Exeter in relation to London.

The content for the site was specifically tailored for the Chinese audience. In the introduction to the University the key facts highlight the cleanliness of the air and how safe Exeter is as a city in the UK. The courses featured on the site are ones which we know appeal to students in China. There are also links to our Chinese social media channels so that students can get in touch with us if they have any further questions.

Our aim is to keep improving the site to provide the best information for our prospective students in China. We are already working to develop the site further and over the next few weeks we will have a Chinese webpage for each of our courses that are featured on the site.

Emily Chapman
Web Marketing Officer

The Communications Brief

– “I need a website!”
– “Why?”
– “Erm… what do you mean?”

The Web Team build, manage and maintain websites all day every day. It’s what we do and it’s what we spend our time thinking about. Which is why people who come to us asking for a website are often surprised when we challenge them to tell us why they think they need one in the first place.

There are a number of important reasons why we try to do this.

Most straightforwardly, the creation of a website should be as a solution to a problem. You wouldn’t walk into the Doctor’s surgery and say, “I need a two week course of Amoxicillin, one tablet, three times a day please”. Instead you would describe the problem you were having and, hopefully, your doctor would help you to find the most effective treatment.

If we’re going to do a good job for you and hopefully help you solve some of your problems, then we need to know what those problems are so we can help design the best solution.

You may not need a new website at all, or you may need improvements or amends to existing pages. You would be surprised how many problems can be significantly improved by removing existing web content, rather than creating more. It’s a common misconception that once you’ve created some web pages, then the information they contain is somehow immediately found and understood by the people who need it. It may be that there are more effective means of communication available to you. We most often end up doing some work on the website to help solve problems, but it’s perfectly possible that you actually need a social media campaign, some digital advertising or a smartphone app. Who knows, you might even need a poster!

At a more detailed level, the secret to finding the right solution for your problem lies in gaining a shared understanding of what you are trying to achieve and for which audience. When we ask “Why?”, that’s the important conversation we are kicking off.

To enable this important part of any web or digital communications project, we use a tool called a ‘Communications Brief’. It’s a template document that helps you to answer, or begin to answer, the important questions that will give us the information we need to help design a good solution for you.

The Communications Brief includes questions like:

– What are the purposes of the new project?
– In three years’ time what are you hoping this will be doing for you?
– Who is your target audience?
– What is a typical task each of these visitors needs to perform?
– What do these people care about? Why are they interested and what trigger would prompt them to take action?
– What do the target audience think and feel about this area currently? What do you want them to think and feel?
– How would a new project help to achieve this goal?
– How will you measure the success of a new project?

These are important questions for anyone trying to design any sort of service, not least a communications channel like a website. It often surprises us how few of the people who knock on our door have stopped to consider questions like this. Without stopping to do so, it’s impossible to be precise about what any new project is aiming to achieve and therefore it’s very difficult to say whether any new piece of work that is delivered has been able to have a genuine impact.

Working through the Communications Brief is always an interesting and enlightening process. It gives us in the Web Team the chance to ask the sort of dumb questions that can raise interesting discussions and suggestions, and it gives our clients the chance to really think through the detail of what they need to help make things better.

We encourage people to use it however best suits them. Some like to compile draft answers themselves and then circulate to colleagues for comments. Others like to ask a larger group of people to give answers which can then be collated. The template works particularly well as a framework for a group discussion.

The answers can, indeed should, be brief and to the point. Some of the questions may not be relevant to you, but by considering them before writing ‘Not Applicable’, then you can be sure you have been thorough. In all, this doesn’t have to be an onerous process at all, but it is a very important one.

It’s also a great tool for getting buy-in. Once a draft Communications Brief has been completed, asking managers and other colleagues whether they agree is a great way to brief them and to bring them into a discussion about what you are trying to achieve.

We meet people from time-to-time who are ploughing through this process on their own, convinced that they have all the answers to these questions and have no need to confer. Very occasionally those people are maverick geniuses. Mostly they are just people like you and I who need a little help to open up what they are thinking to create collaboration with other colleagues. The Communications Brief, simple as it seems, can really help with that too.

We’ll be posting more advice on how to tackle some of the questions in the Communication Brief in the future. In the meantime, please take a look at the template and consider how it might help you in gathering your thoughts about any aspect of your digital communications.

It’s based on a template we’ve been using for many years, so if you have suggestions for how it can be improved, then please post your comments!

And next time you knock on our door, we hope you’ll say:

–        “I’ve got a draft Communications Brief for you to consider!”

Rob Mitchell
Web Editor

Explaining Sync and Clean

Ever since we have been using T4 we’ve had an issue with the retention of out‐of‐date content on the web servers which carries a number of risks to the institution. This was because sections that were made Inactive and removed from T4, and old files from the Media Library that were no longer being used in content, have always needed to be removed manually from the web server, because T4 didn’t do this automatically. But unless staff in the Web Team knew about deleted sections, old pages often stayed on the website where they risked being found by users through searches or by following out-of-date links.

We have now managed to test and implement some functionality within T4 called Sync and Clean, which automatically removes pages, images and documents from the web servers for sections or media library files no longer in use in T4. So from now on if a section is marked either Pending or Inactive, and if Media Library files are no longer linked within a piece of content, they will automatically disappear from the web server with the next scheduled publish and transfer.


Pending sections can remain in T4 so they can be reused at a later date by re-approving them to go live. As you know sections made inactive turn red and are purged every Friday afternoon from the Recycle Bin. However you won’t have to wait that long now for the corresponding pages to be removed from the web server. Once you’ve made a section either Pending or Inactive, this will now clean the page from the live site with the very next publish.

We would also encourage you to continue to use the Insert Section Link button when section linking to other parts of the University website in the T4 site structure, rather than treating them as hard-coded external links. If the section is ever removed from T4 or moved into a pending area, then the link will display with a red outline around the link in the WYSIWYG editor, and it then becomes easier to identify that it’s a link that won’t appear on a web page. If links are hardcoded to other internal pages, then if the linked page gets removed from the web server, it’s harder to identify it as a broken link within T4.

For a media item to remain on the website, it is vitally important that it is linked within a piece of content by using the Insert Media button in the T4 WYSIWYG editor. If you hard-code the link as an external link instead, T4 will not be able to identify that the document (or other media item) is being used, and such files will be cleaned off the server, which will break any hard-coded links to them. Unused media library files will remain in their media library folders in T4 for later reuse, even if no content links to them and they are removed from the server.

It’s worth noting that Sync and Clean will only clean down content which has been generated from T4. It won’t touch any content that has been uploaded as third party outside of T4.


It is possible to exclude certain folder areas on the live web server from being cleaned up and we would normally do this in areas which need archiving for future reference; for instance, old versions of the Calendar, UG and PG Study sites.

Restoring removed content

In the case of sections or media files being wrongly deleted in T4, and subsequently removed from the server, there is a fall back mechanism available for a period of time after removal if you need content restoring.  If that’s the case do contact the Web Team.

Martin Williams
Web Officer

Living Systems Institute website live

You can’t have missed the rapid rise from the ground of the new Living Systems building next to Geoffrey Pope, and now there is a new website to match!

The Living Systems Institute is a new £52.5 million investment from the University which will pioneer novel approaches to understanding diseases and how they can be better diagnosed, building on our significant established research strengths in human, animal and plant diseases, and incorporating innovative diagnostic imaging technologies and powerful mathematical modelling capabilities.

The new website is fully mobile responsive and features a parallax background when you scroll up and down. As well as web cams and videos of the building going up, the site also contains further information about the Living Systems Institute research and details of the recruitment process.

Living Systems Institute site

The Living Systems Institute website is now live

View the site:

Ed Creed
Web Marketing Officer for the College of Life and Environmental Sciences

The ‘Inverted Pyramid’ web content model

You have about two seconds to ‘hook’ your reader – so the first words on your page and the structure of your copy is incredibly important.

A technique called the inverted pyramid can be used to structure your copy in a way that puts the most important information at the top and the less essential at the bottom. This means if someone only reads half your page they still leave having consumed your key messages.

Eye tracking studies have shown that people spend more time looking at the top left of a page – the place your profile picture is usually displayed on social media sites. They read the first few words of the first paragraph; if that doesn’t hook them they will read the first few words of the second paragraph. If they still aren’t interested they will leave for another website.

Using the inverted pyramid encourages you to put the most important information first (where people are most likely to see it) – this includes the who, what, where, when, why and how – then the more general (or background) information further down.

Inverted pyramid

Inverted pyramid for web writing

The inverted pyramid analogy shows that the points in your copy are made in descending order of importance.

The inverted pyramid was originally (and still is) used by journalists to give structure to news stories. It means a reader can stop reading when they have satisfied their curiosity without worrying that something is being held back. It also meant that, back in the days of having to typeset newspaper pages, sub-editors could cut the bottom off a story without losing any essential information.

Jenna Richards
Web and Digital Communications Officer (Research)