Anticipating intentions and meeting expectations

This week was a frustrating and interesting experience at work.  At the end of the week prior, I finally launched the new design of our program catalogue.  It’s a little hard to explain or show what this means.  It’s a new interface for a specific kind of site that will blend two sources of program data together once program staff update their content, which used to be displayed in different places on our site.  One particular design feature has caused significant amounts of both elation and consternation.  Would you have thought it would be the addition of a contact form?  Me neither, but I’m oversimplifying and that’s not really what this post is about.

What I’m really getting at here is a fundamental design truism.  Whether it’s learning, marketing or consumer products, a successful design is predicated on the quality of a user’s experience with it.  In my mind, the two absolute most important elements of that are the user’s intentions and expectations and how well you anticipate the first and meet the second.

A little background

calls-to-actionA main requirement for this project was to ensure we drew attention to the key calls to action.  The image at right shows the actual size of the main calls to action on the new program UI. They are the single largest text elements on the page and speak to the issue of anticipating user intentions.

If we know or can surmise what it is our users want to do (particularly to meet our business goals), we should make those tasks easy for them. If they’re considering applying to a post-secondary program, it should be simple to request more information, get in touch with us or to simply submit an application. Making these obvious and placing them on good page real estate has increased contact requests roughly ten-fold and requests for more information by roughly six times

Anticipating intentions

Does this mean we made the best decision we could have? It’s hard to know. We can’t accurately track program applications through the web (don’t ask), so I don’t know if we’ve had a significant spike, but clearly there was a previously unmet need for our site visitors to communicate with us about programs.

However, we’re somewhat a victim of our own success.  At launch we had to send all contact inquiries to our program advising group, who’d never seen a tenth the volume they suddenly got.  Where possible since launch, I’ve been pointing those forms directly to program staff in the schools (who’d been the prime point of contact on half our 420 programs anyway) and am currently about halfway through, so the flood is beginning to disperse.  Of the feedback I’ve received from the schools, some are ecstatic with the increased interest and some are naturally worried about response standards.

The ‘request more info’ link requires them to provide a certain amount of demographic data and we tell them up front that this will generate a follow-up contact and some snail mail.  With the ‘contact us’ link, the requests which previously went through program advising, were met with a form which asked for a fair bit of information upfront.  Difficulty finding it and then having to answer a few questions probably disuaded a good number of users from filling it out.  The new form by contrast automatically picks up the program from which it came, and asks for a name, email address and comment.  Couple that with how prominent it is and I think we did a good job of anticipating needs with the redesign.

Meeting expectations

This is where we now need to move quickly on number of fronts.  If you decide you want to apply to a program, you’ll end up here.  This is legacy content, which will then drive users into one of four longer pages, most of which ask them to go search for the program they want to apply to.  We need to provide them that information if they came from a program and clicked ‘apply now’ and make it fast for them to get to our Banner application process.  As we can’t do much to improve that piece (and we are upgrading Banner fairly soon), the most important thing we can do is meet expectations for a useful thing to happen if our users decide to apply.

Similarly, with the contact form.  We may have to temporarily send users through the form with the multiple questions while we build a slightly better process for our contact forms, and I’m worried about doing so.  The end user isn’t worried about where their query went – they just want a timely answer that helps them make a decision.  Since, like all post-secondaries, we ultimately want course registrations and program applications, we want to do everything we can to answer their question.  The problem we need to solve is, with a severe increase in queries, due to simple design improvements, how do we ensure our internal process meets the expectations that result from anticipating intentions.