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One Customer’s User Experience Success: Maryland Institute College of Art

Teena Singh

Author: Teena Singh, Principal Product Manager, Oracle Applications User Experience
July 9, 2010




By understanding who their users are and what their wants and needs are from a college Web site, the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) is learning how to deliver content more effectively. MICA has done many upgrades and redesigns in the past, but the college’s most recent implementation was significant -- for the first time, MICA approached the redesign from a user-centered design perspective, and finally got the real and credible results MICA’s leaders desired. The result is  more personalized content for constituents, and the ability for users to access secure transactions.

 
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MICA has been using Oracle PeopleSoft products since 1999. The college currently has version 9.0 of Campus Solutions (which includes Student, Human Resources, Payroll, and Advancement), Enterprise Portal, and Financials.

Determining a Vision for the MICA Web Portal

MICA’s redesign project started with college stakeholders brainstorming various definitions and applications of their university Web site, www.Mica.edu. Susan Miltenberger, Associate Vice President for Technology at MICA, said the Web steering committee needed to determine whether the college wanted a “brochure Web site” focused on recruiting future students, or one catering to a variety of users who might navigate to the site.  The conclusion was that the Web should be a coordinated digital communications vehicle -- providing content, supporting communication, and allowing for the ability to complete secure transactions for of all its different users. In a nutshell, the Web should be a virtual version of the college, she said.

The existing Web design at MICA was not a seamless content-delivery and transaction destination for its users. If users navigated to the Web site and wanted to complete a secure transaction, they would click on a link to the Portal, also known as myMICA, and not only be sent to another URL, but also be deprived of the ability to return to the original page. In other words, the www.mica.edu Web site and the enterprise Portal (myMica) were two separate entities, which confused users coming to the virtual campus. Many failed to see the distinction between the two systems, or the reason why they should have to navigate between them. The content on the Web site was managed by the campus communications team, while content on the Portal was maintained by the Information Technology team. Thus, information was not personalized to audiences, and Miltenberger admits that content on the Portal was “a little bit of a free for all.”  She added, “We wanted people to have a consistent experience throughout both those areas, and a stronger relationship between content throughout those sites.”

 
 

What MICA Learned About Their Users,
with Advice for Other Customers

Susan Miltenberger

Author: Susan Miltenberger, MICA
July 9, 2010

 

When the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) launched a comprehensive Web redesign project, we approached the project from a user experience perspective. Hearing the expectations and requirements directly from our community of students, alumni, faculty, parents, and staff showed us exactly what we needed to focus on in the new site. Interpreting their feedback to shape the site was a fascinating process. And marshalling trust in the occasionally conflicting--and often surprising--data revealed some challenges in our organizational culture. As the project neared completion, we were all surprised by how much our users had taught us about the MICA Web experience!

We determined early on that our Web site was not just one place or one site, but rather all of the tools and processes that support communication and interactions at the college. This not only shaped the project plan and goals, but it continues to be the guiding principle for how we enhance and refine the Web at MICA.

Two themes were quick to emerge from our research with users:

  • The MICA Web experience did not reflect the rich and vibrant experience of being on our campus in person.
  • As one of the leading colleges of art and design in the country, we provided few opportunities for people to interact with the college and each other around art and the art-making process.

Embracing the Voices of the User Community

The key challenge in focusing our project around the experience of our users was the organizational willingness to accept the voices of the user community. It is customary for many organizations to think from the inside-out: Focus the content, design, and other elements around pushing the messages of the organization and business benefits out to the users.

With a user-centered design principle, we approach our design from the outside-in. We learn about the requirements of our user community. We learn about the tasks they want to perform, the tools they expect to have available, and the content that supports their interactions with MICA. We align this knowledge with our organizational and communication goals. This framework provides an implementation map showing where we have structural and technological gaps. And the real work begins as we implement content, design, and technology to support the user experience.

At MICA, we focused first on the key tasks users need to perform, where tools that supported these activities already existed. Our site launched in Spring 2009, and we’re working on the next phase of the redesign.

Current efforts involve deploying new technologies to support dynamic user interactions, such as sharing artwork, customizing news, and connecting with other users. In order to support an experience that helps users quickly complete tasks, we are using the academic cycle to create calls-to-action for activities such as class registration, profile updates, and event deadlines.

Shifting to a user-centered design and architecture requires an ongoing commitment. The Web is constantly evolving, as are the needs and expectations of our users.

At MICA, we learned that:

  • Embracing a user-centered approach to design and technology can be a cultural challenge. Not everyone will trust the voices of users, so it is important to include ongoing change-management strategies in your projects.
  • Maintaining a continuing cycle of user research and engagement is difficult. Establish resources and methods that will sustain research activities at your organization.
  • Building with agility in mind is a key to a successful implementation. Expectations of users change over time and are based on their connection to your business. Approach technology development with agility in mind to allow your organization to adapt and flex to meet the changing needs of your user community.

Susan Miltenberger is a leader of organizational transformation. With more than 20 years of experience at the intersection of technology, business, and design, she has helped organizations realize the value of technology through increased productivity, enhanced communication, and pan-organizational collaboration.

     
 
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Photo courtesy of MICA

MICA’s Web site prior to the redesign with no Portal access.

Research and Testing: Keeping Users in Mind

Even though MICA had leveraged a lot of the tools within Oracle PeopleSoft Enterprise Portal to distribute content offerings, they’d had mixed success in the past, Miltenberger said. “The biggest reason we didn’t get it right was because we didn’t ask anybody what they wanted to do on Portal. We asked departments to identify what they thought was important for students, faculty and staff, instead of talking directly to students, faculty and staff to find out what information and interactions they wanted to do.”

“The biggest reason we didn’t get it right was because we didn’t ask anybody what they wanted to do on Portal.”
– Susan Miltenberger,
Associate Vice President for Technology at MICA

Miltenberger said her team worked with a well-respected user experience firm from California during the research phase, which helped them understand how important it was to do research up front and understand the requirements from a user’s perspective, before approaching the actual redesign.

Through surveys and interviews, MICA asked users generic questions to help define and guide requirements.  “We asked things like: “What are the kinds of things you would expect to do as a student when you come to myMICA? What are the things you would look for on the Web site?  In what ways do you want to relate to content?”

The research found that users felt the Web experience at MICA didn’t match the experience of being at the college. With this information, Miltenberger and her team decided to rethink their design on the labeling on the Web site, and all of the content, to better reflect the kind of experience their students and staff would have if they were actually on the campus.

Focus Groups Help Determine Online Tasks

The research team also gathered user data from focus groups. Each focus group was a mixture of about 20 faculty, staff, undergraduate and graduate students, alumni, and prospective students. “We asked questions like: What kind of tasks to do you want to perform on the Web? What time of the year do you want to complete those tasks or look for information?” Miltenberger said. From the focus groups, the research team gathered a list of transactions people wanted to be able to perform. The list included tasks like bill payment, the sharing of a news items, and uploading a gallery of images for an upcoming exhibition. Miltenberger said it was exciting to get this list of transactions, because it meant her team no longer had to imagine what people wanted to accomplish on the college Web site – they knew what their users wanted.

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Photo courtesy of MICA

Participants in a workshop identify tasks they want to complete at specific times of the year as part of a focus group during research with users on MICA’s Web site.

Aligning the Campus and the Online Campus

Miltenberger said one student described how, when he walked through a recent exhibition, he discovered that another student was creating paintings using the same technique. He was quite happy to find this fellow artist, and the chance meeting prompted him to say that he would love to share ideas and interact with others on the Web. “We are a visual arts school. Providing ways for people to come together around images, and to interact with each another around artwork, is really significant for our users,” Miltenberger said. “We realized we didn’t have any great technology tools that supported the artwork. We had a learning management system and we had portfolio-type systems, but we didn’t have anything like Flickr. This started a lot of conversations for us, in terms of when it is appropriate for MICA to build something, or when it is appropriate for us to tap into tools already being used.”

Through the research, MICA found out a lot about their users. “It was pretty illuminating to find out who our audience really was,” Miltenberger said. “We tended to think our target audience was full-time students, full-time faculty and full-time staff. We found we were completely missing certain audiences: parents, alumni, part-time and continuing-studies students. Suddenly, we realized our audience wasn’t just the 1,800 users we thought; we had a much larger group of 20,000 people!” This discovery cast a different spin on how MICA thought of the Web experience and consequently influenced the design direction.

Designing and Testing the Online Presence

MICA worked with a design firm from Philadelphia to see how the college could visually execute the priorities in their list of requirements. Miltenberger said this was a huge shift for MICA. “To have design come towards the end of the process was a whole different way of thinking. There is some thinking that great design always wins, as long as you design something really beautiful. But with the Web, that is completely untrue. You can design something visually stunning, yet also non-functional or misaligned with what your users are trying to do.”

“We found we were completely missing certain audiences: parents, alumni, part-time and continuing-studies students. Suddenly, we realized our audience wasn’t just the 1,800 users we thought; we had a much larger group of 20,000 people!”
– Susan Miltenberger, MICA

Again, a user-centered perspective was the key to building a good design. MICA then began usability testing on the design prototypes.  The University of Baltimore, three blocks down the street from MICA, shared their usability lab.

The sessions in the usability lab focused on the highest level of interaction with the site. As one of the primary goals of the redesign was to bring the www.Mica.edu site and the Portal, or myMica, seamlessly together, much of the time spent in the lab was focused on the initial interaction with the landing page, and then the ability for the user to find personalized content, or a place where they could complete a secure transaction.

During the sessions, the user sat in one room with a usability expert who facilitated the testing, and members of Miltenberger’s team sat in a control room on the other side of one-way glass. Standard usability tasks were part of the testing, as well as eye-tracking research. Miltenberger said that although she was able to see where the participant pointed the mouse and when they clicked on a link, she was astonished to see, in eye-tracking video later, how the user’s eyes were actually bouncing around the page before settling on the link. “We could also see the hot spots, where they looked longer on a particular area of the page. It was fascinating,” she said.

There weren’t a lot of surprises in the usability lab. The design was solid, because it was based on extensive user research. However, users ran into terminology issues, so some labels and key components on the site were refined to make it easier to use. The eye-tracking research was critical in helping the team determine the best placement for key objects, such as the search and log-in buttons.

Miltenberger said the time in the lab allowed her team to validate a lot of the user research that had been gathered, and when she went back to the stakeholders, she could say that they needed to make specific changes—changes confirmed through user testing. She called the usability testing reassuring: “It was the first time we got to see user-centered design theory come together. We got to see it validated.”

The New Online Presence Goes Live, Measurable Improvements

MICA launched the new integrated Web site in March 2009.

Users are pleased with the new Web experience, because it is simpler and more direct, Miltenberger said. Users like the ability to go in and out of Portal, or myMica. “They can be doing class registration, and then go and get a form outside of the Portal, and come back to registration in the Portal. They don’t have to go to two different Web sites.” Also, almost all users have access to customized content.

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Photo courtesy of MICA

MICA’s integrated Web site now offers the ability to log into myMICA, top right, which is their portal to enterprise tasks, to access personalized content and complete secure transactions.

But most important, people are actually using it. “We now have nearly all students, all employees, parents, and the past couple of years of alumni interacting with myMICA. That has been very exciting. Parents have been very pleased with it.”

Miltenberger says that her team still has a lot of work to do. For instance, her team wants to add image sharing and social components. The goal is to provide tools to enable alumni and students to describe what they are doing, and share images about their works in progress.

That doesn’t diminish what has already been accomplished. Two key wins came out of the redesign, Miltenberger said: Efficient and effective dissemination of information, and an increase in users.

Previously, dissemination of information was disorganized at the college. Now, there is one primary method of delivery. If someone posts something, it is automatically reflected in the Portal, or myMica, and the information is customized based on who you are as a user. “It gets published in different areas on the Web site, depending on whether it’s departmental news or exhibition news. We don’t display the content in confusing or redundant ways. It’s consistently and reliably going to the right areas,” Miltenberger said.

As for the increase in users, Miltenberger said before the 2009 launch, there were 1,500 distinct users in a month. Since the redesign, there are up to 3,000 users on a monthly basis. That’s partly because MICA expanded the target audience, but also because people are logging in to get personalized content and complete transactions. For MICA, this is a definite victory. People now have compelling reasons to go to the Web, and are logging into the Portal once they are there. 

As a result of understanding the user’s needs at each step, Miltenberger said MICA is really connecting with its audience now. But, she said, design isn’t something you address only one time. “We had a lot of great interactions with our audiences two years ago, but we need to maintain research and usability efforts. The Web is not a static thing. We need to work constantly with users to see that we meet their needs, as their needs are sure to change over time.”

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