Usability testing: Search for an MA course from the OU homepage

I spent a bit of last week doing basic usability testing on university websites. In this post I’d like to present an example where I think a major UK university is getting it wrong. They’ll probably fix the problems outlined in this post, but at the very least this should provide a useful case study for anyone involved in designing academic websites.

Our imagined user is a student in his early 30s who wants to get a qualification that will take him into the field of e-learning. He’s heard of the OU offering an MA programme in Online and Distance Education, so he searches Google for “open university”. The first link is the OU homepage, which looks like this:
Distance Learning Courses and Adult Education - The Open University
You’ll notice that halfway down the page there’s a prominent search box. Seen from a desktop, it’s one of the biggest search boxes I’ve seen on the web. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’s just a visual way of saying to the user “We really want you to use our search facility”.

Now, here are some search terms and the results they bring up:

ma online distance education (no results)

online and distance education (no results)

online education (no results)

e-learning (no results)

At this point, our user might give up and look more closely at the original search bar. He notices a small message written below it:

If you can’t find what you’re looking for, try our wider OU search. Or see postgraduate.

If he uses the OU search, and looks for “online and distance education”, he gets this:
Screen Shot 2014-08-23 at 12.00.49
The fourth link down is the one that leads you to the MA, but it’s a bit of a shot in the dark because there’s no mention of MA or Masters. Kind of depressing that Top Gear presenter James May is the focus of result number two, but hey.
If he goes back to that original jumbo search bar and reads the message again…

If you can’t find what you’re looking for, try our wider OU search. Or see postgraduate.

…he might decide to click postgraduate. Finally, after two false starts, our user is on the route that the OU intended. There’s a postgraduate homepage with a small link to the A-Z list of courses. Once he gets to that A-Z course list, he’s home dry.

End of the story.

One reflection

I don’t know when the OU changed its homepage, but I went through the above process sometime back in June, and nothing’s changed since then. It looks like they’ve built a shiny new course search facility and somehow all the postgraduate courses they offer have been left out of it. Maybe there are good technical reasons for this, but relegating postgraduate course search to a small link at the bottom of that search bar gives a message. The message is “Our postgraduate courses aren’t as important as our other courses”.

Other design features

Futura’s one of the best fonts in existence, but it’s not really suited for small body text on the web.

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