Case study: Redesigning a university website for performance

Joel G Goodman
/ 5 min read

Note: National University has since redesigned their website again. Bravery Media had nothing to do with the currently active website.

In January of 2018, I started on what would become a 6-month long project with National University System in San Diego, CA. Every other week I would wake up, my wife would drive me to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, and I’d take a Delta flight to San Diego International Airport, hop in a Lyft and head north to Torrey Pines and the NUS offices. While there I found one of the most stacked teams I have ever encountered in higher education.

Bravery was contracted on a monthly retainer to pick up some slack in the new Agency at NUS, the university’s in-house marketing team. As the name suggests my longtime friend and collaborator, Seth Odell, redesigned the system’s marketing efforts in an agency format after becoming the vice chancellor of marketing. My initial charge contained three significant areas of responsibility:

  1. First, I was asked to help find and hire a director of Website Strategy. This technical role needed someone well-versed and capable in the world of WordPress, able to fit into the agency’s culture and at ease with building their own small, nimble team of developers.
  2. Second, the agency asked me to consult on a major web overhaul for the primary university website. This would require meetings with various previous stakeholders, generating goodwill across university offices, providing a technical rationale for platform recommendations, assessing conversion rate optimization (CRO) opportunities, and generating reports on a myriad other data points and suggestions. Also, Bravery was asked to manage the redesign until we found the person for the new director position.
  3. Third, I was tasked with keeping an eye on some ongoing projects NUS had running for their affiliates. This generally included attending meetings, assessing wireframes and designs from other agency partners, and making sure projects stayed focused and consistent with institutional goals.

What I learned over the course of these six months is how much better web redesign projects in higher ed can be, compared to just about every other project I’ve done in this industry for the past 12 years. It takes leadership that is brave enough to lock down the process until it’s finished. National University’s redesign took three months with just five people involved in the design process.

And, the result speaks for itself.

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The original plan was for me to manage a design agency in the redesign of the website. After talking with a super-smart digital agency with a background in paid media and conversion growth, we concluded that despite their functional prowess, their creative wasn’t up to the core group’s — me, Aaron Edgell, and Seth Odell — standards.

I was left with two options. We could spend another month or two vetting other agencies while also trying to hire for this web developer position, or Bravery could take on the design portion of the project as well.

Undertaking a complete website overhaul can be an overwhelming project, especially when you do it while simultaneously trying to build out a new web services division.

Seth Odell

In the end, I was able to hire on two incredible designers from Austin — Brendan Pittman and Ryan Weaver — to work on We all flew out to San Diego and spent a day digging into Seth and Aaron’s desires for the site along with the reports and documents I had developed. Then, it was full-steam ahead.

On my subsequent San Diego office days, we would review designs over Zoom calls with Brendan and Ryan, make revisions, and nail down aesthetics decisions. When in Austin, I would meet up with them at coffee shops to review new ideas, answer questions, and critique other websites in the space. We used tools like Sketch and Invision to develop a pattern library and solicit feedback from the NUS team. We went through dozens of designs for the various page templates.

National University homepage circa 2018

Our work spurred on new ways to design a program finder, better conversion opportunities that didn’t feel forced, and a wholly warm way of connecting with our future users.

It helped that the Agency at NUS has a ridiculously talented team of marketers, data analysts, and digital strategists. Their insights and help in providing reports from the existing site helped us find the most significant opportunities for gains across the site. This data combined with a library of downright beautiful photography and videography helped us craft a visual story.

The real star of the project, though, was the trove of real student stories, carefully solicited and crafted to express the opportunities National University has opened for so many of its graduates.

The Numbers

After hiring a great director of website strategy, Scott Kirkowski, we handed the designs off for his team to build. The buildout took a bit longer than the design process — as it should — and the new launched in November 2018. I won’t lie, it was difficult waiting all those months with no hands on the project, especially as someone who is usually involved from start to finish.

As these things do, some changes were made to our design to accommodate new campaign art, so what launched isn’t a pure vision of what Bravery did. However, the underlying strategy of the user experience design is all there and performing, well, brilliantly. NUS saw triple-digit increases in overall conversions year-over-year. Also, some days are smashing previous conversion rate records. In all, these numbers equate to more than a 45x return on investment (ROI).

I could not be more proud of the final product we have, the team that developed it, and the results this new site is driving for our organization.

- Seth Odell

If the gains NUS sees now continue, Bravery will have helped generate millions of dollars in additional revenue while playing a part in helping thousands of new students enrich their lives through an excellent education.

Your institution can start seeing the same results. Ready to have a conversation?

Small Teams FTW

None of these results would have happened if Seth Odell hadn’t insisted on keeping our team small, nimble, and responsive. We certainly wouldn’t have seen this sort of success if this group had been double or triple in size.

However, this isn’t to say the process was without its challenges. It felt relatively easy from our end, but the reality is that so many within an institution feel personally vested in the university website, and in this case, the internal response has been positive, but mixed. The key was Seth’s focus on launching a website that would immediately and significantly improve performance, from conversion rate to accessibility and security. With the new site live and results in tow, the team was well-positioned to defend the design choices we made, while simultaneously working with stakeholders to make any necessary tweaks to ensure the site performs for their area of the business.

“With Bravery’s help – and Joel’s leadership specifically – we built a lean, nimble, highly talented team that delivered a first class website, with the results to back it up.”

- Seth Odell

This story is just one more validation to Bravery’s team and our philosophy on improving the efficacy of institutions of higher education.

Success Demands Bravery

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