A case study of the Oxford University Careers Service web site

This detailed case study written by Jonathan Black (Director of the Oxford University Careers Service) explains how we rebuilt the Careers Service website in 2008-9.

How our users helped us make our web site fit for purpose


The Careers Service built its own web site, using an in-house team of two developers, during 2003-7. In March 2008, with the arrival of a new Director, general dissatisfaction was raised by many people inside the Service on the quality, functionality and style of the site.  Furthermore, a survey of 200 students revealed that around half were unaware of what the University could offer in terms of careers support.

The Director was keen to address this apparent lack of awareness by ‘getting out more’  physically in the colleges and virtually with an excellent web site. The Service started a significantly upgraded marketing program including new branding, promotion in colleges and departments, remodelling its building at 56 Banbury Road, presentations to Heads of House, Senior Tutors, the Vice Chancellor’s weekly team meeting, and all college and departmental administrators.

It was apparent that the main clients – students – see the web as the first point of call for work and social life; the Careers Service web site would need to be positioned as the primary point of delivering careers advice and detailed job vacancy information.


We established imperatives for the web presence based on the strategy of the Careers Service; we wanted to engage with more students and employers, providing necessary and sufficient information for their careers ambitions.

We set some clear policies to guide our work:

  • Base the web design on accessibility standards and usability test findings with a range of users
  • Outsource the systems
  • Set an early implementation of Dec 18……
  • and plan to continue to update as we learn from our users
  • Involve everyone, but decisions would be made on-time……
  • and a core user team would lead the detailed spec work
  • Make the web site as open access as possible
  • We recognised that this would be during our busiest period in the year, Michaelmas Term, but figured that by outsourcing the work and aiming for a pretty good first version we would be able to start delivering the service quickly that our users wanted.

Usability testing

We wrote a tender document for user testing based on:

  • Engage a representative set of our key users: undergrads, post grads, researchers, employers, staff
  • Run hour-long sessions, videoing the users in pairs (so they talk to each other and we capture their verbal and non-verbal communication)
  • Gently guided by a facilitator through high-level scenarios
  • Testing the scenarios on the existing site and on a ‘wire-frame’ version of the new site


This is an important part of the testing – there is little point in asking a user “Can you find the address?” as we have no idea if that question is relevant or important. Instead we give an overall scenario – here is an example of one we gave:

Scenario A: Preparing for an interview.
Please put yourself in the position of an inexperienced job seeker who is preparing for an interview. What kinds of questions would you have about the best way to prepare?

The pairs of users would then generate their own questions based on this scenario and be tracked as they tried to find the answers to their own questions on the old site and the draft new one.

Wireframe site

We wanted to test users not just with the old site (we knew it needed updating) but also a new site.  We wanted our suppliers to be able to work with us, thinking through the information issues inherent in the site. The image to the right is a screen shot from the test results: in the background is the wireframe new site, and bottom right is an image of the two users viewing the page shown in the background.

The internal IT team had three responses to our tender and selected Minervation – an Oxford University spin-out company that has been active in designing and building evidence-based web-sites, particularly for health related charities, businesses and organisations (eg the NHS) for many years.

The two founders of Minervation are information scientists and their skills in identifying the key populations we were addressing were vital. They also quickly identified that our current site had an unusable information architecture including:

  • Inconsistent and unclear navigation
  • Multiple versions of the same information – needing to be updated multiple times
  • And a home page with 37+ places to click

Minervation created the wire frame site with a small amount of existing content from the “Finding a job” section. Outsourcing this to experienced developers and information scientists sped up the process and freed the Careers Service staff up to continue serving students in what is the busiest time of year.

Results of first usability test

Minervation produced a 22 page report which concluded:

  • Home page: existing site was “tired”, “cluttered”, “ugly”, “too busy” – the reverse was felt about the new site
  • Subsections: existing site was “too text heavy”, “inconsistent format”, “inconsistent menus”. The new site as warmly welcoming; much less, but concentrated content, better navigation using consistent LH menus
  • Navigation: users found it “extremely difficult” to get a clear understanding of the existing site structure, “too many menus”. The new site was “easy to understand”
  • Passwords: the existing site prevented access to nearly all the content with a password wall. All users found this very irritating, some even gave up saying  “I would go to my old University site”
  • Ideas we had had for a right hand menu were not always spotted by users
  • Some functionality that we had created for the existing site was ignored by users (eg the Resources list)
  • PDF documents to download (rather than long HTML pages) were welcomed by all

Design work

Armed with the wireframe site, the usability testing recommendations, and the new University branding, we spent a few weeks in which our designer worked with Minervation to fill in the wire frame design with images, a consistent colour scheme, ideas for eye-catching ads for the right-hand menus and more.

The new design was shown to the Careers Service team when it was close to being finished to collect any final thoughts.

Information architecture (IA)

Minervation identified early on that our IA was not going to be able to support the site. We had too many menus, many of which went far too deep, and data were duplicated all over the site.  We engaged them to redesign our IA:

  • Based on the usability testing
  • Less than 10 top level menu items
  • Each menu would have no more than 4 levels

Having built this, we were faced with many pages from the old site that appeared to have no home on the new menu structure. However, this was probably because they had been written without regard for whether the users actually wanted them.

It is an underlying principle that the users drove the web design which drove the information architecture; so, if new ideas come along that cannot be found an obvious home within the architecture, it’s safe to assume that the users don’t want them.

At the same time, we had to transfer some of the existing content to the new site. We agreed that even though much of it was too long and not written for the web, we would transfer it quickly so we could launch the site and edit it gradually over the following few months – an annual cycle that we follow anyway.

We also required a modern Content Management System (CMS) which we all use to edit the web pages (just like editing a Word document), upload images, insert links and (for the web team) adding, moving and deleting pages. At the time we had a choice of our in-house, home-grown system, the Phaedrus system that Minervation developed, or the T4 system that the Academic Administration Division of the University was just beginning to review.  With very tight deadlines we selected the fully featured and proven system from Minervation.

2nd round usability testing

With all the content and the design ready to go, Minervation ran a second round of usability testing. They used the same techniques of paired users, with specific scenarios to test – this time with only the new site.

Users gave very positive feedback to the site and we identified a few points around colours and design to revisit.

Managing the dispersed team

Minervation are based on the other side of Oxford (and one of them lives in Bulgaria), and our colleagues in the rest of the University are in other buildings. Furthermore, we were also implementing a second new system to link to the web site that would carry all the student/employer/alumni vacancy information – this system came from a US company based in Austin, TX.

We managed this dispersed team using a simple but powerful web-based tool: Basecamp. Within this system all relevant users can post and respond to messages and comments, upload/download files, discuss items on a ‘writeboard’, and set milestones.  This was invaluable as, for example, our designer could upload design elements and Minervation could draw them down, or we could upload lists of colleges etc and others could use them. Benefit over email (though users are alerted by email) is that the files and messages are preserved in one place – and others can track through messages / responses to see how the project is going.

Launch and beyond

The new site was launched on January 18th and has attracted excellent feedback and, naturally, some criticism.  Most of the criticism was around some functionality that our old site had but that our user testing had not raised as important. We also knew full well that we were launching a site that is 90% (however that is measured) complete. In summary, the site is:

  • Easier to navigate with intuitive menus
  • Easier to find information where you expect it
  • Consistent
  • All open access (so our important prospective students can also access information)
  • Fully accessible for disabled users
  • Attractive and contemporary in design

Our next job is to change our internal processes to manage the content. We are moving from a highly formalised, serial process of content creators drafting content, being reviewed by someone else, and uploaded by a third person. Our new process enables all content editors to edit their own content directly on the site; reserving the style and architecture for 2 trained members of staff. In other words, don’t complain to someone else about the content, just fix your bit yourself.


Our initial ideas and policies stood up well in practice; we learned:

  • Trust the users – they know what they want if you can find the right way to ask them
  • Don’t aim for perfection – 90% is good enough and will satisfy nearly all users
  • Outsource to the experts – frees you up to keep running the shop and to stand back from worrying about the details. It’s also quicker and probably a lot cheaper
  • Resist all attempts to add functionality “because we think it’s a good idea”
  • Launch early and often – the site is never finished
  • Distribute the responsibility to keep it current – let the content creators update the site directly

You can visit the Oxford University Careers Service web site hosted and maintained by Minervation at: http://www.careers.ox.ac.uk

Written by: Jonathan Black, Director – Careers Service, February 2009

Category: Portfolio