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Web Communications rolls out improvements to mobile website

August 13, 2014

NIU mobile testNIU’s website,, is the first stop for many people seeking information about NIU, making it exceedingly important to provide a website that is informative, easy to navigate and aesthetically pleasing.

With more and more student users viewing websites on their smartphones and tablets, the need for a stronger mobile presence for NIU is greater now more than ever.

Between April 2013 and April 2014, desktop views of NIU’s website fell by nearly 17 percent, while views from a mobile device jumped by more than 49 percent.

During the Fall 2014 semester, the Office of Web Communications began to convert NIU websites hosted in Cascade Server to responsive templates.

Responsive web design improves user experience by making the most efficient use of space on whichever device is being used. Not only does responsive web design (also known as RWD) reduce the need to pan and zoom on content or text, the best practices for RWD generally lead to an overall more accessible website as well.

Because early tests of the new responsive NIU sites indicated that students were finding the navigational tools confusing on the mobile website, Web Communications set about to get feedback from current students in order to make the navigation more user-friendly.

“Students are our largest audience,” said Jeannine East, a web content specialist, “so it makes sense to have a site designed for and tested by them.”

In June and July, Web Communications staff conducted usability testing on the mobile version of the NIU website.

Two web team members set up shop in the Holmes Student Center with a pile of T-shirts to give away and two devices (an iPhone and an iPad) equipped with an app called Magitest to record the tests.

“We were surprised and pleased by how many students showed up, and by the end of the day, we were turning people away,” said Jory Keller, a graduate assistant in Web Communications.

The first round of testing focused on a series of tasks for the tester to complete using only NIU’s navigation menus. The testers were specifically asked to refrain from using the “Search” function, the “A to Z” index and the “Directory.”

Magitest records the tester’s voice and movements on the device’s screen, such as clicks and swipes, in order to see which steps the tester takes in completing a given task.Some examples of the tasks from the first day of testing include:

  • Check your student email (navigate to the login page)
  • Find the name and email address of your academic adviser
  • Go to the Financial Aid Office website
  • Find the lunch menu for Gilbert Hall
  • Find the hours of the Rec Center

Tasks from the second day of testing included:

  • Find a map of the NIU campus
  • Find out on which day Fall 2014 classes begin
  • Go to the NIU Blackboard website
  • Find a list of NIU student organizations
  • Find information about tuition and fees for Fall 2014
  • Find the NIU bookstore hours

Twenty-eight undergraduate and graduate students participated in the study. Results of the usability testing were immediate. The student testers provided strong feedback about what worked and didn’t work on the NIU websites, and suggested improvements.

Some primary findings have been implemented on the mobile sites, and additional recommended changes will being included in a redesign that is set to launch in mid-October.

“Usability testing is one of the best things we can do to improve the user’s experience on the NIU website,” said Jennice O’Brien, director of Web Communications. “It allows us to quickly fix any problems identified through user testing.”

Improving viewer experience is a top priority for Web Communications and is an ongoing effort.