MIT launches new homepage

Navigation and search redesign primarily aimed at prospective students

The MIT Office of Communications launched a new homepage July 25 in an effort to improve navigation and search. “Today’s Spotlight,” which features a news item or update from MIT, is still the focus, while the landing pages, layout, and color scheme have been redesigned.

The main audience for the redesign is prospective students, as requested by MIT’s leadership, Vice President of Communications Nate Nickerson wrote in an email to The Tech.

The top two priorities were to “make it easier to find important information and improve search [capability],” based on results from an “intercept” survey which appears on the homepage after 60 seconds that was conducted over the period of more than a year, Nickerson wrote.

Most of the 50 plus links on the homepage were not being clicked. The search function, which users especially wanted to see improved, was the most-used feature.

The barrage of links on the page made it hard to know where to go for information, current student William Wu ’19 told The Tech in an interview. Now, there are fewer links, which are more cleanly laid out, making the site easier to use, Wu said.

The new search engine, Elasticsearch, “allows MIT to optimize results based on user analytics and institutional knowledge” and offers auto-search, Nickerson wrote.

The search bar now has its own page. Current student Jessica Tang ’19 said in an interview with The Tech that this is a trend she has seen, but that she finds it a little odd that its auto-suggest has “see more results” and “view all” options, as opposed to filling up more space on its page.

Wu said that the “Highly searched” and “Recommended today” lists shown on the homepage introduce users to content that they would not have thought to search. Tang said that this would be especially helpful to site visitors who are new to MIT and not sure where to start.

In the “intercept” survey, many respondents criticized the visual design of the old homepage, especially prospective undergraduate and graduate students. Respondents said it should be more “modern” and “professional,” according to Nickerson. Another common suggestion was to make it more mobile-friendly.

Only about five percent of users are located in Cambridge, but these users account for about 23 percent of all site visits in the past year. The team is working to meet the needs of both “the power-using 5 percent here on campus and the other 95 percent who have little or no familiarity with us,” Nickerson wrote. Tang said that right now, the site does feel optimized for the latter group.

MIT cares that its current students “have the digital resources they need,” Nickerson wrote, listing the new Office of the Registrar’s site (which consolidates over a dozen sites) and the upcoming redesigns of the Admissions and Student Financial Services sites as examples. Nickerson wrote that the redesign team will work to improve it going forward as they receive feedback.

Current students make up one percent of “intercept” survey respondents. “I suspect it’s because a) they are too busy to respond to many surveys [and] b) they are power users who generally use Google to deep link into the MIT ecosystem, rather than using the front door/home page,” Nickerson wrote.

Prospective students, who are the main audience, make up 53 percent of respondents to the “intercept” survey.

Prospective students prefer the new site, Nickerson wrote. The new site has also created an increase in referral traffic to the School of Engineering’s various sites with admissions and academic information. The search bar has seen a 74 percent increase in use.

Tang said that she liked that the layout has more space — even though some might call this “wasted real-estate,” Tang said this style is less intimidating than large chunks of text. She also said that she thought the site seems to have quite a lot of hidden links, and she was particularly surprised by how hidden the links for donations and the Better World initiative are.

Nickerson wrote that about 10 people told the Office of Communications on the launch day that the color choices were “ugly” or “weird,” leading the office to quickly tone it down. The initial color contrasts did not follow design visibility standards, Tang said. Now, the color scheme is “modern, fresh, and uplifting,” Wu said. Wu said that the links pop out more than they did on the old site because of the link-background saturation contrast.

The Office of Communications collaborated with the Admissions Office and brought in the creative agencies Blue State Digital and Upstatement to work on the redesign. Blue State Digital conducted preliminary research two years ago. Upstatement did the redesign, with input from prospective students through collaboration with Admissions and with input on life at MIT from current students through three pop-up workshops in Lobby 10.