Ghent University website: 5 lessons on how to handle a complex redesign project

Concept for website, intranet, faculty websites and helpdesk.
Seminars on web writing, usability and Google Analytics.

"AGConsult has been one of Ghent University’s preferred partners for some 10 years. They bring along expertise in so many areas that we consider them an essential team member"

Dieter Kirchner, Portalsite managerUGent

The challenges that Ghent University faced when they wanted to renew their websites and overall branding will sound familiar to many large organizations. After 10 years, not only the visual branding of was outdated. Both the structure and concept of the site needed a thorough overhaul as well. 

A new website: urgently needed after 10 years

The website used to be organization centered. Now it helps visitors with their top tasks, and it is optimized for all devices.
  • The previous website, launched in 2006, was not responsive. A problem, given the increasing number of mobile visitors to the university’s website.
  • After 10 years, an eternity in internet terms, the website’s look and feel were in need of a serious make-over.
  • The various faculty websites did not have a uniform structure. Our user survey told us that students with courses in different faculties found this particularly annoying.
  • The university also wanted to tackle the information structure of the public website and the intranet. Content was not always in the most logical place. Information for employees, which belongs on the intranet, actually appeared on the public website. In addition, the most searched-for topics were not presented prominently enough.

Lesson 1: Patience is a virtue

The university’s project team was faced with a complex task. Made even more complicated by a number of factors specific to large-scale organizations such as universities. 

Firstly, various stakeholders had to agree to the concept of the new website: the university chancellor and all the faculties and departments.

Moreover, Ghent University didn’t just want a new website. After 10 years, they were also ready for a new corporate identity.

Dieter Kirchner and Ann Van de Spiegle, who are responsible for the university’s public portal site, realised only too well that simply providing the website with a facelift would not be good enough. "We had been wanting a new website for years," says Ann. "But as with any large-scale organization, it took a while before we could really make it happen."

Lesson 2: Respond to your visitor's top tasks

We conducted various top task surveys with the target audiences of the Ghent University website.

AGConsult carried out user research to determine the cornerstones for the new website.

Logfile analysis, online top task surveys and interviews with staff and students gave us a thorough understanding of the top tasks of the different types of visitors.

We also discovered that the website contained a lot of information nobody was really using or even looking for. This meant that we could cut out a lot of these pages from the new website. "We manage around 100.000 web pages," said Ann. "That is a huge amount. We need to tackle that amount of pages on a project-by-project basis. AGConsult helps us to monitor all these projects."

Els Aerts, Managing Partner at AGConsult: “Based on the results of the preliminary research we drafted the structure of the new website. During workshops with the team at Ghent University and several rounds of user testing, we refined the concept of the different types of pages."

Lesson 3: 1 crystal-clear structure for all the faculty websites

All faculty websites now follow the same basic concept. But each faculty can still stress elements that it finds important.

Another issue we had to tackle: ensuring consistency across all faculty websites.

Although most of the faculty websites looked the same at first glance, different faculties kept the same information in different places. Our user research showed that this lack of uniformity in the information structure caused problems and annoyance for many visitors.

We worked on a basic concept for structure and content to ensure that visitors can easily find what they are looking for. What people expect from a faculty website is in fact largely the same, no matter which faculty website they’re using. Of course, we made sure our framework also leaves room for the specific individual features of each faculty.

"We had been trying to streamline the websites of the faculties for 10 years," said Dieter. "We pulled it off just in time. On the Monday following the launch of our new corporate identity, the last faculty joined us. All 11 faculty websites are now aligned, both in terms of layout and information architecture. We couldn’t have done that without AGConsult."

Lesson 4: Go digital with your corporate identity

The website took the lead when the university developed its new corporate identity.

We were in dire need of a new corporate identity. The previous website dated from 2006. In those days Ghent University’s print layouts were used as a model when designing the website. And that showed.

This time, Ghent University did things the other way around. The website played a guiding role in the creation of the new corporate identity. They wanted it to be both simple and appealing.

The Dutch agency Fabrique was selected as the corporate identity partner. They were also responsible for the graphic design of the new website.

"As graphic design is only 1 aspect of a successful website, AGConsult also assisted us in this stage. They guaranteed the functionality of the design, putting emphasis on the user-friendliness of the website. This was particularly important for the mobile version of the website,” said Ann from Ghent University.

Lesson 5: Use an endpoint as a fresh start for your website

The all-new is rock steady. But the university already has plans for the future.

Dieter is already looking ahead: "We still have the ambition to further distinguish ourselves from other universities, both on a national and European level. We’re already doing extremely well in this respect, but we continue to strive for excellence."

"As far as we’re concerned, our long-standing collaboration with AGConsult will definitely continue. AGConsult has been one of Ghent University’s preferred partners for some 10 years. They bring along expertise in so many areas that we consider them an essential team member. For example, we will do more user research next year. We want to learn what could be improved on our main sites so that we know which changes we need to make. Of course we’re over the moon with our new website, but the work is never done."

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