Understanding User Mental Models for Better Information Architecture
Aim. Inform the content and structure of a landing page for academic researchers at the University of Cambridge (UoC) that aligns with their expectations of the research lifecycle whilst also adhering to the processes established by the Research Office.
The user need for a new Information Architecture
What form this should take, in line with user mental models
Principal Investigators (PI) at the UoC struggle to find the resources they need that are relevant to the research lifecycle. Resources, distributed across the website, are managed by several stakeholders. This affects the PI's relationship with the Research Office (RO), and their ability to conduct and manage their research effectively and efficiently. I conducted research to evaluate the idea of a 'landing page' from which researchers could navigate to relevant resources.
Following competitive analysis of other Russell Group University websites and a content audit of the website for the UoC Research Office (RO), I ran a stakeholder workshop to garner insight into how and why key online resources were grouped and ordered as they were, and to give attendees the opportunity to contribute to this project from the beginning.
This formed the basis of a new initial website structure and paper mockups of a proposed 'landing page' for Principle Investigators (PIs), which included a Research Project Lifecycle, supplemented with Quick Links. Using these, I planned and conducted interviews with PIs at the University that included a card sorting task to determine and organise the content needed to help users find what they need.
The challenge was in aligning the RO's expectations of how content should be organised with the PIs' mental models of the research process. The need for an additional 'landing page', structured in line with the internal processes of the RO, was hotly contested by PIs. We used this insight to get buy-in for (research-supported) content and a new web-strategy, as opposed to adding a page to an already saturated web infrastructure.
Based on levels of agreement and similarity matrices (calculated using 'OptimalSort'), I merged the concepts of the Research Project Lifecycle and Quick Links into a simpler set of groups representing three key activities:
Planning research (“Develop a Project”)
Doing research (“Manage a Project”)
Managing grants (“Grants and Finances”)
The interviews confirmed frustration with navigation of the UoC website, but also that a landing page consisting of an interactive Research Project Lifecycle supplemented with Quick Links was not the logical solution for researchers because: (a.) it wasn't in line with the mental models of PIs; and (b.) it would replicate the same internal processes that resulted in tension between researchers and the RO.
We used this research as a basis for new Information Architecture.