Encouraging self-service through improving content at the University of Edinburgh

3 minute read

At the University of Edinburgh we embarked on a two-year project to iteratively improve IT help web content. In an environment where people can be quick to jump to technical solutions, we showed how focusing on creating better content is the ultimate money- and time-saver.

About the University publishing model

The University’s web presence is managed on a devolved basis – each department is responsible for managing and updating their own subsites. Many of these use our corporate CMS solution, but equally many do not.A model like this presents many challenges, including training and supporting 1,500 staff in both how to use the corporate CMS and create effective digital content. In many cases, though, updating the website may only be a small fraction of someone’s job.My team, Website & Communications, run the CMS training and support, and also offer consultancy services, working with departments on a variety of website and digital strategy projects.For two years, we worked with the Information Services (IS) Helpline who are first-line support for IT issues at the University.

The problem to tackle

IS Helpline deal with 7,000-10,000 support calls a month. Some of the emails are on topics users can resolve themselves by following guidance material.In 2016, we conducted an initial round of usability testing on common IT issues and found that students had trouble navigating the Information Services website structure and content.The students we tested encountered pages that were:

  • Overly long and complicated because service owners tend to tell users everything about their service.
  • Full of technical jargon.
  • Not following writing for the web principles.

When the students came across these issues, they would give up on the tasks we set them in preference for sending an email to IS Helpline.

Setting up a collaboration project

Watching students struggle with IT help content was an eye-opening experience for IS Helpline staff.They began to appreciate how putting the effort into creating better content could help reduce the number of enquiries they deal with.As such, we set up a project with IS Helpline to achieve the following goals:

  • Increase levels of student self-service on common IT issues.
  • Reduce the number of support calls fielded by IS Helpline.
  • Reduce the quantity of content on the Information Services website, and improve the effectiveness of what remained.
  • Introduce new skills and techniques to editors of IT self-help web pages.

Following a process of continuous improvement

We set out to achieve these goals by following a process of continuous improvement.

A diagram showing a process of continuous improvement - usability testing, editorial improvements and analysis and analytics as the main facets.

First, we would prioritise the areas of support that generated the largest amount of work for IS Helpline.We would then pick an initial area of work to focus on and follow this cycle:1. Conduct usability testing with students to understand how online content was being used.2. Make improvements to website structures and content to address issues seen in the testing.3. Do some analysis and analytics to measure how effective our changes were.We would end a cycle with another round of usability testing. If we saw self-service rates improve, we would pick a new topic to focus on and start the cycle over. If rates did not improve, we would go back to step two and do another series of editorial improvements.

Cleaning up the content

Most of our work focused on polishing up pages to follow writing for the web guidelines, including:

  • Restructuring with subheadings.
  • Giving prominence to keywords.
  • Removing excess content.

In a few cases, this involved turning long single pages into a series of clear step-by-step pages for students to follow in order.Structuring pages this way meant we could now measure in analytics how users were interacting with the content. For example, in the support content related to diagnosing a wifi connection issue, we could now see that almost 60% of users exited the process by step three.

Better content, fewer support calls

Support call numbers also backed up our improvements.Over two summers, we had done work to improve content related to getting a student ID card. This was another case of turning long pages with giant paragraphs into concise step-by-step pages.From July to September 2017, the IS Helpline received 433 enquires related to student cards. For this same period in 2018, they received 224, so the figure nearly halved. I repeat: halved.

Changing mindsets

To us in the content world, this shouldn’t come as a surprise that creating usable, user-centred content helps people complete their tasks online.But this highlights the challenge we have at the University of Edinburgh in getting staff to understand the value in investing the time into creating effective content.It’s tricky to do in an institution where web editors are often not content professionals and updating the website is seen as an extra part of the job.It’s especially tricky in a department of IT professionals where it’s common for staff to jump straight to technical solutions to fix problems.In this project, though, all the changes we made were to the content. We didn’t make any technical enhancements to the CMS to get these results.No fancy gimmickry or technical work can fix any problem if the content isn’t already in good shape.Through this collaboration, we were able to get IS Helpline colleagues on board with this idea.Going forward, we continue to practice and evangelise this approach in a range of projects as we foster a broader cultural shift across the University.

Learn more

If you’re interested in learning more about the project and the different work we did, check out our posts on the Website & Communications blog.


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About the author

Lauren Tormey

Lauren Tormey is part of the University of Edinburgh’s Website & Communications team. She uses her editorial, CMS and UX skills to help the 1000+ web publisher community to manage more effective, user-focused websites. As well as day-to-day support, she works on a wide range of website enhancement projects and manages the publication of a quarterly magazine promoting the activities of the University’s Information Services. To learn more about her work, visit her profile page and connect with her on LinkedIn.

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