Cornell University School of Continuing Education

Untangling a collection of non-traditional programs for simpler usability

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Cornell University sought to demystify their broad range of credit and non-credit offerings. Extensive user research and a new site architecture approach cleared things up.

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Expanding the Definition of Continuing Ed

What do you think of when you hear “continuing education?” Professional development? Non-credit programs? Online courses? At Cornell University, it’s all of those and a few more, which is where the problems started.

Cornell’s School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions (SCE) offers programs for high school students, for-credit courses during summer and winter breaks, youth summer camps, and faculty-led ”education vacations.”

Each had a separate section that functioned like an independent microsite, despite a lot of overlap in their administrative and admissions content. This structure didn’t support cross-marketing between program types, and it took a lot of extra text to explain the same policy and procedural details in each context.

The result was a sprawling site with a lot of redundant content that wasn’t supporting their goals.

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Re-branding with Natural Language

In our research, we found students weren’t searching for or browsing under “continuing education.” We wanted to connect with prospective students on their own terms, by speaking their language. But it would take some bold moves to diverge from the language of the internal org chart.

Melissa Beaver’s research determined that the full name — School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions — proved confusing for users. (Winter classes at a summer school? Children’s camps at a school for working professionals?) They lobbied for university approval to rebrand themselves “Cornell SCE” in their logo and header… which anyone who’s worked in higher ed can tell you is a pretty big deal.

For their programs (or product lines, as we came to think of them in the new architecture), we recommended that “summer college for high school students” change to “precollege studies,” and introduced the label “courses for credit” to encompass all the summer, winter, and part-time study courses for enrolled Cornell students. The youth camps and summer classes for adults had been billed together as “Cornell’s Adult University,” which we dropped from the architecture because the new site structure would allow those programs to stand apart on their own. And we found their existing “professional studies” and “education vacations” labels tested well with respective audiences.

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Design and Architecture Informed by Research

We started back in 2017 with extensive research on audience perceptions of the brand as well as brand and messaging discovery work with their stakeholders. Sara Andrew combined the results to create a design system that would align fonts, colors, logo, and messaging with Cornell’s brand standards, to reinforce the school’s connection to the larger university.

We also did usability and analytics baseline research on the existing site, as well as prototype testing on ideas in the wireframe stage.

We used insights from our research to design an architecture that consolidates all of the program offerings in the SCE system around a powerful new program finder tool. Now, rather than having to browse by audience type or too-narrow categories like “summer” and “winter,” users can filter the entire range of offerings by subject, semester, location, delivery format, and more.

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