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Sneak peek at the new admissions and SFS sites by Chris Peterson SM '13

what we've been working on all summer

August 16, 2018

As I’ve mentioned here, here, and here, I’ve been spending my summer leading a project to redesign the new sfs.mit.edu and mitadmissions.org. Although we are two separate offices, we report to the same Dean (that would be Stu) and share a communications team, and are working with Upstatement, the agency that helped design the new www.mit.edu and science.mit.edu.

We’re coming up to launch on both sites and so I wanted to take this chance to blog a preview and talk about some of the design decisions we’ve made. These aren’t final — things will change before we launch — but you can get a sense of the basic design direction.

 

Student Financial Services (SFS)

SFS is the office at MIT that combines the function of assessing and providing financial aid with billing and collecting tuition and other payments. Their processes are very complex and highly regulated by institutional, state, and federal policy. And, while we offer generous financial aid, anytime money is involved people tend to get stressed out.

Based on these findings and priors, our goals for this redesign include:

  • making it really easy to find what you are looking for, especially if you don’t know what that is yet
  • provide simple documentation of complex processes
  • reduce places where information can be duplicated, trying for a “single source of truth” wherever possible
  • helping people find information or ask SFS staff if they want to talk to a human

Here’s a quick preview of what it looks like:

We basically built a site with two templates: a “section front,” used on homepage and landing pages, that provides visually scannable explanations, directories, and statistics to quickly orient people to core topics. At the third level, we have an “article template,” which breaks down big processes into modular pieces and explains each one of them. This structure was borrowed from the application section of the current (soon to be “old”) apply section on MITadmissions.org.

Inspired by Feynman’s physics lectures, we included a margin notes feature, so you can mouse-over annotated words and get even more detail.  This another way we are trying to enable simple, human-readable language wherever possible, while not losing any of the required detail and complexity for those things that do require further elucidation. There’s also a glossary, a help section with FAQs and an email form, and a super-powerful Solr search to quickly search all of the pages and/or filter them by type of page.

We decided to focus on SFS first, and so we’re planning to launch it next week, on Thursday 8/23. Assuming all goes well (knock on wood), next Thursday morning we’ll flip a switch and visitors will start going to this new site. At that point, we hope to begin collecting any bugs that emerge and performing any necessary design tweaks, as well as developing a content improvement strategy going forward. There’s lots of ideas we have about how to improve the SFS content, like more financial literacy information, crowdsourced strategies from students on hacking their budgets, and more interactive tools to help estimate aid and plan budgets. Most of that will happen post-launch, but I think this website will be a good platform on which to build.

MITAdmissions.org

If you’re reading this, you’re probably familiar with our office, and with our current website design; if you’re a longtime reader, you may even remember the old one, which Kris and I rebuilt when we both starting almost a decade ago.

Going into this project, we felt pretty good about our website, but there were a few things we wanted to improve:

  • the blogging (and content development) backend is awful and really gets in the way
  • we needed some better media management and security fixes (https please)
  • we wanted to make better use of our incredible wealth of content in old blog posts

Here’s a quick preview of what it looks like:

As you can see, it’s in some respects a revised version of our current websites. There are some structural changes — we’ve brought the aforementioned “article template” across the whole site, for example — but a pretty similar look and feel. Many of the features from SFS (blazing search, margin annotations, help section, etc) were ported here as well.

Yuliya has spent the summer reading the blogs and categorizing them into dozens of categories that will be used across the site to surface old content and help people get access to useful information about MIT academics and culture. She plans to post about this process and her findings in the future.

We hope to launch the new admissions site in early September. Because we’re focused on SFS right now, we’re in a bit of a pause on feature development on the admissions side, but I think we’re going to be able to add even more things to what you already see in this preview: more illustrations, lots of graphics tweaks, and good places to host MITAdmissions Labs content once it’s built. Like with SFS, we’ll keep doing content development too, but most of that will happen post-launch.

 


 

That’s your preview! I’m really excited about both of these sites and hope you’ll like them as much as I do once you have the chance to use them. And let me know if you have any questions below.