A principled approach for the University of Oxford

Seven years after our first University of Oxford website, we were commissioned to redesign and rebuild it. I'd been looking at the site for a few years thinking how great it would be to be able to get another crack at it, so we were really excited to get the chance.

In its time, the University of Oxford website had been the top-rated university site in a Times Education Supplement survey and was much imitated (even copied!). However, after more than seven years of duty, it had become dated and, critically, it wasn't responsive.

Oxford's Radcliffe Square

Oxford's Radcliffe Square

From experience, we knew that the team (ours and Oxford's) would be answerable to a huge number of stakeholders – the administrative hierarchy, the departments and divisions, the colleges, and the myriad arms of the University. We knew that our ideas would need to have a solid rationale behind them; and they'd need to be research-based, user-tested and preferably guided by a clear, agreed vision.

So, we set out to establish a set of principles that could help guide the project. We've used principles successfully before – it's particularly useful where there isn't clear hierarchy of objectives – but the best known example of their use is by gov.uk and this has definitely influenced the way that we use principles.

GDS Design Principles

GDS Design Principles

We got together with the project team to define digital principles and principles for the information architecture. We ended up with eight digital principles, which guide both the approach to design:

"…life at the University should come bursting through in every page and piece of content, reflecting Oxford's unique character."

and the development of the content:

"…great content keeps interested users coming back and engages disinterested users. Great design helps the content to do this."

Similarly, we had some guidelines for information architecture. I like MIT professor John Maeda's Ten Laws of Simplicity, especially laws one and two. They are useful when addressing the need to reduce options in navigation to avoid paralysisIn this case, we set out to limit ourselves to a maximum of six links in any menu structure [1] - the power of information scent does the rest.

The Laws of Simplicity

The Laws of Simplicity by John Maeda

We refined our new site map, following testing using Treejack, Optimal Sort's automated remote tree testing tool, incorporating several different test setups for different audience types.

It was important to start working in the browser as early as possible, so – as is often now the case – we opted to do HTML prototypes rather than conventional wireframes.

And, this progressed into our 'design in the browser' process. Here's a version of page mid-way through the design process.

Normally we manage user testing ourselves, but to be absolutely robust we were keen that testing was conducted independently. Bunnyfoot were selected to manage this process which included wide consultation within Oxford to make sure that people had the opportunity to feed in. It provoked a few design changes and helped to guide us to the final designs.

Jump forward to now and the new site has been successfully up and running for several months. One of the markers of success has definitely been the internal acceptance of the site as well as some positive feedback from external users.


  • I'm referring to page menus here. Structured categorisations for specific types of content can be much longer lists because they are normally organised alphabetically, so are easier to scan and search.
  • Neither the prototype nor this more worked-up version are functionally perfect, at this point in the process we are trying things out and agreeing direction rather than creating flawless HTML, CSS or JavaScript.

Get in touch

If you'd like to find out more about the University of Oxford website, or how we can help you with your upcoming project, please get in touch.

Olly Willans

Olly WillansCreative Director