Usability Testing for Admissions

For a User Research course in my master’s program, I completed three types of evaluative research on the Antioch University of Los Angeles website and its graduate admissions experience. This project was for academic purposes only, and the results were not shared with the university.


Online competition, affordability concerns, decreased international enrollment, and an improved job market are affecting graduate enrollment across the sector, and graduate program tuition is a key revenue driver at small private institutions like Antioch. Usability research should be one part of a comprehensive strategy to improve competitiveness of Antioch’s graduate programs in an unstable market.


In this three-part research project, I sought to improve the usability of the Antioch website for one class of user at one moment in their journey: prospective graduate students who are preparing to apply. The research did not evaluate the application forms but focused instead on the information-seeking tasks that precede or immediately follow the decision to apply: finding the application steps, deadlines and required materials.

I used three research methods to uncover issues and make recommendations to improve the graduate applicant experience.

Heuristic Evaluation

Using Jakob Nielsen’s “Ten Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design,” I sought to uncover general usability woes that impact the graduate applicant experience. Acting as a prospective applicant in graduate clinical psychology, a team of three researchers looked for the list of required materials, application deadlines and instructions, evaluating the tasks against Nielsen’s usability principles. I compiled their findings into the final report.

The evaluation uncovered major issues in the applicant experience: application instructions were scattered across the site and required major cognitive load to understand and remember the site structure to find information.

app steps
General application instructions expected users to find their “academic program’s page under the ‘Admissions Process’ section of the website.” Too much work, and a violation of Nielsen’s “recognition rather than recall” heuristic.

The evaluation also identified general website usability issues that negatively impact any user experience: misplaced breadcrumbs; a lack of visual cues in the navigation to help the user understand their location in the site structure; and inconsistent use of font, color, icons and navigational styles.

app process page
Top-level navigation and sidebar are inconsistent and cluttered.

Soon after completing this report, Antioch released a redesigned website that addressed many of the general usability concerns named in the report. But, the graduate application experience still had work to do.

Cognitive walkthrough

This method evaluates the learnability of a specific task by breaking it down into specific constituent steps or sub-tasks, and evaluating the ease of use of each sub-task. This method is typically more appropriate for a very narrowly defined system with one pathway to completion, but it did surface actionable insights about the interface.

The test showed us that a large “APPLY” button on every page of the website caused confusion, and the page it directs to did not make clear how to start an application.

Apply for Admission to AULA; it's never been easier with our online application.
The yellow APPLY button on every page directs here; the next step to get to the application log-in start page is unclear.

Unmoderated user testing

In the final phase of the project, I completed two types of unmoderated, virtual user tests. Both tasks invited users to perform a series of tasks on the website. In the quantitative user test, 122 participants completed the tasks; Loop11 software captured quantitative data including time on task, task completion rate, and heatmaps. In the qualitative test, 3 participants completed similar tasks while using screen-recording software; these participants also shared their thought process out loud as they navigated the site. The two data collection methods offered complementary insights to answer the research questions.

The user testing confirmed previous findings that the Apply page should be a priority for redesign, and it uncovered a new key insight about users’ mental models for information-seeking on this website. I found that applicants look for vital application-related information in two places: the program page for the program that interests them, and the school’s university-wide application resources. Both routes (program-level and school-level) are very common choices. Links to the most important pieces of information should be accessible via both options.


I produced these reports in February and March 2017. Though I never shared the results with Antioch, I notice that many of the core issues I identified in research have been resolved. The application gateway page has been overhauled; the confusing yellow Apply button is gone from the site; and information sessions are now visible from the homepage and the program pages.

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