UX Research Brings Fearless Science to Life for University of Chicago's Marine Biology Lab Website

The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), affiliated with The University of Chicago, is dedicated to research and education, gathering scientists from around the world to fuel fundamental biological discovery.

Their strategic initiatives are focused around studying experimentally tractable organisms and imaging innovation, utilizing some of the world’s most advanced microscopy equipment and techniques. The Education Division of the MBL draws students from high school to post-doctorates, offering hands-on learning opportunities with some of the most brilliant researchers in their fields.

Black and white photo from 1895 of original research boat and researchers

How do you tell the story of a research institution founded in 1888, from its origins to its latest, groundbreaking innovations in biological research?

The Challenge

When we began our partnership with the MBL, their existing site was over a decade old, which made it difficult to use on mobile devices and unable to showcase so much of their storytelling with beautiful imagery and videos.

There was also a desire to maintain a consistent brand across the different research centers, courses, and projects that had splintered off into microsites over the years. Content administrator needs and distinct center or course identities created a number of smaller sites that were loosely tied into the main MBL site, but diverged from the site’s navigation. This also resulted in duplication of content across the sites.

In short, MBL partnered with Sandstorm with their extensive knowledge of the higher education industry to build a site that brought to life the MBL’s updated brand identity while better reflecting the innovation happening at the lab every day.

Remote video URL

The Solution

We learned early in the project that the MBL has a dedicated following of scientists around the world - researchers and lifelong learners who continue to return year after year, or maintain a network of colleagues they’ve met at the lab. The easiest path forward was to start with in-depth user experience research. We interviewed multiple end users and various stakeholders who gave us incredible insights into the types of content that would be most useful on the site.

With this information, Sandstorm and the MBL project team embarked on a significant reorganization of the information architecture, which helped guide the user experience design for the site. The UI design focused on elevating the new brand elements of the MBL, providing a sense of space and community that better reflects the on-site experience at the lab, and modernizing the web experience overall.

Some of the key features that achieved these goals include:

  • A standardized look and feel for the many courses offered at the MBL, previously represented by individual microsites
  • Specialized landing pages for each of the three main research centers - highlighting each center’s unique identity and purpose, while still adhering to the MBL brand
  • An interactive scientist directory, allowing users to search and filter by research area or if the scientist is currently on campus
  • The use of Drupal 9’s Layout Builder - a visual layout editor that provides content administrators with a variety of content blocks to reuse across the site
  • Implementation of the site on Pantheon (a great partner for higher education)

“A huge shoutout to all of you for creating a wonderful new website for the MBL! I know everyone put a tremendous amount of work into the project, and this is very much appreciated by me and the entire MBL community. The website looks great and provides lots of useful information in a well-organized way - it is going to be helpful to all MBL scientists, staff, and visitors, as well as provide an excellent way to engage the public.”

- Nipam H. Patel, Ph.D., Director, Marine Biological Laboratory

The Results

In anticipation of the busy summer season at the MBL, the newly-launched mbl.edu is ready to engage researchers and visitors to help plan their stays, delve into the newsmaking research happening at the lab, and discover who else will be convening at their amazing campus in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Improved metrics include:

  • 20% increase in unique page views 

  • 23% increase in on-page time, directly resulting in increased time spent on the new site

  • Visits, sessions, and visitors are up by more than 16%

Anne Lentino is a light skinned female with curly red hair wearing a green shirt smiling at the camera
Anne Lentino
Product Owner

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