A platform for thousands of users and a story of world-class accessibility
Renewing aalto.fi by building a communications platform
Aalto.fi is a site and a content hub that serves tens of thousands of Aalto University’s different users on a daily basis. It is not only the most important information source for all of Aalto University’s external audiences, but it also doubles as an intranet for staff. As such, it caters to a very broad audience from prospective students and their parents to media and decision makers, and from Alumni to service staff and faculty.
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Aalto University wanted to renew its core website, and at the same time, rethink what a university website should represent. One major goal was to bring the majority of key audiences, both internal and external, to one communications platform, and to offer a very large pool of content owners and creators the tools to reach those audiences. The project surprised everyone involved in the beginning with its complexity, however the problem was quickly solved by developing a system that allowed the source code to be utilized again in different sub-sites.
Scalability and access to accurate information were core requirements, meaning that the focus quickly shifted to modular thinking. This meant content hubs, component libraries, and integrations into various internal services, such as information archives and research portals, to name a few. Accessibility quickly became an important KPI, due to community and inclusivity being core values of Aalto.
Aalto.fi serves thousands of stakeholders in different positions in the University sphere. The line between “internal” and “external” is particularly thin, and the platform needs to serve everyone’s needs: applicants, the media, students, professors, support staff, and alumni.
The data related to the site speaks for itself: 250 000 monthly users, 500 000 monthly visitors, and 1,2 million monthly page views. The average visit duration is 3 minutes and 49 seconds, which translates to roughly 1,9 million minutes in total spent at aalto.fi each month.
“For us, that distinction between internal and external audiences is quite interesting, or for example, who are our customers? Is a student a customer? In a way, yes, but they also contribute to creating new knowledge, so in a way they could also be seen as staff. Those lines are very hard to draw, so instead, we like to think of ourselves as a community or an eco-system”, explains Robert Salvén, Head of Digital Experience at Aalto University, Communications Services.
The culture at Siili has been a great match with us in terms of a very high ambition level and a very high dedication to quality. At the same time, there's a very clear understanding of deadlines and rapidly achieving targets and goals, which is important to us.
Head of Digital Experience
Our co-operation began on 2017 when we kicked off our first project, the renewal of aalto.fi and the development of a new type of communications platform. From day one, people from Siili, Aalto University and Hasan & Partners banded together to form one project team. Once the renewal team started to go through all the requirements, it really became clear how big of a project it was going to be. The site needed to be built in such a way that it would be sustainable in the future, and that incremental improvements and further development would be as easy as possible.
“I think the cultural fit has been very, very good. Focus on quality, focus on results. When working together with an agency, whether it’s a good fit or not, it really comes down to the individuals at the end of the day, and I think we have been very lucky to have some super people and super personalities involved in the project along the way”, says Salvén.
“I think the key thing for me in this has been the smooth collaboration and support, and the kind of very relaxed and personal way of working. It has made my experience so much easier when joining the project as a new person. I’ve actually told to my team at Siili that they have made my role and work so much easier compared to what it would have been without their support,” tells Sarita Heikkinen, Donor Engagement Manager at Aalto University.
One of the reasons the project has been so complex is the amount of content and the need to expand this content to multiple sites. These sites have different stakeholders, or owners, with varying requirements for features and functionality. Building these sites to use the same code base was found to be best the solution.
“The cool thing we’ve been able to do now is share source code so that the development of new features in different site projects benefit all the sites at the same time. In that sense, what we have achieved is that we actually built a platform. We haven’t built a website, we built a platform,” says Salvén.
Each new sub-project or new feature ends up benefitting all the users of all the sites being run on the platform.
“We’ve started to build a community where people are chipping in with different kinds of development ideas and different improvements, then we’re sharing that across all of the sites. And this is something I am supremely proud of,’’ says Salvén.
One example of an internal stakeholder project is the Aalto Donor platform.
“The project included building the platform, optimizing the donor journey, and really making the online donating process as pleasant as possible – this of course includes all the back-end development. And it truly has been a success. I’m very happy with the end result,” says Heikkinen.
Something that has made Siili’s and Aalto’s people especially proud has been the level of technical accessibility the site has reached and maintained throughout the project. Accessibility was quickly chosen as one of the main KPIs at the beginning of the project as it is ingrained in both Siili’s and Aalto’s cultures and values. Aalto.fi even reached a technical accessibility score of 99 out of 100 at one point of the project, which was a cause for celebration.
“Depending on what study you look at, around 20–30% of the Internet users have some kind of challenge in using the Internet and the services we provide. So, for us, accessibility was a bit of a no brainer: why would we create a service that ignores the needs of 20–30% of our users. We’re very grateful to Siili for triggering that conversation right in the beginning. They asked us if this should be an important metric for us and we said yeah, of course it should be,” Salvén says.
“Universities are by nature intended to be inclusive. The whole point with universities is to welcome people in. To create an opportunity to collaborate, learn, build, and solve grand challenges and build solutions together. So, if we are supposed to be inclusive in this way, then how can we ignore or leave out a big part of our users by not building services that they are able to use.”
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“I think the future is very exciting in the sense that we now have a feeling of what we are doing and what we are focusing on. Our community is constantly coming up with ideas they want, or that should be built on the site, and that’s actually very exciting for us,” comments Salvén.
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