Mark Boulton

CERN

Redesigning the home of the web for the announcement of the discovery of the Higgs Boson.

CERN. The home of the Large Hydron Colider, the experiments that discovered the Higgs Boson, and the place where the World Wide Web was created.

I was asked to lead the project over three years to recreate the CERN website in readiness for 'one of the most important scientific discoveries ever made': the discovery of the Higgs Boson. CERN knew their website was currently not up to the task of delivering this message to humankind in the way it needed to be. We had a lot of work to do.

Role

  • Creative Director

Services

  • Design Leadership
  • Strategy
  • Design system and tooling
  • Information architecture
  • Web design

The project was blank canvas; a complete redesign, a new publishing platform, new content architecture and proved to pick apart process and organisational challenges of how CERN created, maintained and published content.

We started with extensive user research over a six month period. This included a healthy research mix of large scale quant, and several initiatives of qual including the many users and audiences of CERN. We needed to get to grips with who was coming to the CERN website and why. The difference with this project compared to others was the sheer scale and breadth: CERN was, literally, for everyone. Scientists, engineers, school children, the family who live on top of the colider. Their needs were broad and establishing trends in these needs was the key to making a start on the strategy.

The website and services adapted to mobile display. This was a particular challenge for some of the information dense sections such as the CERN Directory.

With such a breadth of content, my job as Creative Director was to ensure that the display of the content is appropriate for the user and the task at hand. This presented a challenge for the designers and stakeholders. How do we make decisions on how something should look? Ever mindful of subjective opinions, I always try and systemise how something should look. Once we all agree on the system, it should provide us with the rules and guardrails in order to make good decisions. This is especially important if other people are going to be creating something with the system.

We saw in the research that there were two opposite poles of user need and how it might relate to the visual design. Scientists used the website purely as a tool - getting from A-B with upmost efficiency. They expected hard data and science. Lots of content and links. Small typography. The 'general public' user, though – perhaps who arrived at the CERN website from the BBC News website – did not want that at all. They came for information, sure, but they wanted that wrapped up in an inspiring aesthetic. Something that would communicate the work CERN did.

We created what we called 'The Wonder Scale' for this. A numerical scale which we attributed to pages of content, chunks of content or functionality, or entire services at CERN. A 'high wonder' meant it was written in a certain way, we'd include inspirational and informative imagery. For 'low wonder', we'd focus on typographic efficiency. Few images would support the content. This was about the reading experience for the users.

'Low Wonder' pages – The Scientists index page and the CERN Directory. The Directory was only redesigned by us after being one of the first ever pages created at CERN many years ago. In fact, it was probably one of the very first web pages in existance.

The CERN website was relaunched to much praise. The acid test of new site came several months later when the Higgs Boson announcement was made. The flexible system allowed us to create a roadblock index page which replaced the usual homepage. That day, CERN recorded hundreds of millions of visits.

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