User friendly: Laura Ruel teaches students the art and science of UX while engaging community clients

By Beth Hatcher

Good web design puts the user first, and at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media Associate Professor Laura Ruel makes sure her students know their way around making a website user friendly.

It’s just good business.

With most news and communications now living online, understanding website user experience — often abbreviated as UX — is critical for any of the school’s students, no matter what career path they choose, Ruel said.

That is why Ruel created and teaches the course “MEJO 581: User Experience Design and Usability,” which instructs students about theory and practice of user experience design with an emphasis on usability, design theory, aesthetic design and evaluative methodologies.

“UX is basically a way to understand who your users are and what they want — how to help them best understand a concept,” Ruel said. “It’s a great field because it involves not just design but understanding psychology and how people learn.”

Good UX puts more eyes on your work in a world full of digital competition. People aren’t going to read a news story just because it’s there — they’ll gravitate to the one displayed in a way that is more easily understandable, Ruel said.

Ruel created the course when she arrived at UNC Hussman in 2004, after a long career in journalism and journalism education during which she witnessed the increasing ubiquity of websites.

“People who are creating news content for any medium — need to be involved in the online process,” said Ruel, who spent much of her journalism career working on newspaper graphics teams. “I used to say when I worked at a newspaper that if I could get somebody to look at a news page and remember something because of the design, then I had been successful. Taking that way of thinking into the web has been an incredible opportunity because there are so many more ways to make something noticeable, to make it understandable.”

Besides sharing her UX savvy with students, Ruel has also been able to share her knowledge with the broader community. Her classes often work with real-world clients on UX issues. Last semester, the class worked with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services to help with user experience on pandemic-related communications — such as the testing of the SlowCOVIDNC app and a contact tracing website.

“All of the engagements we had with Laura’s class focused on technology solutions being developed to address specific areas related to the pandemic,” said Corey R. Mercy, the former deputy chief technology officer with NCDHHS who worked with Ruel’s class. “UX is vital in any technology space, but I feel even more so when it comes to public health. The adoption and use of these tools is solely at the discretion of the individual. If that individual finds the website or app confusing, too invasive or cumbersome, they will not use it.” Mercy now works as a strategic cloud advisor with Google.

Scroll on the image below to view the suggestions from the "MEJO 581" class  for NCDHHS.


Noel Castro Fernandez ’22 (M.A.) helped with the NCDHHS project when he took Ruel’s class last semester, which he called foundational in his education at Hussman.

“The ‘MEJO 581’ course was a great overview on the fields of design thinking and user experience design. UX concepts can help journalists and storytellers produce stories with more awareness of the communities and individuals that will receive them and are affected by them,” Fernandez said. “In an evolving digital world, it's important to remember that the platforms where we publish our stories are part of how these stories are perceived, consumed and understood.”

This semester, Ruel’s students are helping the Town of Carrboro with a website redesign.

“We want our website to help visitors find desired information and complete intended transactions quickly,” said Catherine Lazorko, Carrboro’s community and engagement director. “UX testing may find that while we pride ourselves on providing a wealth of information, users often benefit more from less and desire simplicity. The reports that I anticipate receiving from Laura’s class will be detailed — including how users may interpret the meaning of heading titles and button calls to action. The class provides valuable and professional research that directly improves public communication and engagement outcomes.”

Learn more about Ruel, the “MEJO 581” course and other classes she teaches at Hussman here.

All article images courtesy of "MEJO 581" course.