UX - Judging a Book by Its Cover: The Impact Your School’s Website's Design Has

Written by SuperUser Account on 10/15/2016
UX - Judging a Book by Its Cover: The Impact Your School’s Website's Design Has

More than two-thirds of people say the most important characteristic of a website is ease of use, according to a survey conducted by Hubspot.

That survey might have been conducted in 2011, but the needs of the user has not changed, particularly now that most people access sites from tiny little mobile screens.

That’s why it’s so important to factor in UX design with your school’s website. UX design (or user experience design) is just a fancy way of saying that you’re doing all you can to make your website user-friendly for your audiences.

For your school, those audiences could include:

  • Prospective and current students
  • Recruiters
  • Counselors
  • Families of prospective/current students
  • Donors/supports
  • Alumni

A bad UX design could confuse your visitors, make it difficult for people to find what they’re looking for, and could prevent your school’s branding from making the positive impact you’d hoped for.

So, how do you avoid a bad user experience with your website design? Follow these 8 tips.

1. A minimalistic approach

Apple’s Steve Jobs was famous for his attention to design detail, and one of his favorite mantras was that less is more.

That minimalistic approach is a key component of a user-friendly website, but far too many university and college websites are jam-packed with content, calls to action and images.

These cramped pages make it cumbersome for users to wade through, but they also make it extremely difficult for your school to develop a mobile-friendly responsive site (more on that later).

An effective way to design your website is to be efficient and clean. To do that, you’ll want to display your information in nested sections. These nests allow the user to decide if/when to access your information, rather than being inundated with content all at once.

Other tips to consider include hover-states and dropdown navigations so that your pages aren’t cluttered with links.

2. Focus on your navigation and search capabilities

Navigation and search capabilities are important for most websites, but they’re a non-negotiable for education institutions.

The majority of your visitors will be prospective students. What are they searching for when they land on your site? By knowing this, you can optimize your navigation to make it easy for them to access what they want.

For example, many prospective students want to know:

  • Application Requirements
  • Student Life/Campus Life
  • Department Programs

These areas of your website should be easy to find and access. By adding a comprehensive search capability as well, you’re making it simple for any user to find exactly what they want, like, for example, the syllabus for a specific class.

We know that schools often have many menu options and web pages on their site, all of which cater to many types of audiences. One way to simplify this for the user is to have clear menu headings that speak to your audiences. For example, your menu might include:

  • Future Students
  • Current Students
  • Alumni
  • Academics

That way, a prospective student knows exactly where he/she should click to get information relevant to their search. The ensuing page will then feature links to all of the sections pertinent to prospective students.

3. Avoid information overload

Most schools and universities have countless departments, clubs, courses, and programs, and are eager to feature all of these on their website.

But rarely will a prospective student actually spend the time sifting through all of that information. As a result, all of those extra pages and menu options are distracting from your true purpose: giving the user a friendly experience that makes them want to convert.

Rather than get bogged down with information overload, consider including the following prominently on your school website:

  • About page
  • Blurbs that highlight your school’s merits, successes, and noteworthy programs
  • Small sections that feature soundbites, quotes, and student testimonials

It’s incredible how much you can say with few words. Take, for example, Huron at Western. On their homepage, the school features two sub-headers:

  • The Huron Experience (which links to a 3-minute promo video)
  • Why Choose Huron (which highlights student profiles/testimonials)

This approach is known as benefits over features in the marketing world. When you go on and on about your many programs, courses, and clubs, you’re focusing in on your schools’ features. True, these features are important; however, the prospective student wants to get a more personal experience. By focusing on benefits (specifically by highlighting current/former students’ experiences) you’re answering the question running through all of your site’s visitors: Why should I go to school here?

4. Promote your campus culture

Attending an institution of higher learning means so much more than taking classes. Students who come to your school are joining a culture, and, in some ways, a family.

It’s key that you highlight the unique aspects of your school’s campus culture throughout your site, to help connect your brand to your prospective students.

By highlighting your campus culture, you’re making it easy for prospective students to see if they’re a good fit, while simultaneously making current students feel at home.

Be sure to highlight student programs, campuses, alumni, and student activities clearly on the homepage and navigation, so that your school’s personality shines through.

Southern New Hampshire University accomplishes this by featuring their latest articles on their homepage:

5. Be consistent across all of your departments

Education websites (and, particularly, university sites) often branch out into department sections, programs, and courses. Sometimes, these subsections have sub-sites of their own.

What we often see is these sub-sites divert from the existing design, navigation and culture of the main site.

But this is extremely jarring for the user, and even potentially contradictory. Uniformity is the key toward ensuring a positive, and streamlined user experience. The last thing you want is for your university website to come across like a stitched-together garment. You want a clean and consistent look that presents your institution, as a whole, in the best light. 

6. Make sure your website is responsive

Most of your prospective students primarily use their mobile devices to access the web. Sure, eventually they’ll turn to a larger screen as they conduct their online searches for schools. However, if your site’s mobile appearance is confusing or disjointed, you might have lost that prospective student for good.

The best way to ensure a positive mobile experience – regardless of screen size or device – is through responsive design. Responsive web design makes sure your site looks the way you intend it to, no matter whether the site’s accessed on a desktop, laptop, tablet or phone.

7.  Add interactivity to your site

Chances are you’re not only targeting students from your local region. You’re looking to bring in prospective students from across the country and globe.

That means these prospective students won’t get to tour your campus in person as they make their decision on which schools to apply to.

You can overcome this hurdle – and stand apart from other institutions – by including a virtual 360˚ tour of the campus, dorms, and classrooms.

These virtual tours are surprisingly easy to create and embed on your site and are extremely mobile friendly (users can navigate the virtual tour through the swipe of their finger).  

8. Make sure you have a content management system that can adapt to your needs

All of these UX recommendations are moot if you don’t have a content management system that allows you to make these changes, and adapt quickly as your needs evolve.

Your CMS will dictate whether you can:

  • Easily redesign a page that’s underperforming
  • Rearrange your menu/navigation
  • Customize your responsive design to optimize for mobile
  • Add the latest technologies without “breaking your site”

But your choice in CMS is important as well for ensuring you and your staff can add new content (news, events, announcements) on a constant basis, without being limited by technological obstacles. These constant updates will keep your prospects, current students, and alumni engaged, and can help to ensure your prominent ranking on Google’s search engine results pages.

But which CMS should you choose for your website? We recommend you read our article: DNN was Right for Cornell, Purdue, and Others. Is It the Right CMS for My School?

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