College websites put users first

Best practices for focusing web design on the user experience as well as visual appeal
By: | Issue: November, 2015
October 23, 2015

When making decisions about Hope College’s website redesign, project team members found themselves looking at a photo of Adam, an 18-year-old freshman, to gauge what he might think is the most logical place for a piece of content—or whether he thinks the content should be there at all.

And then, knowing Adam’s mom is very concerned about finding the academic calendar may have helped them determine how best to direct users to that content.

Yet, Adam isn’t a real freshman. He’s one in a set of 15 user personas—that is, fictitious people representing real audiences—created by administrators at the Michigan college.

In the group: four prospective and two current students (Adam included), plus parents, a faculty member, prospective faculty member, a staff member, alumni and community residents. The personas and their stories, which include background such as each person’s current situation and list of concerns, “don’t answer all the questions, but they do answer the big ones,” says Jason Cash, director of web communications.

The identities were developed with care, the result of help from an external web designer as well as focus groups and surveys conducted with parents, students, employees and community members. The information collected guided web developers in making Hope’s website as easy to navigate as possible.

Rather than issuing a 150-page research summary that might not get read, administrators created the personas to help make “informed decisions about who these people are who are coming to our site and how we can best serve them,” Cash says.

Best practices for website usability

  • Get input from key stakeholders, both internal and external to the campus.
  • Keep it simple, boil down information and avoid the temptation to add more elements.
  • Ensure the site will function well on mobile devices, and know that mobile users prefer to swipe rather than tap the screen.
  • Use longer, scrolling pages, with content split into categories.
  • Have a single, full-service page for each major and program, with vital information posted and links to additional information, such as tuition and fees or credit hours.
  • Conduct A/B testing, where two similar options are presented to users.
  • Ask the right questions in web analytics—even if the numbers needed aren’t readily available.
  • Keep a close eye on data about referral traffic and user paths.

And after Hope’s new website went live in August 2015, the personas stayed. “We’re still generating new content on a daily basis, and so is the rest of our campus,” Cash says. The information on each persona has been made available to all web editors to ensure content stays relevant.

The amount of time and attention Hope administrators spent thinking about its site redesign is not typical. Traditionally, higher ed websites have been viewed as brochure-ware and contained what faculty wanted to highlight. While such websites look good for the most part, they are not always easy to navigate—and don’t help manage enrollment pressures.

Higher ed generally lags behind commercial businesses when it comes to usability—although private institutions and graduate schools are paying closer attention because of “cash cow needs,” says George Goodall, senior analyst at Toronto-based Info-Tech Research Group.

If someone is applying to business school for an MBA “and paying a fortune to do so, it’s very important to engage alumni and prospective students because there is huge competition” among schools looking to attract students, he says. Graduate schools are “further along in the process of looking at usability because there’s a higher premium there on what the behavior we’re trying to capture is.”

In the case of prospective students or donors, that desired behavior is the conversion: someone enrolling or giving money.

Yet many schools don’t pay close attention to the fact that people who visit college sites expect to find specific information. Studies have shown that “if people can’t find what they want on your website they’re going to think less of your institution,’’ says Matt Herzberger, an executive consultant at enrollment and fundraising management firm Ruffalo Noel Levitz.

User-friendly navigation encourages people to spend more time on the site learning about an institution and its programs. Otherwise, he says, “people can end up in places they don’t want to go to or you’re pushing them in places you can’t capitalize on. If they can’t figure out the path they want to go on, you’re going to lose them.”

Incorporating best practices related to navigation and other user experiences can help prevent that loss.

A visual experience

Visitors want to experience a website, not just read it, according to the “Website Design Trends 2015” report from the Chicago-based higher ed marketing agency Eduvantis Digital.

Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles followed the concept in designing their new website, launched in late August 2015. “What you see on our website is a significant, concerted push to create an integrated user experience for our prospective audience,’’ says John Kiralla, executive director of marketing and communications. “Our primary targets are prospective students and their influencers—their parents.”

The home page’s job is to pique the interest of visitors enough for them to investigate and dig deeper on the site. “The point is not to tell everything about you,” Kiralla says.

Drastic shifts in content and design involved moving certain features campus users may be used to seeing, such as the student portal, off the top of the old website, he explains. Now underneath a drop-down button on the home page, that portal isn’t as easy to find—but it need not be when current students aren’t the target.

Loyola’s redesign aims to inspire a visceral reaction from prospects because many people felt the old site was “not effectively portraying our beautiful location and the resources of LA,” Kiralla says.

Issues with the old site’s content management system functionality was part of the problem. Another aim: Ensure the new look and feel would be functional and compelling on mobile devices.

Prior to starting the redesign project, which involved a switch to a CMS from TerminalFour, administrators conducted focus groups with A/B testing (where two slightly different options are presented) and interviews with stakeholders.

The team shared information with stakeholders throughout the process to make alterations and corrections. They also began using a quality assurance tool called Site Improve, which scans the site to produce visual and data metrics on broken links, spelling mistakes and whether a page is Section 508 ADA compliant for people with disabilities.

The web team has set up daily reports in Google Analytics to glean geographic information on visitors, as well as referrals, time spent on the site and the entry and exit points.

“We’re analyzing pathways. They’re looking for the course catalog—how did they get there?” Kiralla says. “If it’s not easy to reach, we should elevate it in search structure.” Based on traffic and analysis, tweaks have already been made related to word choice and to the order of information presented.

Geared toward the consumer

While prospective students look for different things at different stages of the college search, it’s critical to give them “clear consumer information” to compare institutions, says Joselyn Zivin, director of market research and market planning at Huron Consulting Group. Sites should clearly promote the programs offered, course credit information and admission requirements.

Less than a decade ago, it was considered “vulgar” for a website to push a prospective student to submit information so they could be contacted by an enrollment officer. Now, says Zivin, “the more hungry an institution is for enrollment, the more likely you are to see that paradigm reflected on their websites.”

That impacts how content is structured on a website. Zivin should know. She led the website redesign initiative at National Louis University in Chicago when she was vice president of marketing and communications. “Our institution had to shake the trees pretty hard for students,’’ she says.

The target audience was adult students paying for their education out of their own pocket. So Zivin and the CIO began firmly tying technology into every initiative. “It had to be about what students are seeing and the paths they’re being taken on and what functionality is being offered to them,” she says.

The redesign was a collaborative effort with input from academic, marketing, IT and executive leadership. “You start with a really frank representation of what the prospective student and his family wants,’’ she says. “The website also has to represent and steward the institution’s brand, and for institutions that are enrollment-dependent, it has to recruit students.”

A team approach

Hope College’s web team sought input on its redesign from admissions and alumni engagement. These revenue-generating offices desired a strong web presence, Cash explains.

Hope also deployed a content management system from OmniUpdate to centralize the type of content being posted around campus. Cash says the site’s fresh look comes with a fully responsive design that adapts to all mobile devices.

And the college now has an employee dedicated to studying analytics. Hope plans to make continuous, smaller changes to the site—rather than doing major overhauls—so the web team doesn’t have to “blow up the site five years from now,” says Cash.

A new events calendar was added, but when users also requested a traditional academic calendar, a dark-colored link was added midway down on the home page.

The days of analyzing data only when preparing for a redesign are over, says Karine Joly, UB’s Internet Technology columnist and the executive director of Higher Ed experts, which offers online professional certificate programs and events for digital professionals working in higher ed.

Continually improving the website is top-of-mind for administrators at forward-thinking schools.

“They may not look every week at the data,” Joly says. But a school in the middle of the recruiting season getting requests for campus visits via an online form may need to make modifications based on a specific goal. “We’ve reached a point in the industry where web professionals understand what they can do with the data and how it can inform the redesign and tweaks,” she says.

It’s also important to dig for the right data, emphasizes Goodall of Info-Tech Research. “We have a bias toward what numbers are available versus what are the best numbers,” he says. “I would argue you need a better analyst, not a better system. You need someone who can make sense of the numbers and ask the right questions.”

Esther Shein is a business and technology writer based in Framingham, Massachusetts.