UB op-ed: Higher ed websites deserve more attention

The technology exists to make a first impression a lasting one
Karine Joly is the web editor behind www.collegewebeditor.com, and is the founder of higheredexperts.com.

It’s easy to lose sight of your most important digital property: your institution’s website. Although we can get distracted by the shiny toys that social media and digital advertising have become, let’s not forget the central role a website plays in any digital strategy. All the social media engagement and targeted digital advertising in the world won’t do any good if your base camp on the web doesn’t provide a fast, user-friendly and accessible experience.

Just 23% of the UB Outlook survey’s 120 technology administrator respondents identified web presence and web user experience as a budget priority for 2019. That’s unfortunate because a website is the first contact many people have with an institution.

Preliminary results of the 2019 E-Expectations Survey conducted by Ruffalo Noel-Levitz in March 2019 confirm the prevalence of website visits in college searches, with 89% of prospective students indicating they had visited a college site within a week.

Trends vs. fads

Web professionals know of the constant need for website improvement, but it can be challenging to differentiate between design trends and fads.

I seized the opportunity to ask 12 speakers at the 2019 Higher Ed Websites Conference—a diverse panel of seasoned web professionals—to name the best and worst web trends in higher ed.

In our digital world of instant gratification, page loading speed is key to meeting user expectations and meeting the demands of search algorithms designed to get the fastest, most accurate answers to search queries. Not surprisingly, the worst web trend identified by my panel was the overuse of big “hero” or background videos on many higher ed homepages.

“They’re terrible for site speed and download size,” says Erik Runyon, technical director at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

Web professionals know of the constant need for website improvement, but it can be challenging to differentiate between design trends and fads.

“Site performance must be a higher priority,” adds Ryan Dee, senior web designer and developer at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Hero-size videos that go on for 30 seconds or longer just feel gratuitous at that point.”

The auto-advancing image carousels present on some higher ed websites are often problematic for similar reasons. “Carousels are difficult to make fully accessible and can dilute branding,” adds Elizabeth Gray, web developer at Purdue University in Indiana.

Know your audience

Many institutions have made web accessibility a priority, often embracing the “design once for everybody” principle of universal design.

“The best design trend in higher ed is a commitment to mobile-first, clean design with images and streamlined navigation,” says Kimberly Charles, director of digital communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

While it’s crucial to make web content accessible to everyone, higher ed websites designed for everyone need to disappear. “Everyone is not a real audience,” says Tor Joshua Charles, director of web governance and communications at Rutgers Business School-Newark and New Brunswick in New Jersey. “Sites that don’t have an understanding of their target audience often go hand in hand with poor user experiences.”

Each website visitor wants to feel that their experience is unique. Whether it’s with customized ads or pop-up reminders or with feature articles or news stories personalized to their interests, students expect your web content to answer their questions and make them feel special.

Read: Going atomic: New tools to develop responsive websites


For Conny Liegl, senior designer at California Polytechnic State University, personalizing web content based on audience type and user location looks promising. “We can cater specifically to a student studying in the library, for example, and display custom, relevant information on their device,” she says.

It’s clear that higher ed websites have a tall order to fill: Build faster, more accessible sites that cater to individual needs. The technology exists, and higher education doesn’t lack the talent to do it, but institutions often forget the importance of their digital property. For many visitors, their first impression of your school will come from your website. Make it a memorable one.

Karine Joly is the web editor behind collegewebeditor.com. She is also the founder of higheredexperts.com.

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