As high school students prepare to graduate at the end of this month, many of them are contemplating the next step in their education. Having recently donned a cap and gown for my own college convocation, it made me think back to my initial exploration of higher education after graduating high school.
With copious post-secondary institutions offering a seemingly endless array of degree and diploma programs, choosing the right one for me was a daunting task. In today’s digital world, I turned to the web to conduct research on finding the right college or university. As someone who has many years of post-secondary education under her belt, I have spent a great deal of time navigating school websites in search of important information pertaining to courses, student services, and school functions. These online searches were often frustrating and fruitless. I’m sure many of my fellow students would agree that in many cases, university and college websites are simply not user-friendly.
One of the biggest challenges that post-secondary institutions face is attracting potential students while simultaneously serving current students, faculty, staff, and alumni alike. In order to achieve this, the website must be well-organized and easy to navigate. The focus should be on centralizing content so that answers to any questions are readily available. It should be aesthetically pleasing, but more importantly, it should inform.
1) IMPLEMENT EASY NAVIGATION
University and college websites are the digital version of window shopping, and as a first impression, it is crucial that universities make a positive one. If the site is not easily navigable, a potential student can move on with the simple click of a button. University and college websites are notorious for being so large that relevant information (e.g. “How Do I Apply?”, “What Is Student Life Like”?) is impossible to find.
Universities should keep in mind that prospective students may be young and without fully developed research skills. They should also take into account that the website’s usability allows for a greater number of people to reach the site, including those with visual and other disabilities, or individuals who are simply not tech-savvy. Burying program material, application information and important deadlines deep within the site will only deter students who are considering applying to the school.
2) ORGANIZE TO OPTIMIZE USER EXPERIENCE
A common complaint for even a seasoned student is the inability to easily find important information. Many of my fellow students lament inadequate access to critical course information, prerequisites, health benefits, building hours of operation, and faculty directories. University and colleges should design their site to answer the needs of current and prospective students first and foremost. Even the most attractive website will fall short if it is not comprehensive and user-friendly. For example, Duke University website’s homepage gives the appearance of well a constructed site, however, upon exploring the subpages it quickly becomes apparent that the lack of consistency in the design and organization makes for difficult navigation. Having more quick links to relevant pages would allow for smoother transitions between pages.
3) KEEP IT CONSISTENT
Another frequent complaint from both current and prospective students is the lack of consistency across department sites. Coordination across those delivering information on the main website and subsequent department microsites is crucial. The information should be organized in a way that prevents duplicate, contradictory, or incomplete information leading to confusion over which source takes precedence. The name of the university or college should be clearly identified on each page, including on the microsites for each faculty and department as some departments have their own name such as the Asper School of Business at the University of Manitoba. The core structure and elements should also remain the same across the website to ensure easy navigation.
4) MAKE IDENTITY CRYSTAL CLEAR
A post-secondary institution’s website is an opportunity to display their brand strategy. Using consistent colour palettes, typography, and images across the entire site and its microsites ensures that the brand is represented cohesively. These elements should all work together to reflect the brand tone and values. An example of this is Cornell University’s website, which combines the application of large photography and warm colours to present a school that cares deeply about its student body.
5) DRIVE TRAFFIC WITH GOOD CONTENT
Along with identity, choosing the right types of content for a university website—and especially on its homepage—is crucial. While a website tries to advertise to prospective students, it should demonstrate the merits of the university or college without being pompous or flashy. The content should communicate the character and attributes of the university and all of its individual departments in an honest and authentic way. The language used throughout the website should reflect and support the images and brand tone.
Having student-generated content within the website is a great way to demonstrate that the university values their students. For instance, the University of Toronto encouraged its students to use the hashtag #UofTGrad14 when posting statuses or photos via social media during their convocation. Photos and tweets were posted on their site in a series called Convocation 2014: Best Social Media Moments. The student-generated photos and comments appear much more genuine than had a staff member written a generic congratulatory post.
In addition, having relevant news posted regularly on the website helps drive traffic in an ongoing way. The more content is located on the site, the more students, faculty, and staff will use it as a primary source of information. This type of content strategy also generates traffic from external links coming from people conducting search engine inquiries. For instance, Manoverboard designed and developed UM Today, a news site for all University of Manitoba campus news. The content that UM Today develops is abundant, frequently updated, and is a key ingredient to the success of their site.
A WELL DESIGNED SITE ADDS INCREDIBLE VALUE
Overall, the key to a good university or college website is providing a good user experience for prospective students, current students, and faculty and staff alike. The brand should be reflected in harmony across the site in a way that appeals to students and makes them feel valued.
A good example of a university that is doing it well is the University of Waterloo. The homepage is well organized and includes a section clearly meant for high school students who are interested in studying there. The microsites for each department remain consistent with the overall design while still highlighting their individual objectives and achievements.
Universities and colleges can leverage a website as a global shop window for a young generation of computer savvy students who use the Internet as their primary research tool. A well-designed site is invaluable as it attracts new students, keeps current students well informed, and brings the campus community closer together.