The Old College Try: Updating Your University Website

The Old College Try: Updating Your University Website

There was a time when websites could be designed and forgotten, at least for a couple of years. That is no longer the case. Today, visitors expect to find current and relevant information on your site — and if they don’t, they’ll move onto another website altogether.

This means that website management should be a daily to-do on your communications checklist. If you are already feeling overwhelmed by all you have to do, there are a few steps you can take to plan and streamline website management so that your website stays continually fresh.

Based on the success of other colleges and universities that have gone through a recent website redesign, the following tips can help you save time, money, resources and headaches:

  1. Capitalize on your existing website’s strengths – and strengthen its weaknesses.
  2. Define and design the flow of information.
  3. Invest in the tools you need to do the job well.
  4. Be inclusive.

 

1. Capitalize on your existing website’s strengths – and strengthen its weaknesses.

This is an obvious starting point, but you’d be surprised by how many schools jump in to a redesign project without being strategic in their initial assessment of what works and what doesn’t. Consider the following:

  • Do you have strong content that can be reused or repurposed on your redesigned site?
  • Does your current website reflect your school’s branding and messaging accurately?
  • Is your school’s mission implied throughout your website? For example, is it clear that you focus on technology or liberal arts?
  • What pages are the most popular on your current website and why?
  • What features and forms are effective, and how do you know?
  • Do you have the human resources you need to maintain the redesigned website that you want?
  • How does your website compare to your competitors?

Questions like these uncover both the strengths and weaknesses of your website and give you a starting point for a redesign.

Hope College in Holland, Michigan, realized that their existing website was lacking in several key areas. Rather than piecemeal quick fixes, their web development team decided to conduct a major overhaul of their website. They enlisted feedback to discover what worked and what didn’t, then devised a strategic plan for their website redesign project. This included revising content, refreshing the design for better functionality, implementing new processes to clarify roles and workflows, and creating structure and organization for optimal information flow.
 


Hope College implemented a new content management system and redesigned their website simultaneously to address ongoing issues with their digital presence.

 

2. Define and design the flow of information.

More than ever, the way information is presented determines whether your audience will read, stay on your website, and ultimately follow through to action. If you are a business, then that action would be purchasing a product. If you are a college or university, that action could be requesting a tour or applying to your school.

If you are taking the time to think through a redesign, you will soon discover why it’s imperative that you define and design your flow of information. Some of the most compelling reasons include the following:
 

Ease of Use

Prospective students – and their parents – live online, so it’s essential for you to incorporate features into your redesign that make the time they spend on your website easy and informative. Think about your own web surfing habits: If a website has too many steps, has confusing graphics or images, makes simple information hard to find, and doesn’t give you the answers you need, are you going to stay on that website for any length of time? No.

The truth is, ease of use gives you a competitive advantage. Think about how Amazon communicates with customers. Using their gazillion-dollar success process as a guide, your strategy would look something like this:

  1. Drive people to the information they want as quickly as possible. Engage quickly.
  2. Make sure the homepage has a clearly defined and distinct value proposition.
  3. Optimize the “shopping process” for your academic program offerings.
  4. Highlight “product features.” Showcase specifics with effective program pages.
  5. Personalize the experience so different audiences can self-identify their journey.
  6. Offer “cross-shopping” by including paths to related programs.
  7. Offer opportunities to engage further. These include information requests, campus tour sign ups, and emails.
  8. Build trust with quotes and testimonials.
  9. Always include a call to action on every page.
  10. Be intentional with SEO strategy.
  11. Capitalize on strong imagery.

 

Smart Design

A beautiful website invites your audience to linger and explore. When redesigning your website, don’t fall victim to the idea that you have to be flashy with graphics and images. Many of the most effective website designs have a simple color palette and use variations on just a few templates. This approach streamlines your design and produces a clean, polished website.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, use some of the same design principles that your competitors feature on their sites, including impactful images, engaging videos, and an up-to-date interactive calendar. For example, unique typography, minimal text, and beautiful images and videos are only a few of the design elements that Queens University of Charlotte employed to capture the interest of their various audiences.
 


Queens College in Charlotte customizes the engagement experience with an attractive, polished website that caters to the different audiences they serve.

 

3. Invest in the tools you need to do the job well.

College football coaches invest in facilities and expertise to enhance their recruitment efforts: Why wouldn’t you do the same? Often college and university administrators and admissions officers think that by tasking the IT department with developing and maintaining a website will save them money. What they are not factoring into the equation is the lost opportunity costs. These folks already have a full-time job, so pulling them away to complete a website redesign only delays completion of work at their “everyday” job.

Furthermore, the students you are trying to recruit are more tech-savvy than you will ever be, and they can easily recognize a patched together website. Accustomed to instant answers found in one click, these students give you no more than eight seconds to engage them. How many of them will you lose by not investing in the tools you need upfront to do a website redesign project well?

The most essential tool needed for your website redesign is a quality content management system (CMS). A CMS is literally the backbone of your website. It’s what makes your forms display and process accurately. It provides a framework for presenting information in a cohesive way. It affects performance and responsiveness.

In fact, your redesigned website will be only as good as the framework it’s built upon. With 25 years of experience redesigning college websites, Elliance has found that systems architecture, customization, domain architecture, and a CMS are vital in ensuring your website’s success.

Consider these guidelines when evaluating content management systems:

  • Don’t be cheap—be smart when it comes to budgeting for your site. The cost of web design or a web content management system (CMS) can vary widely depending on your goals, time frame, and resources, and the least expensive is not always the most affordable in the long term.
  • Choose a CMS specializing in higher ed so that the tools built into the system are designed specifically for marketing, communications, and web professionals who work in higher education.
  • Include customer support and automatic updates on your “must have” list. If you don’t have a large staff to manage your redesigned website, you’ll want the backing of a support team who can answer your questions and help you resolve issues. The same goes with updating your software. Do you have the time to add constant plug-ins? If not, it’s well worth the cost to invest in a CMS that does this automatically.

 

4. Boost your user experience.

Take this test: Put your sunglasses on and read the following:
 


Accessibility compliance has become an all-encompassing definition for an optimal user experience for all website visitors.

 

Everything clear? Or did you have trouble reading certain lines? When text and its background color have a low contrast, the readability of your content decreases drastically. It’s hard to read if you have no visual impairments; just think how hard it is for those who do. This is one of the many reasons why you want your website to be inclusive and accessible to all.

Accessibility has long been a concern for higher education, but the trend is now shifting to encompass a better user experience for everyone in your audience. According to eCampus News, 11 percent of post-secondary students report having a disability. Consider this — if thousands of students visit your site, hundreds may interact with your website via keyboard, screen readers, or other tools to help find the content of interest. How does their experience with your website fare? When you take the time to create a better experience for impaired users, you make the experience better for everyone.

To make sure every aspect of your site adheres to ADA and web standards, build it correctly from the ground up with the right architecture, CMS, and compliance checks. Most people aren’t accessibility specialists, so the following resources can also help you maximize your website’s user experience for all:
 

Check in to a central knowledge base.

Look no further than the A11Y Project for technical articles, tools, checklists, and more to learn how to incorporate best practices into your website redesign. The College and University Website Redesign: The Ultimate Guide is another resource that offers a detailed look at the complete redesign process.
 

Navigate with your keyboard.

Are you able to tab through the navigation of your website in the expected order of items? Can you discover and access every option as if you are using a mouse? Is this process consistent across all pages of your site?

Keyboard navigation exposes navigation and discoverability issues on your site. These two major components contribute to a great user experience, and by resolving any issues about them quickly, you will improve your site’s overall usability.
 

Navigate your site using a screen reader.

A screen reader bypasses design to ensure that your website can be understood by someone who has impaired sight. Think about it: Images usually are used to grab a reader’s attention, but they don’t have the same effect on users with impaired sight. This is where your code and content become important factors. Provide quality alt descriptions, check for misspelled words, and check that forms have labels and aria-attributes. This article by WebAIM provides a primer on screen readers and their importance.
 

Conclusion

Updating your existing website is a project that once complete, contributes to more effective communication, increased enrollment, and even donor contributions. By thinking through the steps before embarking on the process, you’ll finish with an intentional, intuitive website redesign that both looks and performs effectively and efficiently.

Ready to embark on your redesign journey? Download College and University Website Redesign: The Ultimate Guide for a step-by-step look at the redesign process.

Court Campion is the Director of Marketing at OmniUpdate, creator of award-winning OU Campus®, the most popular commercial content management system (CMS) for higher education professionals.
 

Court Campion
Court Campion
June 4, 2019