Optimizing the user experience for students — ways to improve your own website

By Elise Hodge
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While promoting your school across a variety of marketing channels is deemed more of a necessity than preference today, it is always important to make sure that your official website is fully optimized for the benefit of your desired audience.

Acting as a window into the heart of your institution, the website is essential as the home base for your brand and outlet of firsthand information for potential students, current students, alumni, and parents. It should always be consistent with your current messaging strategy and aim to not only inform visitors but also interest and engage them — all at once.

Despite this, it is all too common for students to come across university websites that appear outdated, messy and difficult to navigate. When a student has a range of options available, something as simple as an out of date website could result in a negative experience, causing them to continue their research elsewhere. They may in fact go to an institution with a more user-friendly online experience.

Website design influences a students’ decision to attend a university

14 percent of people who use a university’s website do so with the intention of learning more about the university, with 12 percent being relatives of the person interested in attending. Unsurprisingly then, a university's website can be a determining factor in whether or not a student chooses to attend a university or not.

Respondents in a research project by the Research in Higher Education Journal indicated that a university’s website “was important” in their selection process. Researchers also highlighted that a university’s website should be “attractive and clearly understood,” further supporting the notion that website design plays an important role in attracting students. Current students also mentioned a website’s design influenced their decision to visit on campus.

Website design creates a powerful emotional connection

According to a Southern Utah University research project, good website design increases student recruitment rates by creating “a powerful emotional connection” with visitors to the site.

Key takeaways included:

● Interesting visual design engaged visitors and influenced an emotional connection with the institution

● Website design played a key role in student recruitment

● Students spent longer time on professional websites, because they found them more credible and interesting

● Students tended to trust a university based on its website’s use of typography, colours, layout and overall design

Evidently, website design not only contributes to student engagement, but can also impact on student recruitment. With this in mind, let’s look at 6 strategies to optimize your university website for a stellar student experience.

1. Have a clear brand identity

Before you overhaul your website design, you need to make sure that your university has a clear brand identity. One of America’s most prestigious universities, Saint Louis University, recently discovered the benefit of brand identity while undergoing a website redesign. In parallel with redesigning their website, SLU created a new visual identity that incorporated beautiful new typography, a fresh logo, and a clear colour palette into their web templates. Their brand identity helped them ensure their entire site was consistent, so visitors knew “this is SLU.”

2. Use bold, engaging typography

Typography keeps your reader engaged with your website content. If your typography is bad, your reader will be focused on the mechanics of trying to read your content. However, if your typography is good, your reader will focus on your message instead. This is not just as simple as choosing a font and sticking with it. Typography has a lot more to do with psychology - how a reader recognises words, perceives information, and processes it.

The education sector may not be famous for use of interesting fonts, but the websites of universities that do include engaging typography entice their visitors to browse their website.

A great example of this is Miami’s SCAD University. They are known as being ‘the university for creative careers,’ and their typography certainly reflects this. They use bold, clear typography in front of a beautiful art piece to instantly engage their visitors and let them know that they are in the right place.

3. Optimize site speed

Bold fonts and beautiful imagery are great, but if they come at the expense of site speed, then your hard work will be in vain. Visitors to your university’s website want to get rapid results when they’re browsing, and to be able to immediately view a page when they click through. If there’s too much friction, they’ll abandon your site and move on. In fact, 53 percent of mobile viewers will leave a page that takes longer than three seconds to load. To avoid the disastrous effects this could have on your university, start optimizing your website’s site speed by using Google’s free PageSpeed Insights tool.

4. Keep information to a minimum

Research compiled by Measuring U on some of the US’ top universities, including Harvard, Penn State, and Stanford, found that the main reason students disliked the websites was that there were too many options and an overwhelming amount of information, which made it difficult for students to find the desired information. Student complaints included:

“There are SO MANY OPTIONS and so many pictures. It’s so much content coming at me right from the start that I find it overwhelming at first.” - Stanford user

“There are a lot of words on the pages, sometimes making it harder to focus on what to read first.” - Penn State user

“Clustered at the bottom of the page with too many options.” - Harvard user

Instead of using the information overload approach that these universities have been accused of using, you should aim to keep information to a minimum. Simple websites tend to be thought of as more beautiful because they don’t require the brain to work as hard to decode, store and process information.

5. Use clear navigation

Just as information should be kept simple, so should navigation. As expected, universities have to cater to users who are both very familiar with their institution (students and faculty) and those who aren’t (prospective students and their parents). This can present challenges to findability. This is where clear navigation comes in. Navigation should provide a simple path for students to find important information about deadlines for admissions or course options in the least number of clicks possible.

6. Ensure ease of contact

Beyond general usability, your university website should always make it easy for a student to get in touch. Traditionally, websites have allowed for this through a contact page with an email address or webform. More recently, automation tools like chatbots are proving a handy contact solution. Universities can install chatbots on their websites to quickly answer questions regarding tuition fees, start dates, application deadlines and scholarship information. Chatbots can even be tailored to assist with the influx of common questions that arise at specific times of the year, such as at the closing time for applications or at the beginning of each semester.

In today’s digital age, progressive universities simply cannot afford to not have a website that optimizes the user experience for current and prospective students. A well-designed website that follows the six points outlined in this article will be more attractive and helpful for students in the short term, and will have an impact on enrollment rates in the long term. As we head into a new decade, it might be well worth considering how you can integrate a website refresh into your marketing budget for 2020.

Topics: Higher Education Marketing

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