5 Reasons Why Your Higher Education Website Isn't Working

Sep 30 2016

Like many major industries, higher education is redefining itself as technology progresses - those who are keeping up are finding great rewards in their digital investment in terms of attracting new students and student retention, while those that are falling behind are missing out on a great opportunity. So how does your higher ed site compare? If you feel like your site could be better, consider these five reasons why you might be failing your students.

1. You’re focused on the wrong thing

It’s cliche by now, but true - the digital space moves quickly. To keep up, organizations need to be evaluating how they prioritize their work. One common problem is the split between mobile and desktop users. Ideally, your content should be independent from the presentation using techniques like responsive design or object-oriented UX. But let’s be realistic - not every organization is quite there yet. However, a perfect first step is to start having your division of work better reflect the way users are visiting your site. If 75% of your users are using a mobile device, are you dedicating the majority of your website management resources to supporting that view? It’s easy to get trapped in the rut of spending most of your time updating your desktop (since that’s likely where your team spends their office hours), but being intentional about spending time using the site the same way your users do will have truly impactful returns. In the same way, make sure you’re testing using the operating system and browser that your users prefer.

2. Your content is failing your users

Large organizations like post-secondary schools often suffer from what I call the “just in case” problem. It can be tempting to put something on the website “just in case” someone, somewhere, ever needs it. Let’s be clear: a website is not the same thing as a document management system. Your digital real estate should be allocated to content carefully and thoughtfully. Don’t give in to the temptation to content-spread simply because you can - the result will be a bloated website that is difficult to navigate. A by-product of the “just in case” problem, many large organizations are haunted by buried PDFs. As Karen McGrane explains it, PDFs are the ultimate example of a content blob: content that is trapped in an unstructured format, rendering its potentially useful information unsearchable and difficult to digest. Check your website for those sneaky PDFs buried deep in your information architecture and spend a bit of time evaluating whether what’s contained within them is important. If it is, bring it out into the digital light; if not, get rid of it and store it in a proper document management system or archive outside of your website. Another important question to ask yourself before you post is: who does this content serve? Higher ed often falls prey to vanity content - that is, content that serves an internal stakeholder rather than your user. In his talk, Designing for Crisis, Eric Meyer speaks passionately about the need to put users first and not allow self-promotion to outweigh what your user is trying to accomplish.

3. You aren’t considering content in an agnostic way

Organizations large and small find themselves on many different digital channels. But are you considering your content in the larger context? This is the same mentality of separating content from style; think of your content as one repository, then consider which channel it is best suited for (hint: it’s not always all of them, or at least not in the same format). For example, if classes were cancelled, how would you let your students know? Is it an app, Twitter, your website, or a combination? What about listing which classes are taking place in which classrooms today? Ask yourself where that information is most impactful and in which format. Then check your analytics for evidence and set up some user testing before you come up with an answer (not after).

4. Your legacy CMS can’t keep up

How many times have you heard that you can’t build something the way you want because “that’s not how the site works”? If your site has been running for a few years, you may find yourself restricted to the limits of your CMS. If your system was built without considering a mobile version or mobile-friendly version of your site, adding on a mobile version to your site might not even be an option in your current environment. And, even if it is, building a responsive version of your site to accommodate as many viewports as possible might be completely off the table. If this situation sounds familiar, consider moving to a more flexible CMS like Drupal that can keep up with your business changes and technology changes.

5. You’re ignoring your analytics

This might be the number one web management sin - we have access to so much information about who our users are and how they interact with our digital properties that it is inexcusable that we ignore it. Navigation is a great example. Think about the last time you had trouble finding something on a website - how long before you abandoned the site and went to Google instead? The way users are reaching our content is changing. A smart, concise navigation that respects the hierarchy of where users are trying to go will make a world of difference, and respecting your analytics will get you there. Don’t get caught up in the “page views only” mentality. Page views are part of the picture, but analytics without interpretation are meaningless. A high page view count might mean you’ve done a great job and people are finding your page, or it could mean you have a link loop that is sending your poor, frustrated users back to the same point again and again. Try thinking about your analytics in the context of task completion. Getting a student to see a course page is only one step in the process of what you really want them to do - sign up for the course. There are multiple steps, pages and decisions that go into making that conversion. Make sure you’re considering them all in context as well as individually. If this sounds like your site, we can help. Connect with us to discuss how.

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