Imagine this: You just got accepted to college and need to apply for financial aid. You type in collegename.edu to look for financial aid information, and the website pops up. There are 10 tabs. There are eight subcategories under each tab, then more subcategories under each subcategory. You scroll through a long home page with buttons and links and a ton of words… but where’s financial aid? Is it under Admissions? Student Life? Academics? When you finally find what you’re looking for, it’s an entirely different web address (financialaid.collegename.edu) with even more tabs and subcategories and a lot of jargon you’ve never heard before. And to think this is just the beginning of the application process…
Entering a university’s website is like traveling through an information maze without a map. The majority of sites have vast amounts of information with simply too many options. Colleges and universities strive to put everything out there for students to access, which is important, but it’s problematic when students can’t easily access it.
The 90s Are Gone—but They Left Their Websites Here
Remember the early versions of the AOL, eBay, MSN, and Yahoo websites? One hallmark of 90s web design was the sheer amount of words on a page. Words were bolded, underlined, and packed together in all different sizes. Most people didn’t know where to look first. Although the 90s are over, remnants of a bygone era still cling to many college and university websites.
We’ve come a long way in the past couple of decades when it comes to web design. There’s a whole realm of possibilities that didn’t exist 20 (or even 10) years ago. People are accustomed to visiting websites on their phones and they don’t want to read lengthy paragraphs. They want short, actionable content in order to get from point A to point B as quickly and easily as possible. The best websites are intuitive, easy to navigate, and knowledgeable of a user’s intentions. Contemporary web design focuses on the user interface, user experience, audience, and content in such a way that 90s web developers only dreamed about.
Reviving the User Experience
A school’s website is usually one of the first impressions a prospective student has of an institution. Their experience navigating a site can subconsciously frame their expectations of the level of support they will receive from faculty and staff. When students struggle to find the information they need and a website seems like a black hole, they’re more likely to grow frustrated and discouraged. When students can find the right information easily and quickly, however, they’ll feel more prepared and confident when filling out applications, choosing a major, registering for classes, etc.
Questions to Ask to Improve Your University’s Website
- Is your website geared toward the right audience? This question might seem silly and obvious—of course the site is geared toward college students. But that’s not enough. It must be more specific. Know who makes up the student population at your institution—first-generation students, continuing-generation students, adult learners, low-income students, minorities, international students, etc. Your student population should dictate how web content is presented. For example, a first-generation student might not know what a bursar, co-requisite, FAFSA, or office hours are. If they’ve never been exposed to the college system before, this language will be confusing and require clarification.
- Do you really need all that information? Just because there’s a ton of information available doesn’t mean it’s all relevant or necessary. Take stock of which web pages are overloaded with information and condense it. Give students what they need to know and get rid of the rest. Eliminate repetitive, wordy, or overly academic language. Besides, managing lengthy pages of content and keeping information up to date is a cumbersome process.
- What are students looking for when they visit the website? It helps to know which web pages have the most traffic and which links are clicked the most. It’s important students have easy access to the information they’re looking for so they don’t have to dig for it. It’s all about getting from point A to point B as efficiently and effectively as possible.
- Is the site mobile friendly? Most sites are mobile friendly in the sense that the design is conducive to fit a smartphone screen. However, the mobile internet experience unique. People don’t want to read long paragraphs or fill out lengthy forms on a smartphone. Typing on a smartphone is different than typing on a keyboard. Mobile friendly content should be digestible, actionable, and designed for students who are always on the go. Most students use their smartphone as much or more than a computer, and some don’t even own a computer. Universities should prioritize the mobile experience to serve students growing up in our current technological environment.
It’s important to remember that a website cannot provide all the answers to every question. It’s simply impossible to publish enough information to meet every student need in a way that is simple, clear, and digestible. There’s too much information out there, and students don’t have the time to dig through it. A website can only be personalized to an extent. Colleges and universities must find an alternative solution to meet student support needs that require a one-on-one, personalized interaction.