Higher education websites need to fill multiple functions for a wide variety of users types, each with different goals. Shrinking budgets, limited resources, and complicated governance can cause problems in decentralised models of site creation and maintenance. These effects are compounded by relying on subject matter experts or other untrained content contributors responsible for many departmental websites.

That being said, there are many small steps that institutions can take to improve their websites without breaking the bank. Here are a few that you could consider:

Test, test, and test again

University WebsiteWhile working to a tight deadline with a limited budget, user testing can often be one of the first steps that is cut.

Skipping user testing can result in your site completely missing the mark, leaving users unable to find critical information.

If you rely solely on analytics and don’t run usability tests or focus groups, you’ll never have the full story whether your visitors are finding the information that they need. There are many implications behind this. For example, an improperly built website may not be the sole reason for a current student to transfer out of the institution, but it nevertheless poses an avoidable communications hurdle to their study experience.

To remedy this, combine your qualitative and quantitative data for a richer snapshot of what’s going on. You can enrich your analytics with feedback from a focus group on current students web experience, and conduct ongoing A/B tests to fine-tune the design, and then bring that data to any senior administration that may be advocating for a less effective solution.

Remember: you are not the user; testing will help to highlight blind spots about your user journey that may not have been obvious previously.

Carousel required? Then be strategic.

It’s difficult to argue with data, so share some research that illustrates the challenges that carousels can pose to users, including low clickthrough rates and banner blindness. Nevertheless, if your institution is mired in politics and the carousel must stay, align the content with your institutional priorities (rather than simply choosing beautiful images).

A few ways to leverage carousel content when you have to:

  • Choose the most compelling content to go first; this is the slide that, of any, will be clicked on
  • Give users a sense of empowerment and direction by enabling slider controls, allowing them to flip backwards or forwards in the carousel
  • Consider allowing the user to advance the carousel themselves

A word on ‘best practices’

When in a pinch, Higher education frequently refers to other institutional sites for “best practices”. This is problematic because it can result in the blind leading the blind and your audience may have different user needs to theirs. Just because other institutions have carousels doesn’t mean that you should too.

Support your community

If you’re working in a decentralised model for content creation, one of the quickest ways to do this is by sharing your knowledge with your peers. A recent survey by Meet Content reports that 31% of institutions provide no training at all.

Some institutions’ response to this is to host communal learning activities; conferences, workshops, or brown-bag lunches to help develop their contributors.

Where no other support is available, this approach can be a very effective way to establish advocates for good content strategy, to develop relationships between content experts, contributers, and strategists, and to start working toward more effective content.

Content is an essential part of the user experience of any website and should be treated with the importance it deserves.

What other budget-friendly tips do you think that higher ed communicators could implement on their websites?

Images courtesy Alberto G., xkcd


Chris Mears

Chris is co-founder of UXmentor.me. He has worked with clients such as the UK government, Just Eat & Which? with a focus on service design and transformation.