Magazine article University Business

User First: Best Practices for Focusing Web Design on the User Experience as Much as Visual Appeal

Magazine article University Business

User First: Best Practices for Focusing Web Design on the User Experience as Much as Visual Appeal

Article excerpt

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When making decisions about Hope College's website redesign, project team members found themselves looking at a photo of Adam, an 18-year-old freshman, to gauge what he might think is the most logical place for a piece of content--or whether he thinks the content should be there at all.

And then, knowing Adam's mom is very concerned about finding the academic calendar may have helped them determine how best to direct users to that content.

Yet, Adam isn't a real freshman. He's one in a set of 15 user personas--that is, fictitious people representing real audiences--created by administrators at the Michigan college. In the group: four prospective and two current students (Adam included), plus parents, a faculty member, prospective faculty member, a staff member, alumni and community residents. The personas and their stories, which include background such as each person's current situation and list of concerns, "don't answer all the questions, but they do answer the big ones," says Jason Cash, director of web communications.

The identities were developed with care, the result of help from an external web designer as well as focus groups and surveys conducted with parents, students, employees and community members. The information collected guided web developers in making Hope's website as easy to navigate as possible.

Rather than issuing a 150-page research summary that might not get read, administrators created the personas to help make "informed decisions about who these people are who are coming to our site and how we can best serve them," Cash says.

And after Hope's new website went live in August 2015, the personas stayed. "We're still generating new content on a daily basis, and so is the rest of our campus," Cash says. The information on each persona has been made available to all web editors to ensure content stays relevant.

The amount of time and attention Hope administrators spent thinking about its site redesign is not typical. Traditionally, higher ed websites have been viewed as brochure-ware and contained what faculty wanted to highlight. While such websites look good for the most part, they are not always easy to navigate--and don't help manage enrollment pressures.

Higher ed generally lags behind commercial businesses when it comes to usability--although private institutions and graduate schools are paying closer attention because of "cash cow needs," says George Goodall, senior analyst at Toronto-based Info-Tech Research Group.

If someone is applying to business school for an MBA "and paying a fortune to do so, it's very important to engage alumni and prospective students because there is huge competition" among schools looking to attract students, he says. Graduate schools are "further along in the process of looking at usability because there's a higher premium there on what the behavior were trying to capture is."

In the case of prospective students or donors, that desired behavior is the conversion: someone enrolling or giving money.

Yet many schools don't pay close attention to the fact that people who visit college sites expect to find specific information. Studies have shown that "if people can't find what they want on your website they're going to think less of your institution," says Matt Herzberger, an executive consultant at enrollment and fundraising management firm Ruffalo Noel Levitz. User-friendly navigation encourages people to spend more time on the site learning about an institution and its programs. Otherwise, he says, "people can end up in places they don't want to go to or you're pushing them in places you can't capitalize on. If they can't figure out the path they want to go on, you're going to lose them."

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Incorporating best practices related to navigation and other user experiences can help prevent that loss.

A visual experience

Visitors want to experience a website, not just read it, according to the "Website Design Trends 2015" report from the Chicago-based higher ed marketing agency Eduvantis Digital. …

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