Many audiences: designing a higher education website that works for everyone

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We recently met with a university who was in the market for a web redesign. To kick off the discussion, we handed index cards to their 15 stakeholders who represented multiple departments. We asked them, “What’s the #1 thing this redesign needs to get right to be a success?” and had them write their answer on the card. Guess what almost everyone wrote down?

“The website needs to serve our diverse audiences: students, staff, faculty, alumni, parents, employers, the media, and the general public."

This response was surprising to me—not because that need is so shocking, but because it’s so obvious. Of course your higher ed site should serve many audiences. That seems like a given. Shouldn’t your #1 goal be something a bit more lofty?

Then again, the sad reality is that so many higher education sites do not effectively serve their audiences. If you're considering a web redesign and want to do it right this time, we have some tips.

Want to know what your users really need? Ask them.

There's no substitute for a thorough research and discovery process. Whether you get user input in the form of surveys, small focus groups, one-on-one interviews, or all three, the key is to ask the right kinds of questions. If you ask something too generic, like "How do you feel about the current website?" people will say things like "I don't like the design" or "It's hard to find information." In order to make educated decisions, you'll need to know more specifics—like which information people care about, and why it's hard to find.

Here are a few questions we've found especially helpful to ask our clients' audiences before we begin a redesign.

  • Have each group rank common tasks (such as request information, apply, view majors, find faculty info, etc.) in order of importance to them. You'll probably find that the tasks most important to prospective students are quite different from the tasks that are most important to alumni.
  • Instead of asking for people's personal opinion on an existing or new design, ask how them to rate how the design reflects your brand attributes. For example, if you're trying to appear welcoming, or cutting-edge, or authoritative, have users rate the design for those characteristics.
  • Ask what they'd like to do on the website that they can't now (or is difficult).
  • Ask what other sites they admire, and why.
  • Ask what 3 adjectives they'd use to describe your school.
  • For internal staff, ask them to list ways the website could make their day-to-day work easier.

Along the way, we guarantee that internal debates will arise around decisions about content, design, or functionality. A thorough discovery process keeps everyone focused on your users' needs rather than their own personal agenda.

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We made word clouds out of the adjectives that students, alumni, staff, and faculty used to describe one school. This helped illuminate common themes and differences among their audiences.

Harness the power of Sensible Naming.

We’ve noticed in our usability studies that about 70% of users prefer to use the main navigation menu to find what they’re looking for. The other 30% go straight to the search bar. Either way, you need to make sure that the main navigation links and page titles use language that everyone understands—whether they’ve been a faculty member for 20 years or are just experiencing your site for the first time. In other words, avoid acronyms and internal jargon.

Below are examples of real navigation menu items we’ve seen on higher education sites. (We're not naming any names).

  • Oracle
  • GradZone
  • Colloquy
  • About OCS

Do you have even the foggiest idea what you might get if you click on them? We thought not. Here are the renamed versions. 

  • Oracle = Rate Your Courses
  • GradZone = Commencement Newsletter
  • Colloquy = Alumni Magazine
  • About OCS = Office of Career Services

Now you have a better sense of what you’re getting, don’t you?

Headings are key. Think grocery store aisles.

Higher education websites are like grocery stores. I hate to break it to you, but your users aren’t coming in to hang out. They want to find the thing they came for, then get on with their day. (If they end up finding more than they came in for and stay longer, that's a bonus, but not their primary motivation.)

Imagine if a grocery store didn’t have those helpful aisle signs that say Pasta, Pet Food, or Prayer Candles. (I seriously saw that once. It was a very devout grocery store.) If it was your first visit, and even if it wasn't, you’d probably have to wander down every single aisle.

The web equivalent of aisle signs are the main navigation (to get to a page) and headings (once you're on a page). On a long webpage, you’ll likely need one heading for every 1-2 paragraphs of text. Don’t get fancy—the headings should be labels to tell the user what’s in that section. Make sure everything in that section is related to that heading.

Fun fact: headings also help visually impaired and disabled folks access content. Higher education institutions are legally obligated to care about this. So use headings.

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Where the heck is the Velveeta?!

The audience menu—do or don’t?

Many higher education websites have a row of links across the top for "Students, Parents, Staff, Faculty, Alumni," and so on. In our redesign of the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) website, we wondered whether to include a similar "audience menu" to target specific kinds of users.

On one hand, usability experts at the Nielsen Norman Group tell us not to use what they call “audience-based navigation.” They say it makes it harder for people to navigate, because users have to wonder, "Who does the website think I am?" Also, a link called “Faculty” might not be clear whether it leads to content about faculty, or for faculty.

On the other hand, the audience menu has become commonplace in higher education sites. Standard is good, assuming an audience such as prospective students are shopping around on lots of other sites that have it.

Some tips then, if you do decide to use an audience menu.

  • Make sure all or most content on your site lives somewhere in the main navigation, and is easily found thanks to Sensible Naming.
  • Set up your audience menu pages as a collection of curated links that go elsewhere in the site. This has an added advantage of avoiding redundant content.
  • Make the main menu more visually prominent than the audience menu, knowing that’s where most people will want to start.
  • Make it clear that the audience menus are information for that audience, not about that audience—for example, by adding an “Info For…” label.

In cases like this when there is no clear right or wrong, what do you do?

User-test like crazy.

You did your homework in the discovery process and collected a ton of user input—great job! You'll also want to turn to users throughout the design and development process when tough questions come up, such as the audience menu question.

In the Harvard GSAS's case, we started by assuming an audience menu would be helpful since a number of their peer schools had it. We then observed users' behavior during usability tests and noticed they used the audience menu fairly frequently. We also asked people who didn't use the audience menu if they thought it was beneficial to have, and most responded that it was. So even though we went against the Norman Nielsen Group's recommendation (a choice we don't take lightly), the GSAS's users confirmed we'd made the right decision.

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On the Harvard GSAS site, we provided an audience menu in addition to a standard navigation bar. Best of both worlds.

On further reflection...

"Serving many audiences" feels second nature to us after years of working on complex websites with many stakeholders. At the same time, writing this article has reminded me that it's not something that can be taken for granted—it requires a lot of planning, experience, hard work, and testing to get right. The university we met with was right to make "serving many audiences" their website's #1 goal. Get in touch if you're ready to do the same.

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