Based on the comments (and complaints) visitors have about their online experience with many institutions in this space, you will want to consider these strategies for improving your website and enhancing the online experience for stakeholders and visitors.
1. Eliminate information clutter.
Are your visitors presented with far too many choices when visiting your website? Does your site have a clear, user-focused content hierarchy? Are you trying to share your entire story and every upcoming event on every page, regardless of context?
Instead of asking “Who is my visitor and what are they looking for?” the content hierarchy seems to be driven by marketing rather than by user needs. Are there too many messages and too many links? Is there too little focus to enable users to easily find the content for which they are searching? You can’t cover up bad information design with clever interface design and multiple marketing messages.
The key: Limit users’ choices on the home page, and build widely from there. Context matters. It’s really not necessary to tell the organization’s entire story on every page.
2. Understand who the user really is (not the perceived user).
For students coming out of high school, informal research indicates that it’s not the students, but often the parents that are using the community college web site for research and for information prior to and during the sign up process.
Businesses may be looking for economic development or E2B (Education to Business) programs and services – information on how the community college can help them, or how they can do business with the institution. But this information is masked behind the educational focus of the information, rather than the need and benefit to the business user.
Community-based grant-making organizations (such as United Way and community foundations) should place high priority on key stakeholders, and structure the site to their needs.
Nonprofit agencies want to tell their story, often at the expense of targeting information to their stakeholders and donors… assuming that by solely telling their story, that will create alignment with the values of the stakeholder and donor. Content is not a one-size-fits-all commodity.
The key: Understand your real users.
3. Make certain your search engine really works. Make certain it provides relevant results.
There’s nothing more frustrating on a web site than a search engine that doesn’t work, and by this we mean irrelevant searches.
Does the search engine work the way visitors are accustomed to? Can they click a “go” or “search” button, or better yet, hit return on the keyboard and get results?
Google is the standard… it’s good practice to follow. Fewer relevant choices are better than many choices that the user will have to weed through.
The key: Put yourself in the visitors’ place, and search the way they would.
4. Guide the user: informed site architecture and information design.
Stores have directories, museums have docents, and wilderness adventures have guides and trail maps. What type of site do you have, and how are you leading and guiding your visitors to your content?
Informed site architecture emphasizes macro and micro-site navigation, providing the visitor with visual cues to always give them a sense of place, an idea of where they’ve been, and options for where they can go. Your website isn’t linear – there are many paths to follow – but if you understand where the visitor wants to go and where you would like them to go, logical site architecture will follow.
Your information design should be a strict hierarchy of primary, secondary and tertiary information levels. You want a website that benefits from a wide and shallow navigation structure (SEO friendly), but with deep vertical content.
The key: Create a sense of place and easy wayfinding. After all, this is information architecture.
5. Create dashboard pages.
Based on the persona of the individual who is visiting your site, create a dashboard page. This may require that you create some custom “portal” pages — entry points — for more than one type of persona, and eliminate as much information clutter as possible from those pages.
For instance, many community colleges target “prospective students.” But it may be more effective to build a dashboard page for parents who are helping their recent graduate enter college, and another for your college’s average-age-student who may be older and seeking re-training. Such dashboards would feature a reference to:
- Registration information: a simple 5-step how-to with links to online forms, and phones numbers for help.
- Phone numbers (not a link to a directory, but a list of phone numbers): Financial Aid, Registration, Bookstore, etc. Site statistics, call logs, search logs, and interaction with students should identify the top 10 phone numbers that are requested.
- Link to the campus map. Web site visitors who type in "map" in your search engine aren’t looking for the web site map.
- Relevant dates: semester start dates, registration dates, cut-off dates, and a link to the current semester calendar.
The key: Don’t make the user think too hard. Lead them, guide them… make it easy for them to interact with your online presence.
Make data-driven decisions
- Let data guide your decision-making process. The website analytics will reveal what pages are most popular and relevant to your visitors.
- Don't let emotional decisions distract you from making the smart decisions about what content needs to be featured. What your customers (who you may think of as stakeholders, donors, or students) want is far more important and relevant than what administration thinks is important to them. The data will prove it.
You can rely on the web to provide information to your audience, but only if they can find it, access it, and make sense of it without getting frustrated. The sheer quantity of information on your web sites makes it imperative that you personalize the information as precisely as possible, based on the personas of the visitors and their information needs, in order to build the relationship with stakeholders – whom you should consider future donors.
My prediction: Forward thinking executives and directors will embrace these recommendations, and administrators of larger institutions will fight them (because the larger an institution is, the more diluted its messaging and communications focus becomes as they seek to be all things to all stakeholders). Focus and target.
Be courageous with your online presence, and in the end, yours will be a brand that people love!