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Usability Basics for College and University Sites


Usability Basics for College and University Sites

Nov 14, 2013By mStoner Staff

This is a small list of relatively easy things college and university web teams can do to improve the usability of .edu websites. This isn’t a comprehensive usability checklist, and I’ve deliberately stayed away from more complex usability issues, like addressing page weight or responsive design. It is meant to be a set of beneficial activities that can be accomplished with very limited time and resources.

Links that should be impossible to miss on every page that has admissions content:

  • Apply
  • Visit
  • Request Information
  • Map and Directions
  • Directory (to reach individuals)

All five of these destinations can have an impact on a real-world action that a prospective student or parent will take to enroll. While it’s nice for a visitor to spend more time on the website, the above actions are ultimately what you want them to do.

Pages that should be reachable within three or fewer actions (clicks or taps) from the homepage:

  • Rankings (otherwise they will go elsewhere for this information)
  • Majors, Minors or Degrees
  • Tuition and Costs (a breakdown of baseline costs and a calculator)
  • Admissions Checklist
  • A statement of identity or differentiators (similar to the Faith & Service page in the main navigation on nd.edu)

You may be looking at this and thinking an intuitive sequence is more more important than the number of actions. The reality is that you need a highly usable process to be both intuitive AND allow a user to reach information in as few actions as possible.

Tips for the top 50 highest-traffic pages in the site:

  • Each of these pages should be proofed by a professional copy editor every time they are updated. Problems with writing and content delivery create problems for the  reading experience.
  • Complete 18 basic meta tags for the top-level pages (to cover SEO fundamentals plus the top three social media platforms). These tags affect how discoverable pages are from outside your site by helping the search engine algorithms find your pages, and by optimizing how the pages display in a search return or share.
  • Your text links within content should be underlined, or at least WCAG 2.0 color compliant. If you’re using text links, they should be impossible to miss as actions.

User testing tasks (that can be assigned to groups of five or more users):

  • Find a program listing for (program of your choice).
  • Complete an application.
  • Follow up, or find out how to follow up, on the status of your application.
  • Contact admissions.
  • Find a specific department (or College within a University).
  • Find contact information for (professor of your choice).
  • Calculate your cost of attending.
  • Give a gift to the University (or walk through the steps of giving a gift).

Watching even a few representative users can help you evaluate how easy the tasks are to complete – and where errors occur.

Ideas for improving this list? Post them in comments or email me. If I use them, I’ll credit you in the post.