Intelligence
UX Design Is Important Work
UX Design Is Important Work

Intelligence

UX Design Is Important Work

Jun 29, 2020By Ben Bilow & Kaycee Woodford

As user experience (UX) designers, we often get asked, “What are the best practices in UX design?” Or, more exactly, clients ask, “Should we use a hamburger menu or expose the navigation?” As if simply following predefined user interface patterns will yield a great experience for all users — all the time.

The truth is, each project is unique, as is each individual prospective student.

User mindsets change as our culture shifts and we acclimate to new tools and technologies. Expectations for better, seamless, personalized, more authentic and meaningful interactions grow each year. And each year, the definitions of those terms shift. For these reasons, ongoing UX design and UX research are incredibly valuable.

Our team gathers data, conducts user interviews, runs design sprints, and tests digital experiences with real people in the spirit of curiosity, empathy, and cultural awareness. We do this not to generalize, but to open ourselves to creative possibilities.

Yes, we look for the patterns. But we also look for the quirks — the “what ifs” — and the things that are difficult to measure, such as user emotions. We embrace the ambiguities and advocate the needs of all users. The idea is not to think about UX narrowly, but as a broad framework for understanding each other as individual human beings -— and as a launchpad for creativity. As it turns out, this is a lot more work than drawing upon existing design patterns or latest trends — and it’s a lot more rewarding.

In the past few months, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the college search process. As institutions pivot to virtual tours, Zoom info sessions, and allocating resources to address health and safety concerns, we’re seeing new hybrid models of learning — not just in the short term, but forever.

And of course, without exception, global and persistent demands for racial justice have us all reexamining our biases, our privileges, and our systems. That means as learning models evolve, we have an opportunity to make education more affordable, more accessible, and more just.

Thankfully, our UX work hasn’t paused. We’re busier than ever. We’re still digging into the data. We’re still interviewing users. But many of our questions have changed, and some of the answers we’re getting from young people are different.

For a current admissions website project, we invited recent high school graduates and rising high school seniors to a Zoom meeting (of course) to tell us about their college search experiences.

What We Learned

They're still kids. Make it creative.

Empathy is everything. When writing a piece of content or producing a video, ask yourself, “Does a 17-year-old understand this or find it compelling?” In everything from design to visual assets and brand voice to cohesive messaging, younger generations are looking for schools that exude confidence, boldness, and individuality.

Three years after a successful website redesign with mStoner, the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA) was eager to partner with mStoner again to refresh its homepage. This time, the joint team conducted a design sprint: an inclusive process for rapid design and validation that generates effective solutions to big business challenges.

The results? A bold and beautiful homepage update, navigation refinements, a program finder module, new marketing landing pages, and a new interface for ticket sales — all built with the user in mind.

Similarly, the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford came to mStoner looking to showcase what set them apart. Using high-impact photography and streamlined technology, the Pitt-Bradford homepage gallery now offers a distinctive, immersive way to toggle between the inside and outside features of the campus.

We took social media to the next level at the University of Purdue Northwest. By situating an impactful collage-style social media feed with a large footprint higher on the homepage than the standard bottom-of-the-page grid, we’re able to deliver student voices in a new, compelling way.

Student voice above all else.

Speaking of student voices, prospective students are looking for current student voices wherever they can find them. Yes, this means they’re looking through YouTube and other personal connections. This won’t change, but offering spaces for prospective students to engage with current students on institutional sites is becoming more and more important.

Facts say only so much. Prospects aren’t as interested in hearing the typical spiel from an admissions counselor about what makes X university unique. They want the truth — and nothing but the truth — straight from the source.

On three admissions- and enrollment-focused projects, we’re devising ways of prioritizing the student voice. For an arts boarding school, we’ve dedicated space on the homepage and throughout the site to videos that show art in action, and firsthand accounts of what it’s like to grow and learn at the institution.

At an institution known for its strong academics and student success, we’re prioritizing tools such as “Welcome to College,” which allows prospects to connect with current students. We’re also highlighting alumni stories and student blog posts, creating space for a range of diverse and highly personal experiences.

Finally, at a liberal arts college in New York City, we are debunking the singular “arts student” archetype by showcasing student videos that demonstrate a diverse array of interests in the arts, social justice, business, science, and more.

Three-second rule.

If it's not easy for prospective students to find the information they want, they’ll look for it at another institution. It doesn’t matter how stunning your website might be or how glowing the student testimonials are — these prospects are moving through a highly stressful process. They’re narrowing down their list of 20 institutions to the top three or four, and they have a short amount of time to do it.

What makes your site stand out? Good information architecture and pages with easily scannable hierarchy. That’s how we refreshed the homepage for Elmhurst, a small, private liberal arts college outside of Chicago.

Analyzing user data collected over the years, we were able to get a sense of what was working in the Elmhurst site structure ... and what wasn’t. We streamlined and reorganized the information architecture so it better reflected their user needs. Using a prospect-first approach, we prioritized program offerings, student life, and testimonials on the homepage. These elements establish a narrative that Elmhurst has a well-rounded offering of opportunities, academic and otherwise.

Elmhurst is a great example of how data can influence site organization. It also represents best practices in terms of treating your site as a living organism and making efforts to reevaluate user needs as time goes on. (Check out how the homepage has evolved at Elmhurst.)

What will life be like?

Student life isn’t just clubs and organizations. It’s the entire day-to-day experience a prospect should expect to have at a particular institution. This encompasses the logistical elements of housing and dining, but it’s also about the environment and intangible feeling the people in the community get just by being there.

It's also what happens beyond campus in the surrounding areas. Whether the university is close to a city or in a rural town, a site should harness what’s unique about the area.

Incorporating day-in-the-life stories, highlighting any first-year programs/transition assistance, and being descriptive and visual about the campus environment (yes, this means photos of residence halls!) is essential in making prospects feel prepared and comfortable to take the next step.

Creative flourishes in website design at Dakota State University make it stand well apart from other institutions by showcasing points of pride, student stories, a program finder, and a student life section. The new design presents an optimized narrative that mStoner has honed over the course of partnering with more than 350 institutions: people, programs, place, promise.

Why UX Is Important

As the world changes, so does our work. We’re not interested in sitting still or waiting it out or business as usual. We want to come out of this necessary struggle with a stronger sense of how to serve our clients. But most important, we want a better strategy for how we will serve prospective students and help them make one of the most important decisions of their life in a time of uncertainty, confusion, and change.

Learn more about today’s best practices for UX and site search on higher ed websites in our upcoming white paper, "The State of Site Search on Higher Ed Websites 2020."


  • Ben Bilow Creative Director Creative success comes from digging in, getting messy, and making stuff. As a kid in St. Louis, my interest in skateboarding and rock & roll music shaped my work ethic — be resourceful, build community, share. We invented our own fun, designing rock posters and building half-pipes — tearing them down and doing it again.

  • Kaycee Woodford UX Specialist As UX Specialist, Kaycee Woodford translates research, analytics, client goals, and customer needs into solutions that deliver results.