THOUGHT LEADERSHIP FOR HIGHER EDUCATION SINCE 2001: Reach out to us.

ESTIMATED READING TIME: 5 minutes

I’ll admit it: I don’t believe in “in-betweens.” With today’s always-on mentality, there are no “between” redesigns, no breaks, and no resets.

Digital strategists, content managers, user experience designers, developers, marketing teams, and leadership — we all think about our institution’s websites as living things. We are the gardeners of a vast, evolving ecosystem during a hot, persistent summer, and our gardens need tending to. If we care enough about the people who engage with us — to be inspired, to get stuff done, and to make one of the most important decisions of their life — we work hard to make improvements and learn from mistakes on an ongoing basis.

We’re all doing this, right?

We all know what to do: tend to the garden, test and learn, then incrementally enhance the user experience. Of course we’re all doing this! (Maybe?)

For the sake of argument, let’s say we’ve let things go. Perhaps priorities changed, star colleagues moved on, or a new president recently shared a new vision. Time to rethink the website — again!

Let’s do things differently this time.

Let’s make a pledge: no more one-offs. No more “Build it and be done with it.” If it’s time to plan for your next redesign, we will build it to last. Your new college or university website will be maintainable, flexible, and modular. It will evolve along a continuum, where changes to design and content are responses to audience needs and institutional goals. Along the way, and into the future, we will embrace new technologies and new ways of working together with campus colleagues.

Prepare For the Next Evolution of Your Website

Now that we agree that there are no more in-betweens, here are three things you can do to prepare for the next evolution of your website:

  1. Audit experience touchpoints
  2. Explore new technologies
  3. Begin to think in terms of a design system

1. Audit Experience Touchpoints

By now, I hope we’re all convinced that stories are important. Telling dynamic, media-rich stories about your amazing students, committed faculty, innovative programs, and co-curricular activities is only half of the equation. The other half is about service. And that message starts with making your site audience-centric and easy to use by providing accurate, timely information to a site visitor, and fast.

I recommend conducting an audit of all the experience touchpoints on your site. In addition to taking a hard look at your navigation and viewing it from your audience’s perspective, isolate all of the calls to action (CTAs), forms, and ways in which prospective students and their families try to interact directly with you through your .edu. In preparation for your website evolution, prepare a catalog of necessary customer services touchpoints on the site and note how you expect site visitors to interact.

Look at your navigation titles, button labels, and form copy, and ask:

  • Do they make sense to your audience?
  • Are they consistent throughout the site?
  • Is the language you use to connect with your visitors friendly, easy to understand, and direct?

At mStoner, the most important method we use to evaluate these touchpoint interactions is usability testing with real users. Or a less formal method is to imagine yourself having in-person conversations with site visitors using the same language you’re using on your college or university website. If you sound like a robot from the ’50s, the language is probably not right. In other words, talk — or rewrite for the web — like a human. Today’s chatbots are programmed with apparent humor, empathy, and other humanlike characteristics. You may not be writing scripts for chatbots, but you need to take the same basic approach. Be consistent, be concise, and be human.

2. Explore New Technologies

We can easily get stuck in a rut of doing things the same way again and again. The familiar is comfortable, even if it causes some pain. For example, you may be using a content management system (CMS), customer relationship management (CRM) platform, or calendar that is completely wrong for your governance model. Or maybe these systems are too cumbersome or difficult to use on a daily basis.

Consider putting together an advisory committee on new technology for the web. It’s likely there are more efficient code libraries, newer third-party products, and new tools for testing that will make you and your new site faster, more efficient, and easier for content editors to update and manipulate.

As you plan for the next evolution of your website, you’ll need to make some big decisions on what tools and systems to use. I ask that you also consider the small ways new technologies can help you to iterate and improve.

When it comes to analytics, Greg Zguta, mStoner’s technology lead, recommends setting up a suite of Google tools to monitor the user experience in order to make data-driven decisions about design.

  • Deploy “event tracking” as new features are added to your site. These features may include carousels, tabs, accordions, CTAs, modals, filters, and other interactive elements within your pages.
  • Create segments around visitors from Google Analytics campaigns. Leveraging campaigns to track visitor behavior tied to marketing efforts is a great way to focus on conversions at the top of the admissions funnel.
  • A/B test with a tool such as Google Optimize, or third-party tool Optimizely, to test improvements in order to influence conversions. Lightweight tests can be used to try different CTAs. This is a good way for your team to test improvements already in place and make incremental changes. Focus on key conversions at the top of the admissions funnel.

3. Think in Terms of a Design System

The most current approach to designing for large institutional websites with multiple audiences and lots of content is systems design. UI designers, developers, and content strategists employ systems and component-based thinking to their work.

Designers at mStoner may present a page design in the early concept stages of a client project, but once we all agree on a visual and conceptual direction, the work quickly becomes about creating a modular system of user interface components, features, navigational elements, and content blocks. All these elements are grounded in a visual identity and brand guide provided by the institution.

The most important thing you can do to prepare for your website’s next evolution is to true up your visual brand. Audit your existing design elements: logos, color, typography, icons, and graphics. Agree on what’s working, and what elements strayed from the core brand — and why. You may decide that certain elements of your brand need to be changed in order to work better together and on the web.

If your brand agency isn’t thinking about how your visual identity system will play out in digital, that’s a red flag. If nothing else, choose a typeface that is equally versatile in print and web, and provide clear guidance on how brand elements work together.

When and Where Do I Start?

Now is the perfect time to start thinking about the next phase of your institution’s website. Even if you are not ready to commit to a total redo, considering your audience, technology, and brand will provide your college or university with a solid foundation to build on. Tackle small challenges first and improve incrementally over time, never losing sight of whom you are designing for.

If you’re ready to take the first step toward better, more effective content and design on your institution’s website, consider mStoner’s site checkup.

Our goal in this checkup is to give you clear, actionable feedback that will help you to effect immediate improvements, as well as to guide longer-term site development efforts.

It’s not a secret — your institution’s website is your most important communications tool.

  • Prospective students judge you by your homepage and academic program content
  • Donors use your site’s content to decide whether and how to give
  • Prospective faculty and staff use your .edu to find relevant information about the hiring process
  • Members of the local community visit your site for timely news and helpful resources

Your website must be excellent (and memorable) to stand out among the nearly 5,000 colleges and universities in the U.S.

mStoner’s Site Checkup provides:

  • Objective feedback
  • Actionable information for improving your site immediately
  • Priorities for long-term development
  • Detailed roadmap toward better alignment of your site’s visual design and user experience with your institution’s brand

Your team will be armed to make immediate design updates and content improvements to your most marketing-critical pages to better attract prospective students and engage alumni and donors.

Interested to learn more? Email Mallory Wood, director of marketing, or fill out the inquiry form.

Ben Bilow

AUTHOR - Ben Bilow

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.

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