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13 UX Best Practices for Higher Education Websites

Higher education websites are a hub of information for prospective students, enrolled students, alumni, faculty, and staff. An effective college website’s design and development showcase what it means to be a member of that institution without stepping foot on campus.

Most traditional prospective students belong to Generation Z — the most tech-savvy generation to date. Most of this audience grew up with the internet and mobile devices — and have experienced technology adapting and modernizing alongside their growth. This blog will take a closer look at 14 best practices for improving UX on higher education websites. These sites are in a unique position where they not only need to remain competitive in their crowded industry, but they also need to keep up with the increasing consumer expectations for user experience.

Chatbots

The usage of chatbots has increased as a digital trend, and higher education marketers have taken full advantage. Compared to older generations, the Gen Z audience has higher expectations when it comes to finding information digitally. In fact, “more than 60% of prospective students expect to get a response from an academic institution within the same day of filling out a form” [1]. A study conducted by the Harvard Business Review and Inside Sales found that waiting 5 minutes to respond to a lead “decreases your odds of getting in touch with that lead by nearly 10 times. After 10 minutes, there is a 400% decrease in your odds of qualifying that lead” [2]. With such a high volume of students making online inquiries, colleges and universities were in need of a digital helping hand.

Chatbots drastically increase the ability to respond quickly to numerous inquiries. Higher education marketers utilize these chatbots by automating answers, such as FAQs and navigational assistance, decreasing the need for a marketer to manually answer questions. This is particularly helpful during the prospect and inquiry stage of the admissions funnel, where a student might reach out with a question or need assistance finding information. For more thought-generating conversations with prospective students in the application or admissions phase, a human representative from the college or university can take over the conversation that a chatbot started to offer more in-depth answers.

Virtual Content

When campus and dorm tours screeched to a halt at the start of the pandemic, higher ed marketers thought outside the box and went digital. We witnessed colleges and universities throughout the country offer virtual campus tours, virtual class visits, and incorporate more video as visual content on their sites. A study conducted by TargeX found that “27% of prospective teen students cited YouTube videos as a major influence in where they enrolled”.

College students watching virtual content

The Coronavirus was a major cause of this explosion of virtual content, but that doesn’t mean marketers should stop generating content now. Virtual content should be used as a way to reach inquirers and applicants that would otherwise not be able to see the campus or attend a class in-person. Marketers should consider the percentage of prospective students that are unable to travel extensive distances for a campus visit for various reasons. Granting these students access to virtual content allows them to be included in an important stage of the admissions funnel — one that they might have otherwise dropped out of.

Patricia Peek is the Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Fordham University in New York. After implementing virtual tours, she reported that “2,200 visitors took the virtual tour vs 730 for March and April of last year” [3]. That number nearly tripled in a year due to the increase in popularity and availability of virtual content.

Website Accessibility

Every year, website accessibility makes an appearance on the next year’s hot trends list. In fact, it has been a suggestion for so long that it is now a necessity — colleges and universities have no excuse for websites that are not accessible to all users. Sites that are not ADA compliant actually run the risk of massive lawsuits, which are not only financially straining but also hurt credibility and reputation.
In 2016, both Harvard and MIT in Massachusetts were sued because their websites “failed to make their massive open online courses, guest lectures, and other video content accessible to people who are deaf [4].” The National Association of the Deaf brought up the case and claimed that both schools discriminated against deaf people because they did not provide text captions for their online content. According to Inside Higher Ed: “As of today, the case is still ongoing after the two schools’ motions to dismiss were denied”.

Mobile-first Approach

In 2021, websites need to be mobile-friendly. In higher ed, a majority of website traffic comes from mobile devices. Having a website that is not optimized for mobile devices can lead to a decrease in enrollment rates. The generation that is looking at these higher ed pages on their phones expects to have a positive experience. This audience is accustomed to having the world’s information at their fingertips, in fact, 98% of them have a smartphone and 55% of them use that smartphone for 5+ hours a day [5]. This is not only frustrating for Zoomers but also frustrating for Google as a search engine. If Google bots crawl your website and find pages upon pages that are not optimized for mobile devices, your rankings and users’ experience are going to suffer — and it will be more difficult for prospective students in the admissions funnel to find the website.

Tracking and Improving site search

84% of users want to solve their own problems using search [6]. When a prospective student clicks on the search button, it’s imperative that the first result they see is the information they were seeking. The core of a good user experience is finding valuable information. — so naturally, site search is a necessary place for higher ed marketers to invest. Additionally, the Google Search Console can provide key insights into search patterns and behavior. There are also numerous third-party tools such as Algolia or Elastic Search that can help higher ed marketers optimize their website’s search for a positive user experience.

Bury Your Dead Links

Nothing is more frustrating for a higher education website user than clicking on something and expecting information, just to end up at a 404 page. Broken links hurt your website experience and damage your credibility. To combat this, it is best to perform frequent website audits that can help catch broken links.

image of a laptop displaying 404 error page

Optimize Your 404 Page

Staying on top of broken links can get overwhelming — and sometimes, 404s happen. To ensure that you are still providing a positive experience, optimize your 404 pages to make them dynamic. Adding a search bar can encourage users to continue using your website. Branding elements on your 404 pages can use humor to help flip the situation from negative to positive.

User-Friendly Navigation on Higher Education Websites

Website navigation bars help to guide users to the area of the website they are seeking. The ultimate goal for navigation is to aid in the customer journey — but some miss the mark. 67% of mobile users will leave a website if they are frustrated with the navigation [7], meaning that effective navigation is integral to a site optimized for user experience. For example, sticky website navigation can decrease the number of scrolls to get to the top of the page. If a navigation menu has a lot to offer, consider condensing it to a hamburger-style menu so it appears less cluttered.

Page Load Speed

Users expect a quickly loading page — Gen Z users in particular. As the generation that set many digital standards, they expect a page to load in 3 seconds or less.
Higher education websites have a lot of digital content, so marketers need to ensure that their pages are loading all the content quickly and effectively to ensure the best possible user experience.

Segment Key Information

As was previously mentioned, higher education websites inherently have a lot of content. Much of this content is targeted towards the distinct audiences that the website serves, such as current students, students in the admissions funnel, faculty, and alumni. It is important to segment key information that is helpful for a particular audience. For students in the admissions funnel, bullet points outlining an application checklist can be incredibly helpful. The same website can have bullet points for alumni that are trying to make a donation.

Branding consistency

Higher education websites should offer a cohesive experience. Users should recognize an institution’s branding elements on every page, post, or video. Prospective students apply to an average of 7-10 colleges, which means they are likely browsing and researching more institutions in addition to the 7-10. Higher ed marketers need to differentiate their website from their competition and ensure that their website provides a cohesive experience.

Simplify Your Forms

Many higher education websites offer information packages to prospective students who fill out a request form. These forms tell higher ed marketers a lot about a particular user. While this information gives marketers insights, it can also defer users if the process to fill out the form is not optimized for user experience.
Forms should be short and simple. If marketers ask the right questions in the most efficient way, they will not only get the information they seek but also provide a positive user experience.

Students giving UX feedback on a higher education website

Ask for Feedback

The best way to know how users feel about the website is to ask them directly. A quick survey can grant marketers a wealth of information. A popup survey on a landing page can ask users how they first learned about the institution, or what the institution can do to improve the page’s experience. Marketers can ask more in-depth questions and opinions through surveys sent to the student body. Offering gift cards or campus merch can be a great incentive to encourage users to participate.

Thinking about a higher education website design strategy? Let us know, we’d love to get started!

 

Sources:

[1] Why Are Chatbots Important?

[2] Why Are Chatbots Important?

[3] Virtual Tours Grow, but Will They Have the Same Impact

[4] Legal Battle Over Captioning Continues

[5] Gen Z Statistics – What We Know About the New Generation

[6] 9 Site Search Statistics You Need to Know in 2020

[7] UX Design & Content Impact Mobile Navigation

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