Common Usability Mistakes in Higher Ed Websites

Posted: June 6, 2016

Tony Poillucci Vice President & Creative Director

Website usability is a broad term. Information architects, visual designers and web developers must all have a solid understanding of usability principles in order to do their jobs well. Website usability means creating an experience that is clear, accessible, enjoyable and memorable for your target audiences.

We all strive to make our websites great, but the reality is that creating a delightful user experience requires an investment that many institutions are hesitant to make. Here are some of the most common usability mistakes we’ve seen in higher ed websites:

1) Only lightly touching on Information Architecture or (GASP!) not addressing it at all.

When we talk about information architecture (IA), we’re talking about the process of categorizing information into a coherent structure, enabling the intended audience to find what they’re looking for quickly and easily, if not intuitively. This is typically done using a sitemap (to organize the site’s navigation), wireframes (to map the hierarchy of content on individual pages), user testing and other methods. As the centerpiece of website design and development, the IA will feed the visual design, content, functional requirements and technical implementation of the website. We’re shocked at how many times IA is rushed or completely overlooked.

Solution: Understand the importance and invest into IA. Your website should clearly point users to the information they are looking for in order to learn about all the amazing things your institution has to offer. Without an intuitive structure in place, users will get discouraged and quite possibly leave the website without ever having the opportunity to learn about more. Nothing is more frustrating than not being able to find what you’re looking for on a website quickly and easily.

2) The sitemap and main navigation are based on the institution’s internal org chart.

Many schools who do take the time to evaluate their website’s IA still go about it the wrong way. While it may make perfect sense to your faculty and staff, structuring a website around your school’s various administrative departments is a very institution-centric approach. There’s a good chance that this structure will alienate some of your biggest audience groups including prospective (and even current) students, donors and the community. It’s important to meet the needs of all audience groups, but remember that your website is a foundational marketing tool for reaching external audiences.

Solution: Conduct user testing to truly understand what structure will work best for website visitors who may not be as familiar with your institution. Talking to real people to discover their questions, needs and challenges can provide a whole new perspective on your website.

3) Terminology is confusing and difficult to understand.

Over the years, we’ve found that many institutions are offering exactly what their target audiences need, but they are calling it the wrong thing. For example, adults who work full time and are considering taking classes at their local community college may not identify with a section titled “Continuing Education.” In some cases, high-school students who are beginning their search for schools don’t self-identify as “undergraduate students” … they just don’t know what that means. Sometimes things that make sense to those of us who work in higher ed can sound like another language to external audiences.

Solution: Use plain language and descriptive text as much as possible. To test your terminology, listen to your audience (we can’t emphasize this enough). Focus groups and stakeholder interviews are an easy way to learn more about what makes sense to users and what leaves them confused. Talk to prospective students if you can, but also leverage current students who have recently gone through the process of researching institutions.

Bonus Tip: Be extra cautious when using acronyms. Even if it seems like something that should be common knowledge, it’s best to spell it out the first time.

4) Content that isn’t written for the web.

Academic writing tends to be long and verbose. When writing a thesis, dissertation or research report, it’s strongly encouraged to go into as much detail as possible to prove a point. However, the web is different. Website visitors are looking for specific pieces of information and they are looking to find it quickly.

Solution:  When the goal is to keep the attention of a digital native and communicate the top benefits of attending your institution, it’s best to hit the highlights in brief chunky statements with links for the reader to dig deeper if they choose. Write content that’s easy to scan and consume quickly. Use H2s and H3s (also known as sub-headings in the editorial world) to break content into short sections. Call out important facts and figures with different formatting and helpful icons. Use bullets and numbered lists wherever possible.

Bonus Tip: Check out Everything You Need To Know About Website Content.

5) Not including clear calls to action.

Some websites do have compelling and informative content, but don’t give the user any clear direction as to what they should do next. Website visitors may be new to the process of searching for information about courses, financial aid, housing, etc. Effective calls to action make it easy for users to take the next step on their journey, whether that be downloading a viewbook or applying for a graduate program.

Solution: Instead of writing good content and simply hoping that your website visitors will stumble upon the “Schedule a Campus Visit” form, make it very clear that you want them to sign up. Use clear language within your written content and leverage visual elements such as buttons and graphics that catch the user’s’ attention.

6) Neglecting website accessibility.

We’ve been talking about website accessibility for a while, and we’re finding that more and more schools are investing into making their websites accessible for all audiences. Updates include everything from the way the website is coded to the visual design (think color contrast, type size) and the content itself (think captions for videos and images).

Solution: Find out what level of accessibility is required for your school and become familiar with those guidelines. Then, conduct an audit to see where your site is meeting criteria and where it’s falling short. Having clear documentation of what needs to be updated will allow you to prioritize the sections of your site that are most visible or that need the most work.

7) Not capitalizing on new advances in technology.

As website creators, our goal should always be to create a delightful experience for the user. When a website loads and an HTML5 video starts playing, our eyes light up (at least they do now in 2016 … who knows what the future will hold). When we roll over a beautiful image and text appears to tell us more, we’re compelled to click. When a screen reader glides seamlessly through the content on a page, we breath a sigh of relief. These small elements make a big difference.

As mobile use has continued to grow, there have been many advances in web functionality that can be applied across all platforms. For example, the hamburger menu allows users to hide the navigation so they can focus on consuming the content on the page. At first, the a hamburger menu only appeared on mobile, but quickly spread into mobile and desktop designs.

I won’t list it as a separate mistake, because it really should go without saying, but websites must be responsive. Recently, Google announced that more searches take place on mobile devices than desktop in the US. This means that if a prospective student uses Google to search for your institution, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll be looking at your site on their phone.

Solution: Get creative and embrace technology! Do some research to see what’s out there. Have a brainstorm session with your team and come up with awesome ideas to make your website stand out and create a memorable experience for users. Always remember to revisit your goals before making any changes. Once you’ve determined what technology will help you achieve the best results, you’ll be even more inspired and motivated to make it happen.