Higher Education Websites, Avoiding Common Mistakes

Posted: December 14, 2011

Carissa Hoel Director of Technical Strategy

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Meet Alex, Jordan and Taylor, the most recent visitors to your admissions page. All three had very different experiences and unfortunately nobody applied. So, I bet you’re asking yourself, “What went wrong?” While it’s difficult to know why each individual decided not to apply, there are some common mistakes that you can make sure to avoid.

Audience Needs

The first common mistake you can make is assuming your audience members have the same needs. An audience member could visit your admissions page with the goal of applying now, while another is not even sure if higher education is right for them.

Let’s take another look at your most recent visitors. 

  • Alex feels your establishment is the perfect fit. Alex’s goal is to click ‘Admissions’ and hit ‘Apply Now.’ Alex is hoping for simple steps to make the process easy.
  • Jordan isn’t sure that going back to school after working for 10 years is the right choice. Jordan wants the facts: how much does this cost and what can I study?
  • Taylor is a junior in high school and has never visited a higher education website before. All the jargon is scaring Taylor away. For example, what are ‘credits’ and what are ‘typical semester hours?’

Clearly, your audience is looking for different content. Your audience also has different levels of understanding. Once you have a better understanding of your audience’s needs you will have a better idea of what content to create.

Content Mistakes

Another common error is assuming website content is the same as print content. When you send potential students information booklets they can flip from page to page or look in a table of contents to find exactly what they want to know. However, websites are much more dynamic. Potential students want to navigate quickly and find what they need by scanning.

To make your text easy to scan:

  • Make titles short and accurate
  • Clearly identify the content through headings, subheadings and links
  • Organize content by placing most important and relevant information at the top and work down to the less important details
  • Keep sentences, lists and paragraphs short and to the point
  • Stay on topic

Part of developing the content is keeping the audience in mind and adapting the appropriate voice. This step is easy to overlook but is crucial to the user experience. Voice can be created with vocabulary and level of formality. When writing content, avoid using jargon, slang and gender-specific vocabulary. Voice is also developed through grammar, tone, organization, and paragraph layout and length.
Once you think the voice fits the audience, make sure the voice also reflects the website’s purpose and brand. If multiple people create content for your website, consider developing content standards that act as guidelines and rules.

Website Access

Now that you have addressed some of the common mistakes, there is one more to cover. How are users accessing your website? Recent surveys show that around half of college students have smartphones. This means it’s important for your website to be mobile-friendly. Since typical screens on mobile devices only hold about 13 lines of text, every word needs to count. If your establishment does not have a separate mobile website, there are still ways to make your site mobile-friendly.

  • Use clear titles and links to help users navigate
  • Write short sentences, lists and paragraphs to allow mobile readers to scan
  • Break information into smaller parts using headings and sub-headings
  • Be clear and concise by avoiding extra words, jargon, and unnecessary or irrelevant information

Review of Mistakes

Always keep your audience’s needs in mind. Respect their time by making content easy to locate and scan. Use a voice that makes the information easy to follow and understand. And finally, create content that users can access from different devices, including mobile.

The difference that avoiding these mistakes can make:

  • The steps under ‘Apply Now’ have been rewritten to be clear and concise. Alex now understands how to complete the application process.
  • Titles, headings, sub-headings and links have been re-named so users know what each page contains. Jordan can now quickly find the information necessary to decide if going back to school is the right decision.
  • Jargon and lengthy paragraphs have been removed. This helps Taylor get a clear understanding of higher education and what to research.

By avoiding these common mistakes users are more likely to have a positive experience, find exactly what they’re looking for and hopefully, apply.