Your Last Website Redesign

Posted: November 23, 2021

5 min. read

The current process for web redesign projects is broken. It is inefficient and rarely delivers on its promises. Even the word “redesign” implies a repeat.

Considering your site is your number one tool for marketing and recruitment, think of improving it as a process – not a project in need of repeating (mistakes in tow).

To identify what’s broken, let’s go back to the basics: why do we take on the massive challenge of a website redesign? 

The Current State of the Redesign Process

Most institutions think that a new website will be the silver bullet that fixes every problem (I was a huge Lone Ranger fan as a six-year-old, so I can use this metaphor). Common reasons include: 

  • Look & Feel: Out with the old, and in with the new. New fonts, new layouts, new templates, new everything. It will be so shiny and modern, you will need to wear sunglasses just to look at it.
  • Information Architecture (IA): A lot of energy will go into figuring out how people use the site and making sure their journeys are smooth. And if all goes well, your IA will improve, meaning your UI will improve, and thus, your UX will be amazing. But you should know: everyone is using search. Good site architecture is important, but please make sure your internal search works well and that a Google search returns the expected results, because that is how people are finding everything on your website. I will say it again: everyone is using search.
  • Content Audit & Content Creation: Everything will be rewritten and optimized with all of the right keywords. When was the last time you did a content audit? Do you know how many pages there are? Do not underestimate this task. Once you have a handle on all the content you have, you have to figure out how to get rid of most of it. Because no one is reading it. Check the analytics. If a page has less than 100 pageviews per year, should it exist? Once you decide what to keep, you need to rewrite it. Writing for the web is a special skill. Think about how you move through the web. You don’t read. You scan. And so do your users. 
  • Digital Assets: Your new site will have new images everywhere. Where will they come from? More work for your campus photographers? And just how many outdated PDFs are there in your CMS? Get rid of all of them and start anew. That should be easy. Do you have a digital asset management tool? You should. But they can be expensive. 

Your new site is going to be awesome and full of promise. So, what happens next?

Committees are formed. Goals are defined. An RFP is written. Proposals are submitted. An agency is chosen. There is the long back and forth of critical decision making around all of the previously mentioned areas. A design is chosen. Templates are made. Content is written. 

And meanwhile…

Your web team is overwhelmed with the work of keeping things rolling. Deadlines are met (or not). And eventually, the new site is launched – with all of the proper redirects in place. And everyone cheers for half a second – about as long as you were able to convince them to think about the website in the first place.

And a few years later, you realize that you are back where you started.

What if there was a different way? 

A way that could save a lot of stress and work, and possibly, money. Instead of thinking of a website redesign as a massive once-off project, we need to think about it as an ongoing process. Instead of coming up with a large sum of dedicated money for one project, create an ongoing annual budget for website improvement. 

An Iterative Approach 

Let’s use a five-year time frame. What if we tackle each one of the key components separately, and spread them out over five years. I know that none of these areas exists independently from the others. I also realize that many of these areas are constants for us. We always have to be aware of accessibility issues and digital asset updates. 

  • Year 1: Focus on Content
  • Year 2: Focus on IA 
  • Year 3: Focus on Design 
  • Year 4: Focus on Accessibility 
  • Year 5: Focus on Digital Assets
  • Repeat

Putting Your Students First

Back to the why of redesigns. More than any other stakeholder group, higher ed websites are built to serve your most important customers: the students. That’s one thing all your divisions, units, decision-makers, and content creators can (or should) agree on. 

If we approach the process with a student-centric mentality, continuous improvement is essential to responding to their evolving needs. Students today expect personalized, friction-free web experiences thanks to platforms like Amazon, AirBnB, Netflix, and many others. 

In contrast, I’ve seen countless higher ed sites where the ‘customer journey’ is poorly conceived and executed. For example, transactions – such as finding program information or registering for a course – require too many steps, across several digital and offline touch-points. 

Websites are consistently ranked as the most useful resource in helping prospective students decide where to enroll. 

In this light, growing and sustaining enrollment hinges on how attuned your website is with students’ content priorities, search patterns, and user goals. There is no such thing as a set-it-and-forget-it approach to website upkeep. Actively invite student input as you iterate and improve your site over time – not as a static digital storefront, but as an ever-growing arena of engagement.  

A New Way Forward

Let’s shift how we think about our websites. With the right perspective (and resources), we can ensure that our most powerful digital marketing tool performs at its best.

Hopefully then, your institution’s next “redesign” will be the last. Your site will grow with you from there.

Note: This article is an updated version of one I wrote in April 2020 during my tenure at Gettysburg College as their Director of Digital Strategy. While the convictions I’ve expressed remain the same, I’ve had the chance to apply them in new contexts at VisionPoint, where I work with institutions across the country to redesign their websites with a renewed focus on continuous improvement.

Paul Fairbanks is a web strategist at VisionPoint Marketing who brings a career-long background in higher education with a focus in web design. Prior to VisionPoint, he served as the Director of Digital Strategy at Gettysburg College, where he led the institution through the website redesign process and grew their digital presence. If you’d like to have a conversation with VisionPoint on ways we can help you optimize your website for recruitment and streamline the redesign process, please reach out to us. We are on a mission to help higher education institutions succeed.