make your classes challenging . . . and your website a breeze to use

July 11, 2012 by

'Making pages self-evident is like having good lighting in a store: it just makes everything seem better.  Using a site that doesn't make us think about unimportant things feels effortless, whereas puzzling over things that don't matter to us tends to sap our energy and enthusiasm - and time.'

Steve Krug, Don't Make Me Think

web usability university

make your website effortless to use

web usability for higher education

None of us want to discourage or 'sap the energy' of our website visitors.  So being user-friendly, even hyper-friendly, needs to be a top priority for site design.

Now you may be thinking that as an institution of higher learning, your visitors are more sophisticated and patient than most. That they might be willing to expend more energy in looking for what they want on your site than your average guy or gal.

Don't.  They might be very interested in what you have to offer, and might dig deep into certain parts of your content.  But figuring out how your website works?  Nah.  Not interesting.  Save their energy for the good stuff.

So do your best to make their experience of your site feel effortless.  It can't help but contribute to a positive engagement with your site, and by association, your institution.

Getting to 'effortless' is no small feat for organizations as large and complex as colleges and universities.  But following a few simple guidelines can make an enormous difference in how people interact with your site.

don't be afraid to be conventional

Here's an easy way to do your visitors a big favor.  Put things where people expect to find them, in a format they're used to.  These common conventions are worth repeating unless you've got a good reason not to.

  • Site ID (your name and logo) in upper left corner.  Preferably on every page.
  • Main navigation either across the top or down the left margin.  Having main navigation across the top and sub-categories/local navigation down the left side is also common.
  • Use standard names for main pages, e.g., 'about,' 'contact us,' 'admissions,' etc.
  • You can go home again.  Make sure each page has a recognizable link to your home page in the upper left corner.  And for a real treat, give them breadcrumbs so they always know exactly where they are.
  • Make clickable links glaringly obvious.  In-text links should be a different color than other text, and the same color throughout your site.  Some would even go so far as to say they should be blue, since that's the most common color.  Use your discretion on that one.  And a button should look like a recognizable Button.
  • Don't make them search for search.  Put a search field on every page in the upper-right corner and give it a button called 'search' or the familiar search icon.

And as to the people who really shouldn't be conventional?  They would include design institutes, arts organizations and others in the creative industries.  These folks need to demonstrate their creativity (i.e., show, not tell) on their websites and everywhere else.  Their sites still need to be intelligible, but visitors expect to find something genuinely different here in a way they don't on other sites.

For the rest of us, people aren't all that interested in how creative we are.  They want to know if we have what they're looking for.  Which is a different matter entirely.

noise control

Thankfully higher education isn't a world populated by advertisements shouting, 'Buy now!' or 'Super special offer expires tomorrow!'  But there are still things to watch out for in keeping the noise level down on your site.

  • Too many words, too soon.  Avoid over-burdening your home page with a link to every single thing your school does for every single stakeholder. It's overwhelming to your visitor and most of it won't be relevant to any given person. Consider constructing some big signposts for different segments of your audience so they can travel easily to what's appropriate for them. And as a general rule, as they drill down into your site you can get away with more words. If they've arrived at an academic program page, for instance, you can assume they want some detail about what's on offer.
  • Auto-start videos.  Videos are a great, but not videos that auto-start. Give your visitors a choice about if and when they want to watch your video(s), rather than having it blare at them every time they open the page. The same applies to animations.
  • Pointless decoration.  The design of your site needs to be colorful, appealing and reflect your brand.  But avoid getting too creative with colors, e.g., white text on a black background.  It's hard to read, and we're going for effortless here.  And did you know that  according to the 2012 Stamats TeensTalk® Survey, the appearance of your campus only influences 1% of teens in their final college choice?  So swap those beautiful, perfectly composed campus photos for photos and videos that convey the experience of your school - for prospective students, for alumni, for donors, for faculty.  Make sure everything you include serves an obvious and useful purpose that goes beyond making your site look nice.
  • Choices, choices, always choices. . .  Keep to one key task per page where possible.  Like explaining the philosophy behind your philosophy department.  And then tell me what to do next.  Which might involve a few carefully chosen and clearly explained alternatives.  As in, 'Need more information about our faculty?  Go to the faculty profiles page (with link),' or, 'Ready to apply now?  Go straight to the admissions page (with link).'  Don't offer any options that aren't directly related to the task at hand.  And if people do want to back out and do something entirely different, if you've got key signposts in order (home page link, breadcrumbs), they'll easily navigate to where they want to go.

consistency is a virtue

  • Maintain a consistent visual style.  Try to limit yourself to just a handful of fonts and colors, and keep a recognizable frame around your content on each page (i.e., the site ID and at least some navigation).  That way your visitors never have to wonder if they're still on your site.  You may need to be a bit more relaxed about pages like online magazines and athletics programs, but make sure to keep navigation visible that allows them to return easily to the main sections of your site.
  • Keep social media top of mind.  Do you really want people to join you on Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter and Pinterest?  Then give them highly visible, recognizable icons for these platforms above the fold on every page.  That way they'll never have to remember to follow you once they get back to the home page, or . . . now what page did they see that on?  You get my drift.  Somewhere in the top right corner is common, but I love how Goshen College has a bottom bar featuring social media (and other key links) that follows visitors everywhere.

What challenges does your school run into in making your website easy to use and navigate?  And what solutions have you come up with?

Photo credit:    h.koppdelaney via Compfight

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