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Putting the “why” back into the process

February 19th, 2013 by Erick Beck

[Note, it was pointed out that other marketing offices do create newsletter, brochures, direct mail, and other content-centric printed elements and do engage in online advertising. In our department, though, the print work is primarily in the realm of advertisements and online advertisement is largely banner-style inserts on specific websites, so your mileage may vary in how much of this applies to you.]

A colleague recently passed around a link to an article talking about trends in web design. The basic premise was don’t use trendy design techniques for the sake of trendy design — make sure the style fits the topic or serves a purpose. This last phrase, while simple, really says a lot about what we do and, more importantly, why we do it.

It has become cliché that the web is not just print content placed online. That comparison has become so overused that we don’t think much about what it means anymore. In our world the web is not just a different medium requiring different rules, but its very purpose is usually also completely different from our print projects. This then means that not only are the rules of the medium different, but everything affecting the purpose (i.e. the “why”) of the design are different as well.

In the higher ed marketing office [at least in our office], most print projects are not content pieces. They are ads in various magazines, journals, and websites. Let me rephrase that. They are advertisement. I’m not saying that’s bad, but it does imply a wholly different mindset in how we view their design. Advertisements by their very nature are embedded in larger content and compete with both the content and other advertisements for the reader’s attention. It is very possible that they will be competing with the very content that the reader was looking for in the first place. As such they have to be bold, splashy, and whatever else it takes to draw their eye (with obvious exception to the method of being noticeable by being particularly stark.) This arena promotes the use of large and complex imagery because that’s what works. In print, for example, we might devote an entire page of powerful imagery to get the viewer to read a two sentences message.

Our higher ed web sites are not themselves advertisement. As we are trained at “web school,” users come to our sites to solve a problem, which is usually to find some sort of information. That might be the date of an event, how to register for the university, where to purchase football tickets, or any number of things. But they have chosen to come to our sites for a reason. This makes web design much more utilitarian. We aren’t competing with other content on the page, we are the reason the viewer has come in the first place. As such, our design should compliment our content, not be clever or trendy for its own sake. It should be friendly and welcoming to the viewer, but not distract the user from the content they are trying to find.

The next lesson at web school is that the user experience is defined as how quickly and easily (if at all) our site solved the user’s problem. Basically, did they find what they were looking for, and how hard was it for them to find it? This is why Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think has become such a blueprint to web organization. Research has shown that it only takes a few seconds to create a bad experience, and that users having a bad experience with a site are much less likely to revisit the site. If that user is a potential student, the odds of them following through to submitting an application are reduced. To make the site successful, everything we do — content and design — should be centered on improving the user experience.

While we need to produce sites that are inviting and make users want to stay, the designs need to enhance the content, not detract from it.

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013 design
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1 Comment to Putting the “why” back into the process

  1. I make it a practice to solicit feedback on my ideas & designs from persons of diverse backgrounds, especially the next generation. One thing I’ve discovered that many of us who have been weaving web for over 10 years or may not appreciate is precisely what you said i.e. a prospective student will judge a department by its web design.

    Online life means far more to them and to the future than it has in our generation. Their norm is more than two standard deviations out from our norm, and if we aren’t actively committed to use case study and polling, we will miss them.

  2. Monty on February 21st, 2013

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