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Website design must equal website strategy

December 9th, 2009 by Erick Beck

Recent studies on the use of university websites by prospective students are causing us as website administrators to rethink our websites, the goals we have for them, and the process we go through in posting them.  All of us tend to have a 2-4 year cycle that we go through, after which we judge our website “old” and therefore due for a redesign.  Too often this redesign means just updating the templates and maybe <gasp> retooling the site navigation just a little.  Not a lot though, we all know we have to have those same generic audience-based links at the top of the page.  Unfortunately, while we might spend a year or more on this process, in the past little attention was usually paid to content.  In all too many cases the new template was simply buckled onto the old content, without even a basic sweep being done for stale links.

This changed somewhat as the web became a more important tool that more people were using.  The shift from getting information in paper catalogs to getting it on the web is long past.  Most of us have recognized this and placed a renewed emphasis on making sure we have the most up to date content (“stale, incorrect, content is worse than no content!”) and have even thought deeply about making sure all the content a prospective student, who most web offices will now tell you is their primary audience, might want to know is front-loaded and easy to find.

But is our design process actually producing something that this group actually cares about? Did anybody even ask how our primary audience might be using the site?

One recent university site redesign puts thing in a slightly new light:

Aha moment?
I had a big one during the planning phase. We held some focus groups with students where were trying to understand what they want and need most from their university web site. I learned that students don’t primarily view web sites as a place to get information, but rather as a destination to get things done. Their expectations of what they should be able to do on a university web site are extremely high. It goes beyond their desire for it to look good and be consistent in its navigation.     [emphasis mine]

This observation has been more and more often repeated in the conferences I have attended.  Design, navigation, and usefull information are important, but they are not enough.  Incoming students are looking for a seamless experience where they can go online, get the information they need — say for qualifying for a scholarship — and then be able to apply that information all in one trip. This means websites can no longer be simple information silos; they must instead exist in a truly interconnected web of online resources.

This type of cohesion is difficult in small schools where there is a unified control over the web presence.  How will we manage with the size and decentralization that we experience here at Texas A&M?  Cooperation, I think, must be the key.  More thoughts on how that might be accomplished in later posts.

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Wednesday, December 9th, 2009 Future Projects,
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3 Comments to Website design must equal website strategy

  1. You’re elucidating a really important point here. The prospective students I talk to basically reinforce the point that Nancy made in the interview you referenced. But it’s also worthwhile mentioning that the website means different things to them as they progress from information-seeker to applicant to accepted, but not yet committed, student. At first, what’s essential is that they find the information they’re looking for: “Do you have my major? Can I get in? How much does it cost?” etc. As they progress in their commitment to (and relationship with) the institution, they need more and expect to get it from the website.

  2. Michael Stoner on December 10th, 2009
  3. Check list before you go for website redesign,
    My website:

    * …does not align with my current business goals and strategy.
    * …is made up of entirely static content.
    * …has outdated information.
    * …contains mistakes, typos, and broken links.
    * …has not been updated in years.
    * …does not render properly in the latest web browsers.
    * …has a high visitor bounce rate (visitors hit your site and immediately leave).
    * …is cluttered with flashing graphics, images, and content.
    * …does not show up in Google or other search engines.
    * …does not feature valuable, timely content such as blogs, newsletters, news releases, video, and white papers.
    * …does not follow accessibility guidelines for people with disabilities.
    * …is difficult to navigate.
    * …is difficult to read (font style, size, color).
    * …does not generate leads.
    * …does not complement my online and offline marketing efforts.

  4. Mark on January 13th, 2010
  5. Great post… I think the web and role of all sites in general has changed just as you’ve mentioned and it is great that you took the time to see how your user used your site and what they expected from it.

    A website is no longer just an online business card or place to get information.

  6. Ryan on May 16th, 2010

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