To the casual observer, many universities can look similar. They’re perceived as institutions and campuses where students seek to obtain a degree differentiated only by name and location. But is that all?
This superficial similarity belies complex variations between institutions of higher education. These can range from those that focus on global rankings or quality of research. Others turn attention to their ability to attract researchers and graduate students, teaching and education missions. Yet others focus on attracting higher paying foreign or out-of-state students and alumni community engagement initiatives.
Often within an institution, these different priorities are at play and can make creating a website that meets the needs of all stakeholders a seemingly impossible task. But with the following 10 tips, it is possible to navigate this maze to arrive at an effective solution.
- Manage Diverse Stakeholders by helping them see the bigger picture. Stakeholders in higher learning institutions are conditioned to focus on their own departments, faculties and/or schools and are passionate and articulate in doing so While it is necessary to understand their specific needs, designing group exercises to help them frame these needs within the larger context of the entire institution’s objectives and target audience/s can help them see the larger picture and prioritise important decisions. Being very clear about these help the project proceed smoothly.
- Design Around Key Audience Needs, Not Internal Stakeholders. This seems obvious but organizational structures in higher learning institutions such as Admissions, Schools / Colleges, Research Institutes etc often exert incredible pressure to organise the website around these internal structures. Unfortunately target audiences such as prospective students look for information in a counter-organizational manner. Admission information cannot be dissected from programme and curriculum information. Students looking at Engineering might also be interested in degrees in Mathematics, Physics or Economics, so structuring the information around specific colleges or schools would not work. It is therefore important to understand the different user journeys and structure the content around the most important ones.
- Meet Stakeholder Needs. Once you have designed a structure around key audiences, you will still have to meet the needs of internal stakeholders for structures organized around schools / colleges, research institutes and departments like admissions. It is important that you meet those needs. They support the missions of these sub-units and most importantly are a part of the deeper user discovery journey. A user that has finished his/her initial screening and is ready to deep-dive into researching an Engineering degree is now ready to learn everything about the College of Engineering. Just make sure that these structures are connected to the larger context.
- Design One Place for All Programmes and Courses. Most higher
learning institutions offer many programmes and courses from many different
schools and colleges. It is useful to consolidate this in one
location so that a prospective student can search for all programmes and courses
easily but allow many paths of access. If the selection is very large, the
application of eCommerce frameworks like recommendation
engines, filter functions can be very useful.
The same approach can be applied to information required by other target audiences;
- Research Projects
- Faculty and Staff
- Search Optimize Faculty and Research Listings. Many higher learning institutions’ reputations are built upon their faculties and research. Make sure that these are search optimized to maximize the exposure of this critical information. Also make sure that this information is easily found on the website because research collaborators search the higher learning institutions’ websites for research projects and researchers.
- Integrate the Data. These is usually a large amount of data to
present and cross-reference.
- Programmes, linked to individual courses, cross referenced to faculty, industry projects.
- Research projects cross referenced to faculty and researchers and vice versa
Keeping all this information up to date will be a logistical nightmare if the data isn’t properly structured and integrated. Make sure you plan and design this upfront to facilitate a smooth implementation and fuss free data maintenance and update.
- Avoid Information Silos by cross referencing information. Higher learning institutions are built around a collaborative culture, and that is a key source of strength. Programmes and courses, faculty, job opportunities, industry collaboration, schools, research etc and all be linked together into a rich web of collaborative relationships that reflect the exciting reality of what actually goes on within an HE.
- Automate to Minimize Manual Tasks. Chatbots are useful tools to automate most frequent and repetitive queries, especially questions surrounding admissions. This frees up the staff to focus on more complex queries.
- Personalize to Engage. With so much content clamouring for attention, the higher learning institutions website can be a little overwhelming for a visitor. Personalization around audience type or interest can significantly reduce the clutter, present the most relevant aspects of the higher learning institution and drive greater engagement. Information that is ripe for personalization include Programmes, Research, Faculty & Researchers, Events and News. A prospective student interested in a particular area of study can be presented hub pages with information skewed towards his/her interest area facilitating information discovery and engagement.
- Provide for Overseas Students. Higher learning institutions are
reaching out to overseas students more than ever. Consider the needs of those
students from language, speed of internet access, culture
and local regulations.
- Language. Even if you are not yet ready to support different languages, make sure your site and software is multi-language capable, so that you have that option when you are ready.
- Internet access. Your site might load well in your home country, but it is usually a very different story in other countries. In China, generally sites need to be hosted within China in order to deliver acceptable response times.
- Culture. While it is difficult to understand the cultural nuances of the vast world out there, it is very useful to be sensitive to the most pertinent aspects, like using images with the correct ethnicity, avoiding taboo subjects, understanding language variances. Even for the same language across different national boundaries, there are significant difference, not dissimilar to the differences in English between the US, UK and Australia.
- Local Regulations. Be careful not to run afoul of local regulations. Understand the data protection laws and other regulations. For example, Indonesia law requires all personal data to be stored in a server residing in the country.
While the above list can sound daunting, systematically considering these factors that are relevant to your higher learning institution will deliver a website that will serve your institution’s needs for years to come and enhance the first impressions for your target audience.