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Website Navigation Considerations

University Business, Jan 2012

Once visitors get to a college or university website, the aim is to keep them there. Keep in mind that they might not know what questions to ask and probably don’t have time to read, says Stephanie Geyer, associate vice president of web strategy services at Noel-Levitz. “They just want to get to pieces of content quickly and institutions struggle to provide that.” Here are some tips for ensuring navigation doesn’t negatively impact the time that visitors spend on your institution’s site.

  • Create tabs that make sense to the user. Jim Blakeslee, CIO of Moraine Park Technical College (Wisc.), and his team reviewed at least 40 institutional websites for ideas before settling on a plan to standardize tabs for various groups. Under each tab is a list of appropriate topics. “There are things on the student tab that you won’t see on the faculty tab,” he says. Remember, says Jacee Brown, web communications director at Loyola University New Orleans, “students don’t need to know the office hierarchy. They don’t care who answers to whom; they just want to take their classes, pay bills, and get a parking spot.” The result is that Loyola’s homepage went from being “very bureaucratic” to having intuitive navigation.

At Friends University (Kan.), shares Roman Rodriguez, web manager and graphic designer, “The decision was made that it had to make sense to the end users, not necessarily internally.” The end result: some pages on the website might be in areas that aren’t connected to the department, but rather, are housed on campus.

  • Make the application or request-for-information link very visible. There is no point in sharing how great you are if students can’t figure out how to apply. “We’re finding out many students aren’t stealth because they want to be, but because they haven’t had a chance to identify themselves,” says Ed Macko, creative director for higher education with Pipitone Group, a marketing company. After usability studies showed the application link on the Friends site was too hard to find, the team ensured the request-for-information form was on the right hand side of every page. “It builds itself as you answer questions,” says Rodriguez. Skip logic adjusts the form based on users’ answers.
  • Apply the principles of responsive web design. This approach allows a design to be ported to any device, known or not yet known, and means schools will end up saving money down the road, since they will be prepared for any device that comes along, the Pipitone team advises. The exercise can also be helpful now. “If you are going to take a 2,000-page website mobile, you have to think of what your critical message is,” points out Macko. “You have to simplify the site down to its bare essentials. Then boil your desktop site down to the same messages.”