How universities can build effective websites

To the casual observer, many universities can look similar. Far too 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 sea-of-sameness belies complex variations between HE institutions. Ranging from those that focus on global rankings or the quality of their research, to those who aim to attract higher paying foreign students, or want to promote their 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’s possible to navigate this maze to arrive at an effective solution.

1. Manage diverse stakeholders by helping them see the bigger picture
Stakeholders in HE institutions are conditioned to focus on their own departments, faculties and/or schools, and are passionate about doing so. While it’s 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 wider picture and prioritise important decisions. 

2. Design around key audience needs, not internal stakeholders
This seems obvious but organisational structures in HE such as admissions, schools, 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-organisational 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 just doesn’t work. It’s therefore important to understand the different user journeys and structure the content around the most important ones.

3. Meet stakeholder needs
Once you have designed a structure around key audiences, you’ll still have to meet the needs of internal stakeholders. For structures organised around schools, research institutes and departments like admissions, it’s important that you meet those needs. These sub-units are 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.

4. Design one place for all programmes and courses
Most HE institutions offer many programmes and courses from different schools and colleges. It’s 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 and filter functions can prove very useful.

The same approach can be applied to information required by other target audiences: 

a. Research Projects
b. Events
c. Faculty and Staff
d. News 

5. Optimise faculty and research listings
Many HE institutions’ reputations are built upon their faculties and research. Make sure that these are optimised for search engines to maximise the exposure of this critical information. 

6. Integrate the data
There’s usually a large amount of data to present and cross-reference: 

a. Programmes linked to individual courses - cross referenced to faculty and industry projects
b. Research projects cross referenced with 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.

7. Avoid information silos by cross referencing information
HE institutions are built around a collaborative culture. Programmes and courses, faculties, job opportunities, industry, schools, research, etc. will all be linked together into a rich web of relationships that reflect the exciting reality of what actually goes on within an HE.

8. Automate to minimise manual tasks
Chatbots are useful tools to automate most frequent and repetitive queries, especially questions surrounding admissions. This frees up staff to focus on more complex queries. 

9. Personalise to engage
With so much content clamouring for attention, a university website can appear a little overwhelming. Personalisation around audience type or interest can significantly reduce the clutter and drive greater engagement. A prospective student interested in a particular area of study can be presented hub pages with information skewed towards their interest area. 

10. Provide for overseas students
HE 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:

a. Language. Even if you’re 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.
b. Internet access. Your site might load well in your home country, but it’s 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.
c. Culture. While it’s difficult to understand the cultural nuances of the vast world out there, it’s 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 differences, not dissimilar to the differences in English between the US, UK and Australia.
d. Local regulations. Be aware of local regulations such as data protection laws. For example, Indonesian law requires all personal data to be stored in a server residing in the country.

While the above list can sound daunting, considering the factors that are relevant to you will help to deliver an effective website that will serve your institution’s needs for years to come.

Post by

Kuok Ming Lee