April 13, 2012

Your .edu Website is Too Complicated

In March 2012, I spent five minutes on what turned out to be my most popular #highered blog post ever. The article titled, “The ultimate, ultra-simple, real, authentic, University website homepage wireframe concept” was an idea that I had a few years ago. (I even tweeted it in 2009.)

Obviously, the wireframe is a humorous illustration that I strongly believe still holds true. The wireframe in that article may seem oversimplified, but when you think about it, this is what all higher education homepages are trying to accomplish.

Why are .edus getting so complicated?

Psychologist Barry Schwartz in a Ted Talk said “…if everything is possible, you don’t have freedom, you have paralysis. You decrease satisfaction and increase paralysis. Everybody needs a fishbowl. The absence of a metaphorical fishbowl is a recipe for misery and disaster.” View Ted Talk: Barry Schwartz on the paradox of choice.

University websites try so hard to be everything for everyone. Not wanting to make anyone unhappy (especially internal stakeholders) with a site makes it unfortunately more complicated. Many times, it seems that the only strategy is NBNW — new boss, new website. And, the temptation to out-design and out-build your old (or current) site leads to muddied strategy guided by an uninformed belief that users want more, and more, and more piles of content, choices, and technology tricks. As a result, I have observed a resurgence of quick links, huge sliding feature blocks, link farms, and a new trend of super-scrolling webpages. Ironically, these methods are intended by web teams to help the user get what they want quickly and with minor interaction, but in reality they may lead to increased user dissatisfaction.

Common .edu Complications
  • Overuse of news headlines and event listings on homepage
  • Direct links to external and internal resources without staging or explanation (social media, portals, etc..)
  • Huge scrolling pages with nested navigation
  • Large left-right scrolling feature blocks
  • Hover menus, fly-outs, and mega menus
  • Student, faculty, staff profiles lack keywords or descriptions
  • Missing high-value trigger words such as “apply, give, visit, contact”
  • Vaguely branded resources and clever marketing-language naming instead of simple action-oriented labeling
Opinion Based on Research

During my career, I have been responsible for managing, guiding, and building websites and digital properties for major universities. I take these responsibilities very seriously. Most likely, anyone with whom I have worked will tell you that I am passionate about studying the effectiveness of a team’s work and the return on investment to an organization. I believe healthy strategies don’t come from gut feelings.

For example, during my most recent tenure as the executive director of digital communications marketing, our small (and brand new) department faced a tremendous amount of pressure. Our goals were to design a new homepage, establish a new reputation for the university’s digital presence, and define the measurement of success for digital marketing. To achieve these goals, we had to support our strategies and execution with real research and findings.

The resulting new website actually had significantly fewer links than its predecessor. It featured well-placed and brand new navigation and provided the user with fewer choices. Our primary goal was to inform users of their options in a minimum number of options, lead them down a clear path, and reward them with valuable content and links to sub-sites. We created landing pages for high-value content areas, such as admissions, academics, and about — sections of content that previously did not exist. Before our changes, there were direct links to dozens of sub-sites that were managed by other departments, and virtually no priming of the audience as to why they should proceed to them.

Complexity is an Old Habit

We gave every sub-site office (admissions, athletics, colleges and schools, etc…) the opportunity to preview the new website. Not surprisingly, each and every one demanded that their “quick link” from the homepage be preserved or replaced on the new site. But they made these requests without explanation or strategy. The reason for their requests was that this was simply how it always had been.

However, my research showed that administrators’ demand for direct links did not support the University’s overall communication strategy. For example, I learned that there was a significant tradition of athletic accomplishment and commitment to the student-athlete at the university. This was a story and message told to me by numerous administrators, staff, faculty, and students. However, at that time, the university’s homepage simply linked directly to the athletics website — a site that jumped right into sports scores and schedules.

I asked, if this commitment to athletics is true, and you all feel and believe it, then why aren’t we telling anyone? So, we created a new landing page, linked between the homepage and athletics sub-site, to tell a story about the university’s dedication to the student-athlete tradition and its significance to the organization. We preserved easy access to sports scores and other information by creating well-placed links.

We used the same landing page strategy for admissions, academics, and all other major content categories. We removed the bloat of direct sub-site links from the homepage and created brand new content and information architecture for the site. We removed layers, consolidated content, and put together a fast-loading, logical, informative, and engaging website. We built the foundations of click-throughs to be stronger and flexible enough to ensure future growth.

I cannot list the many ways our team streamlined and improved the site in terms of content and click-through paths. It would take too long. However, web analytics proved that users navigated our site using the click-throughs paths we suggested through strategic use of design elements.

How did we know our design worked? We used event tracking to test and evaluate every pixel on the homepage and landing pages and monitored traffic on all levels. Our daily monitoring of the site showed that users accessed landing pages, which before received little traffic, at higher numbers than ever before. However, despite the visible improvement, a few key content owners could not move beyond their gut feeling that it would be better for their areas to have a direct link to their sub-site in a massive hover-menu from the homepage. They thought we had screwed up the project and they also believed that web analytics for their specific sites proved them right.

Less Clutter, Better Informed and Motivated Audience

Indeed, some sub-sites did show fewer total visitors to their sites after the homepage redesign — a potentially damning consequence of our new strategy. But, after carefully studying this phenomenon over time, we learned that the new homepage was actually sending more highly-qualified, informed, and primed visitors to sub-sites. Before the new strategy, the homepage would dump “garbage” traffic on sub-sites (for example, sending prospective graduate students to the undergraduate admission site).

After we created well-placed landing pages full of informative content, KPIs (or key performance indicators) on the sub-sites actually improved, some overwhelmingly. We had some evidence that by minimizing the choices on the homepage, keeping it simple, and educating the user along their path, that we were increasing the real and perceived value of the website.

Yet, despite this evidence, some sub-site owners still had a gut feeling that users were dissatisfied with the new, less chaotic, and less complicated approach. They even provided anecdotal evidence citing a few users’ personal opinions. So, we commissioned a detailed third-party research study with a reputable national firm to gauge users’ satisfaction of the new site. The results of the study clearly concluded that visitors to the .edu domain who first visited the homepage and resulting landing page were more satisfied with their overall experience compared to directly visiting a sub-site. We had evidence that users preferred simple, minimal choices supported by high-value content. They did not mind, at all, clicking to landing pages first, preferred not to scroll too much, and actually felt better about the organization after their visit.

Strike a Balance

Success means keeping the choices on a homepage few and strategic, educating and informing the user as they choose, and resisting the temptation to over-build a page. The creative opportunity is to follow these fundamentals while also presenting a beautiful, engaging, and realistic design that enhances the experience — not overpowers it with choice. Quick access to content is obviously important but worthless if the experience does not simultaneously satisfy the user’s expectations.

A university homepage is not a warehouse of content and options. The website is a stage. Enable your digital marketing team to set a stage by “carefully and strategically selecting, designing, adapting, or modifying” your content to establish the significance of your organization. Encourage exploration and retention by heightening the user experience while not overwhelming with choice.