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Design research? In higher ed? Yeah, you should be doing that.

Joel G Goodman
/ 7 min read

Let’s start with the obvious. Redesigning a university website, or any website for that matter is a complicated process with many moving parts. When this one little area of the web is responsible for driving the majority of your institution’s business, it’s also no wonder dozens of voices feel the need to be involved. Your website’s got to be done right, and we’ve all got a bit of micromanager in us.

Where I’ve seen many organizations go wrong, though, is where they start. We’ve all heard the familiar refrain, “Goals before tools,” but how do we formulate attainable goals? In many institutions, goals are dreamt up by an eager president or chancellor. Maybe a vice president or director-level staff member throws in their two cents. But here’s a little secret:

Organizations that are thriving do lots of research before they do anything else.

If you’ve ever looked at hiring a consultant to help with … well, anything really… you’ve no doubt been presented with a proposal that includes a “discovery” phase of work. That’s marketing-speak for research. Consultants know research is the first step, but have you ever wondered why that’s the case?

Recently, I ran into questions surrounding the why of our research phases. So consider this a handy primer that you can reference whenever a higher-up questions the value of research.

Why would we do research before a redesign and not after?

This is a good question. Successful web redesign projects start and end with research. Specifically, research into who your users are and how they interact with both your site and your competitors’ websites. The more knowledge you have of the real people who interact with your website, the sharper the edge you have over your competition. In fact, I’d go so far as to say the only more significant advantage you can have is having more cash allocated to digital marketing.

But let’s try looking at a similar case to try and clarify this a bit more.

Redesigning a website is a lot like launching a new academic program. The programs that thrive are the ones taking into account every market reality that exists around it. I’ve never known an academic dean to skip research on whether or not a program will work.

And why is that? Well, starting up a new program is expensive. If they want a new program to be successful, the dean needs to mitigate whatever risk may be there. And so they start with some basic market research, asking questions like:

  • What is missing in our sphere of influence?
  • How much interest exists for this specific area of study?
  • Are there jobs in the market for students that graduate with this degree?
  • Where are our students? What are their day-to-day realities? What format would benefit (and attract) them the most?

That’s just a start, but the same applies to a web redesign. The institutions that see little to no result from a web project do so because they don’t start with data-driven, business-centric goals. Data should always come first. So it’s more like goals before tools, but data before goals. Or at least data alongside goals.

Goals before tools, but data before goals.

If you redesign and then research, you will end up either doubling work (which is expensive) or sitting on a redesigned website that doesn’t reach its potential. Even more horrifying, your new site could perform worse than your current site does. And fixing that is even more expensive.

Furthermore, research at the beginning isn’t good enough. The other trope consistently heard in higher ed, is the one that goes, “your website is never finished.” I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. The difference in my understanding, however, comes in knowing that changing content or layouts or designs for the sake of it can be detrimental if there is no research behind it.

Working with National University on their web redesign in 2018 was a joy in part because their team understood the value of usage data. Bravery designed three or four different interfaces for some of the more significant features on their new site with the intent of each being tested and the best winning out.

To wit, our research indicated that their web visitors were mostly looking for program information. So as we built more direct paths to program info, we tested what worked the best. Utilizing multivariate (also known as A/B) testing, we discovered that something as simple as moving a left-aligned search field in the homepage hero area to a center-aligned position increased conversion rates by several percentage points.

Today, NU is still running tests. For new ideas, they research, make assumptions, set goals, and then test those assumptions to discover if they’ll meet those goals.

What’s my point here? Your web project should start, end, and exist based on research. Insights and gut reactions are only made better when you can prove or disprove their validity either way.

Institutions that are increasing their enrollment start with research, and make decisions based on data — whether they’re planning for their websites, academic programming, or campaigns. And digital agencies, whether Bravery Media, mStoner, OHO, or anyone else, start in the same way.

Speaking of which, Bravery can help you setup a strategy, or train your staff on how to conduct this research. We’d love to help. Please get in touch.

If you’re looking at our current website as a reference, how will that be beneficial in a redesign?

I can see how it could seem counterintuitive to look at something you don’t like while planning to completely wipe it away. That’s a natural mode of thinking: this is bad, so it must be all bad (and worthless). But the reality is that even if you hate your current website, there are underlying data to take away and learn from.

Let’s pose a hypothetical. Suppose you were starting a brand new university and designing its first website. What would you do?

Assuming you’ve hired an agency to help figure this thing out, the agency’s strategists would look at your overarching research for why you opened where you did, who you’re targeting your programs to, and what advantages you have in messaging compared to those institutions you’ll be competing against. Then, they’ll start looking at your competitors’ sites to determine where your opportunities to pull ahead lie.

You’re at somewhat of a disadvantage because you don’t know who your web users are yet. You have to make some educated guesses (based on research) to do this right. You won’t get those institutions’ analytics data, so you’ll have to rely on more general information to help guide things. If the agency you’re working with does it right, they’ll start with market research.

Now, most universities have been around for a while, and they have had a website since at least the late-1990s. Any data you can glean from the people that interact with your website is valuable information. Seeing that someone drops off of your request for information (RFI) form at a specific field can be enlightening. Noticing that a minimal number of users apply or RFI from your program pages can lead you down effective optimization paths. And understanding that the eight news stories on your homepage and the giving link in your header only get clicked by people inside your network can teach you a lot about what’s valuable.

If you can start somewhere, with any data, you should. That’s a valuable thing to have. To put it another way, the design of that website that you hate makes assumptions about its visitors’ behavior, emotions, and needs. The responses to those assumptions have more value to a redesign than you may think.

Can’t we do this work in-house?

Of course, you can… maybe. Institutions hire agencies for a lot of reasons. Sometimes it’s because they don’t have the bandwidth internally to accomplish whatever project is deemed crucial by leadership. Other times it’s because their internal expertise has some knowledge gaps. And usually, it’s a combination of that plus speed-to-market, though it’s rarely described that way.

If you want to do a major project in-house, ask yourself some questions. What other projects are important and need to be maintained during a redesign? Do we have the staff to handle everything? Do they have the expertise to handle a redesign? Do we pay them enough to burn them out on a big project alongside their other work?

Higher ed goes through cycles. When I left Trinity International University, we were coming out of recession, and universities were flattening out. Mark Greenfield started talking about this in 2008, and his predictions came true. Today, in 2019, the US is flirting with recession again. As a result, universities are starting to verticalize once more. However, with salaries that rarely compete with what the mainstream job market offers, a lot of times, institutions fill positions with rough talent, rather than seasoned professionals. That’s admirable, but it rarely results in the sort of new hires that can hit the ground running and immediately make significant changes.

So, maybe you can do the work in-house. But Bravery is staffed with professionals that do strategy work every day. We do it quickly, and our recommendations produce results. We have over 60 years of combined experience doing this specific type of work. Very few institutions in the country have that kind of experience on staff.

Our strategy work helps web teams make better decisions, focusing on the reality of what’s happening outside the university bubble. If you’re confident that your staff has the expertise and bandwidth to research and make decisions that are disengaged from the myriad voices inside the university that think they know what’s best, excellent. You should maybe do the work in-house. But it’ll still take longer than if Bravery does it.

Want to work with the best? Send us an email. I’m positive Bravery Media can help you improve your university’s web results.

There are a lot of acronyms used… why do they matter?

UX Design — User experience (UX) is everything on the web. From Section 508 accessibility adherence to removing friction from a user’s interaction with your web content, most institutions have a lot of areas where they could improve their UX model. UX design should drive your visual design and not vice-versa. By getting UX right, you increase the chances of your website actually making a difference to your institution’s business.

And it’s not just about aesthetics. User experience encompasses many aspects of content strategy and includes things like information architecture (IA), content design, conversion rate optimization (CRO), inclusivity, and design research. These are the building blocks for your web strategy.

CRO — This acronym stands for conversion rate optimization, and it’s perhaps the most important metric you can track on your website. The more conversions you have, the more qualified engagement you’re seeing, and the better your chances for turning someone interested in your school into someone that’s a part of your community.

Conversions can happen organically, but without strategic thought, they’ll never reach their full potential. CRO is the practice of creating the perfect conditions for conversions to happen. With National University, we increased their conversion rates by 128% year over year by optimizing their pages. That’s 128% more opportunity to create a student or donor and a 5700x return on their investment.

IA — Information Architecture (IA) is a research-driven methodology of organizing your pages and content. This is what drives navigation and is one of the most straightforward ways to improve conversion rate and engagement. When Bravery works with new university clients, we still often see websites that are organized according to internal administrative org charts.

The thing is, no one outside the university knows or cares about how your offices are arranged. They expect to find content and pages where they assume they’ll be. Usability research and techniques like card sorting, treejacking, and observation studies with external users help reveal how regular people interacting with your website think and where they expect things to be.

Want guidance in setting up your research practice?

We’d love to have a conversation with you about how to do better research, where you might need a few extra hands, and how Bravery can help you. Get in touch below or message us on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.

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