Photo of a fan mounted on a pole. It's outside on a patio with string lights crossing the pavilion.
← All Articles

Higher ed web design's low-hanging fruit

Joel G Goodman
/ 3 min read

Working on university websites and digital strategy day-in and day-out, I sometimes forget that the common things we address may not seem very common. Web marketing can be super-complex and challenging, but there are simple things any institution can do to improve their website immediately. Today I’ll share some of that not-so-secret sauce.

1. Make essential content easy to find

When Bravery does web work for an institution, we usually start with a competitor audit. During a recent audit we saw a grouping of competitor schools that all made the same big mistake. The homepages of these websites were designed to brag about things very few prospective students would care about rather than lead those prospects to the information they need. No one cares enough about your institutional news that you need four different sections devoted to news stories on your homepage.

How about another example? In a recent RFP we were working through, a third-party agency made a strategy recommendation to “tell more student stories” on the university website. They were right. This particular school does need to represent their students more, but this recommendation went on to suggest telling stories and selling the institution were mutually exclusive endeavors.

What good are stories if they don’t lead to the content and actions your prospective students expect to find?

I know, I know. Content strategy has been the big buzzword in this industry for the past seven years. However, no content strategist I know will tell you storytelling comes at the expense of providing your website visitors the information they need. Institutions saying they need to tell more stories is a cop-out. Rather than provide content design training for staff or hire a professional content designer, they think writing more student stories will fix everything.

Prospective students want:

  • to see your program offerings as quickly as possible
  • to understand your website’s organization immediately

So #protip number one is to design your site from your target audience’s perspective and not your academic dean’s. Organize your pages and content in a manner that an outsider can understand. Part of that is giving direct paths to things like program information. And if you have more than ten programs, please don’t put them in a bulleted list or card interface. Find a way to make that content easier to understand.

2. Make your website’s content inclusive and accessible

Accessibility is something many industries ignored for years, and higher ed has been paying the price for that negligence. An inclusive approach to content design shows respect for every person who lands on your site, not just those with disabilities or difficulties.

And guess what. PDFs are not inclusive or accessible. They’re not responsive for phones, they’re difficult for screen readers to voice, and they have lots of SEO implications.

Prospective students want:

  • to interact with your content in web-native formats

#protip number two is to make all of your PDFs web content.

3. Get rid of black holes

Website black holes take on several different forms. Sure, 404 errors and dead links are a significant issue that needs fixing, but even more than that are content dead-ends. Think about all of those news stories and audience gateway pages you have. Or all of that content meant for your current students, faculty, and staff. What happens when a prospective student lands on one of those pages?

Every page should provide a next step, but so many don’t. If you have a news story about an engineering professor, link to the programs they teach! Your “Current Students” landing page can provide an exit for a prospect who accidentally landed there by calling out a path back to programs or finance information.

Be creative.

Prospective students don’t want:

  • to get lost in your website
  • to feel abandoned by your content and navigation