Oftentimes, schools and school districts let one department or the other control the redesign process, and either the director of communication or technology is left feeling like they didn't get what they wanted.
So, like Sonny and Cher or Paul McCartney and John Lennon, your school district's redesign process needs a collaborative dream team – and, by the looks of it, you won't have to look too far. Your future partner could be just down the hall.
Mt. Lebanon School District brought together Chris Stengel, Director of Technology and Cissy Bowman, Director of Communications, to form an unstoppable duo, creating the most clean, un-cluttered site the district has ever had.
Want to unite your communication and IT departments at your school or district to launch an awesome website the entire community loves? Here's how:
5 Tips for a Successful Public School District Website Redesign
Establish a Partnership from the Beginning
For MTLSD, the relationship between communications and technology goes back 15 years. "Chris and I have always worked together in the development of technology where it relates to students and parents," said Cissy.
So of course, when it came to launching a new website for the first time in nearly a decade, that partnership became critical to making some web design magic happen.
Working together through the very beginning stages of the redesign process builds trust, respect, and loyalty that becomes imperative as the site gets closer to going live. At this stage, you are searching for ideas, and either of you could help each other spark inspiration.
"Chris and I went on a search and interviewed quite a few vendors," said Cissy. "Once we selected Finalsite, we became partners in development, design, testing, and training. We really hunkered down and got everything migrated with a little bit of help for our launch in January."
The school's website provides a strong user experience on both ends, and Cissy attributes this to the close-knit relationship between the two departments.
"We're strong on technology and communication," she said. "Ours is a creative collaboration that enhances any project we work on together."
The beauty of working side-by-side with either a Communications Director or a Technology Director is that your minds work differently – in a good way. It creates a balanced, level-headed process in deciding on what you want your site look like and what story you'd like it to tell on the front end, as well as how you want the platform and data to work on the backend.
Establish District-Wide Roles and Standards
With ten school websites and a main district site to maintain, Chris and Cissy wanted to establish a sense of ownership, organization and branding — so finding a platform that allowed this was essential.
"I wanted a CMS where multiple people could easily contribute," she said. "The principal really has to take ownership of their own website, so they were trained in how to edit it. To get them started, we shared the tools and the information on how to access it."
For a principal to have ownership was an important shift for the district. Not only can they edit their school's page, but they need to think about how it can be organized. The assistant superintendents for elementary and secondary education were key in helping this get that organized, and making sure that all webmasters knew the expectations that needed to be set for the district.
Chris and Cissy advised the principals to think about first impressions.
"We encouraged them to think about the kind of information they want to share," she said. "Your website is the front porch to your school — the first thing parents and prospective parents see."
Chris and Cissy have been "assertive" in the upkeep of their site as well. "The old view of web design is just 'put it on the homepage,' but we want to follow the 'new view' of organizing content," said Cissy. "So, if something is on the homepage that shouldn't be, we tell them." This includes GIF images, stock photos, clipart, and non-branded fonts and colors, to name a few.
Design for the end-user
"Our original audience was our parents and students, and we broadened it out to the community and the public at large," said Cissy.
The ultimate goal of your redesign is to revamp the experience —positively impacting your school's reputation and brand for prospective and current families.
A big piece of this is obviously design and user interface. "What impressed us about Finalsite was the design," said Cissy. "When we looked at other vendors, the sites looked so cluttered and cookie cutter. They weren't pleasing to the eye or modern looking."
According to Cissy, technology is a tool that is meant to be used for communication, and when used correctly, pays huge dividends for both front-end and back-end users.
"You need to understand the end user and ease of use. If you don't have the end user in mind, you build something for a tech department. Our goal has always been to build for the end-user and to reflect the brand, tell our story, and make the information easily accessible."
The End-Result: An Awesome Website
The district was named a 2016 Top Digital School District from The Center for Digital Education and the National School Boards Association for the third year in a row, and their website is one of the things that was highlighted in the application.
Prior to the redesign, the district's site didn't represent the caliber of the district. "We had lost control of the school websites," said Cissy. "There was a lot of clutter and you couldn't easily find information. This time, we wanted to build a website where the architecture made sense, and content was streamlined."
While "streamlining" meant deleting old, unnecessary content, it also meant re-organizing content to make it easier for families to locate. The district uses Portals for the Food Services Department and the School Board to make information easy-to-find, without cluttering the homepage — because the homepage is for news and storytelling.
"We wanted to have a lot of images on our website, tell our story, and to enable our schools to start telling stories...not just posting event dates," said Cissy.
"All of our schools have great things going on in their classrooms and now they can easily share these stories on their homepage."
The district takes pride in their functional navigation and beautiful responsive design. "The product looks great and is easy to navigate," said Cissy.
"We've received so many compliments on the design and a lot of great feedback — meaning we achieved our goal."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
As Finalsite's Content Marketing Manager, Mia plans and executes a variety of inbound marketing and digital content strategies. As a former TV and news reporter, freelance cinematographer and certified inbound marketer, Mia specializes in helping schools find new ways to share their stories online through web design, social media, copywriting, photography and videography. She is the author of numerous blogs, and Finalsite's popular eBook, The Website Redesign Playbook.