We recommend that a district redesign its website every three to five years. While that sounds rather frequent, there is a lot that can change in that time frame. Think about responsive design, WCAG 2.0, and GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation). In addition to large standards that drive the industry to move in a particular direction, there are plenty of design trends that emerge that can quickly make the website seem outdated. (And with just under seven seconds to make a first impression, an outdated design is the last thing you want!)
Whether you’re looking to redesign your website this year, or simply looking to make some modifications to improve the user experience, here is a roundup of the ten best district website design tips for 2019.
1. Follow WCAG 2.1 Guidelines
You had to know that accessibility was going to make it to the very top of our list, especially with the recent tidal wave of OCR investigations. However, it is important to note that WCAG 2.1 guidelines don’t just ensure your website is accessible to all, following them can actually improve your design. Certain standards, such as a responsive website, color contrast, larger fonts, and following on-page information architecture, can greatly improve your website’s design.
2. Have a “Schools” Dropdown to Simplify Navigation
While some families (many prospective families, in particular) will be interested in district-wide news, events, and information, the majority of your current families will want to quickly access individual school information. Having a “Select a School” dropdown that is separate from your navigation can help parents navigate quickly.
A “Select a School” dropdown works well for small and large districts. For example, Jackson County Public Schools in North Carolina, a moderately-sized district with eight schools, uses a bold and colorful school selector to point families in the right direction.
On the other hand, Davis School District in Utah, which has more than 80 schools, uses a simpler menu with a toggle that allows website visitors to search by type of school. The schools are then listed alphabetically.
If your district has many schools like Davis School District, you will likely find that creating a menu that expands horizontally, rather than vertically, simplifies the user experience, since long lists can easily run off the screen.
3. Invest in Clean, Crisp Images
Looking for an affordable way to take your district’s website up a notch? Invest in better photography. Clean, crisp images can immediately improve your website’s aesthetic, and blurry, dark images can immediately deter visitors. You can purchase a good camera to keep in your communications office (I recommend this one!), hire a professional, or find a volunteer within the community who loves photography and is willing to come to your school, events, etc.
For example, Tupelo Public Schools in Mississippi is fortunate enough to have a staff member who loves photography — and takes a lot of amazing photos to share on the website! While the district purchased one of Finalsite’s Theme Designs (our most affordable design package), the quality of images certainly makes the website feel Best-in-Class!
4. Offer an Excellent Search Experience
Thanks to Google, today’s Internet users prefer to use a search bar to find what they’re looking for, rather than peruse your navigation. More districts are putting their search bar front-and-center, or making it easier to find.
For example, click on the “Find it Fast” button on Lake Washington School District’s homepage, to reveal a large search bar, as well as the website’s top hit pages.
The district also places a large search bar at the bottom of the homepage, just in case visitors missed it the first time around.
Keep in mind that if your website’s search engine is powered by Google, it will serve up ads before it serves up your content, which can be a very confusing user experience for your website visitors. At Finalsite, our site search is powered by Agolia, which means it is ad-free, faster, and more powerful than Google.
5. Integrate Social Media Into Your Homepage
Many districts rely on social media to keep their community up-to-date on a daily basis — and in most cases, are updating their social media more frequently than their website; why not integrate social media feeds into your homepage?
Depending on the functionality of your website provider, you may have to integrate feeds individual with little to no styling. While this “does the trick,” creating a social media mash-up that integrates all your feeds into one, and matches your design, is a much more elegant approach.
Ellington Public Schools still has our favorite example of a social media mash-up, that is updated by the districts teachers and staff daily. (Their social media mash-up is powered by Finalsite Feeds.)
6. Make Calendars and News Prominent
Upcoming events and recent news are one of the top reasons families are visiting your main district website, and your individual school websites, so make sure they are easy to find. Additionally, keep their location consistent across your district homepage and individual school pages so that families know exactly where they need to go to find the information they are looking for.
For example, Wilton Public Schools in Connecticut nestles their news and calendar events on top of one another on their homepage. And if you visit any of their individual school pages, you’ll find them in the same layout and location, each filtered with events and news relevant to the individual school.
There are many ways that you can design your calendars and news to work together to inform your community, and we recommend working with your website provider and designer on creating the combination that works for you!
7. Streamline Your Navigation Across District and School Websites
Often, districts feel as though each school in the district should be allowed to customize their navigation. However, allowing such customization can be confusing to website visitors. It is best to keep the navigation as similar as possible from school to school.
8. Add School Branding to Their Individual Websites
This is a big one if you are redesigning this year! Many district websites often maintain their district’s logo, colors, and branding across all individual school websites. While this does help maintain the brand of your district, each school has its own colors and logo associated, which should be highlighted. This helps drive visual clarity for parents who have children in multiple schools and are referencing multiple sites in a single visit.
For example, Sun Prairie Area Schools has fourteen schools in its district, each of whom has their own individual site with their own branding. While the design and navigation remain the same, the colors, logos, and photos change from site to site.
9. Use as Few PDFs as Possible
PDFs are inaccessible and not mobile-friendly — which means having them on your website creates a negative user experience for a large group of website visitors. Limit the number of PDFs on your website to those that are absolutely necessary.
There are many PDFs on your website that could be turned into accessible website content, including:
- District and school calendars
- Permission slips
- Volunteer forms
- Payment forms
- Any document that is plain text
- Student handbooks
10. Limit Your Number of Calls-to-Action and/or Quicklinks
Both calls-to-action and quick links are meant to direct your website visitors to a series of top hit pages they care about — which means both lists should be limited in number. There is nothing “quick” about navigating through a list of 20+ pages, nor is there anything visually appealing about a dozen calls-to-action. It is cluttered and confusing.
Keep your quick links list to 10 or less, and your calls-to-action to about six. For example, one of Finalsite’s most popular Theme Designs uses six calls-to-action on the homepage, directly below the hero image. These calls-to-action can easily be updated by the school whenever they choose. Additionally, their quick links menu is short.
If you are due for a website redesign, keep these ten design tips in mind as you build your next site. If you’re not due for a redesign, reach out to your website provider to see how you can integrate these design tips into your current website. And, if you want advice on your website’s current design, schedule a free website audit to meet with one of our website experts.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
As Finalsite's Content Marketing Manager, Mia shares innovative and helpful content that helps schools and districts create captivating online experiences that increase brand awareness, student and faculty retention, and school-to-home communications. With more than five years experience in the industry, Mia has written more than 200 articles, eBooks, and reports about best practices for schools on a variety of topics from social media to web design. As a former TV and news reporter, and wedding photographer, Mia specializes in sharing how to use storytelling to power your school's admissions funnel. When she isn't busy creating content or hosting her #LIKEABOSS Podcast for FinalsiteFM, you can find her hiking with her Boston terrier, running an army wives meeting at Fort Campbell, or enjoying a well-deserved savasana on her yoga mat.