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Create Best-in-Class Community Portals with These Award-Winning Tips
Andrew Martin

The Finalsite Double Diamond Awards introduced at Finalsite University this year recognizes the amazing work our school webmasters put into their websites to create compelling content with Finalsite modules and tools. The awards have also served to inspire school professionals to take their websites in new directions, try new ideas, and explore different ways to use the Finalsite platform. 

The sixth entry in our 10-part series recapping the Double Diamond Awards, the Portals Award recognizes schools that used Finalsite’s Portals to create community hubs with content specific to constituent groups, freeing up the website to focus on marketing to prospective families. Featuring a clean design with personalized news, calendars, announcements, and resources for each constituent group, the first-ever winner for the Portals Award was ... Spring Lake Parks Schools!

 

Spring Lake Park Schools (MN)

With regularly updated news curated through the Posts module, convenient links to popular pages, streamlined contact information, a regularly updated calendar that pulls in information from Calendar Manager, and a resources section with links to popular downloads, Spring Lake’s Parents community portal has all the information any parent could ever need all in on place. 

Spring Lake Parks School Parents Portal

“The judges, myself included, were all impressed with how Spring Lake used nearly every feature available within Composer to build this portal,” said Education Sales Consultant Rosie Paxton. “Their design was measured and deliberate with an efficient and visually appealing layout that conveys all the necessary information clearly so everything is easy to find at a quick glance.”

SLP launched the parent portal when they launched their new website with two main goals in mind: 

  1. Transform their homepage and popular landing pages to marketing tools for new visitors and prospective families. 

  2. Ensure that current families know where to go to find all the information they need, such as logins, attendance phone numbers and nutrition services information, according to Coley Fehringer, Spring Lake’s Graphic Design & Communications Specialist. 

“Our team looked at the top visited pages on our old website and intentionally created this simple parent hub, full of resources just for parents,” Coley said. “We've had over 11,000 views on this page since we launched in October [2018] with nearly 6,000 unique visitors.”

Spring Lake Park Schools Parent Hub Resources

The data shows that SLP built a portal that makes it easy for current families to find the information they need without confusion. And since all of this information was now housed on a contained section of the website, Spring Lake was able to convert their website as the invaluable marketing tool every school should have.

“We are so honored to be nominated in two categories and win a Finalsite Double Diamond Award for our use of Portals,” Coley said. “Receiving recognition for a website you worked diligently on and seeing how it helps support our busy families makes the hard work worth while.” 

Spring Lake Park Schools was also nominated for the Bang for the Buck award. 

Portals Best Practice

Designing portals for each constituent group can be a daunting task, and simply copying the design and layout of other pages is rarely the best solution. Instead, we recommend carrying out internal surveys and gathering information from the constituent groups that will be using the portal to learn what information, content, and resources they need the most and (perhaps even more importantly) what information they don’t need. 

“There’s no point in spending the dozen or hundreds of hours building community portals if the community you’re building them for aren’t going to use them,” Rosie said. “Their feedback should be implemented even before design begins on the page or pages to ensure that every aspect of the portal will be used.” 

Coley backed up Rosie based on the process they used to design their award-winning Parents portal.

“Schools interested in building a family portal should start with research and determine what pages families are visiting the most and searching for the most, and use that as a starting point to build a portal based on family's needs and wants,” Coley said. “Then, use Finalsite's tools to create interactive and engaging pages that families will want to come back to!”


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Presbyterian School of Houston (TX)

Presbyterian School of Houston impressed our judges with a beautiful and unique portal design across their various portals that all use a variety of elements that help maintain a clear and organized layout with just enough embellishment and flair to stand out from the crowd. 

Sections of the portal pages are separated by a bold, blue header that naturally break up the page so information flows logically from section to section, aided by simple line breaks. 

Presbyterian School Parent Portal

Presbyterian School feeds the Schoolwide Announcements section of their parent portal through the Posts module so new news and announcements are automatically added to the slideshow. This constant source of news encourages constituents (parents in this case) to keep coming back day after day or week after week because they know that new content is regularly added. It’s a great way to ensure that the portals you built are being used.

By default, the six square buttons that form the Quick Links section of the parent portal page already look fantastic thanks to the stylistic choice of white text over the campus photo. However, hover over each square and an animated blue box pops up with additional information relevant to that tile, along with a link to the corresponding page.  

Presbyterian School Parents Hub Quick Links

The simple pop-up animation adds a nice contrast of style, movement, and interactivity to the otherwise static and simplistic design. Further down the page, our panel of Portals judges loved the use of icon art in the Resources section to create another form of button immediately distinguishable from the buttons used in the Quick Links section. 

Presbyterian School Parents Page Resources icon art

These icon buttons are used across all the portals to create one cohesive aesthetic that unites the portals under the school’s singular style guide. Simple touches like this go a long way in creating brand recognition and a pleasant and easy-to-use browsing experience.  

Portals Best Practice

Consider drawing inspiration from websites outside of the education space. Pay attention to how businesses, non-profits, and media services build their websites or mobile apps to create a more enjoyable browsing experience that engages visitors to keep them on their websites longer and coming back for more.

Rosie recommends paying close attention to how websites guide you through the shopping and purchase process and through hundreds of entertainment options for streaming services with simple navigation menus to funnel you from the homepage to the desired destination with as little difficulty as possible. Online marketplaces want your money, and stream services want to keep you subscribed. Both carefully build their websites to provide a browsing experience that’s as streamlined as possible. 

You can also learn just as much from poorly designed websites. Failure is often the greatest teacher. Figuring out why other websites fail to create an enjoyable browsing experience can be just as instrumental in designing best-in-class websites and navigation menus.

School Administrative Unit 70 (NH/VT)

Not limited to just parent portals, School Administrative Unit 70 (SAU 70) built an efficient and easy-to-use benefits section within their faculty and staff portal through the smart use of accordion elements, tabs, and tables.

School Administrative Unit 70 Benefits Portal

“I absolutely love how organized these portals are,” said Keegan Soncha, Manager of Product Education. “The uses of accordions and tabs are a great way to get a lot of information out to people who need it quickly. This is a great example of how to build a professional-looking district portal, especially considering this district has to display information for multiple states.” 

Benefits pages can often become a dumping ground of information, where new forms, content, and resources are haphazardly added on a regular basis without a long-term design and layout plan, leading to confusing navigation menus and cluttered pages. 

SAU 70 solved that issue with its intricate system of accordions, tabs, and tables that divide the information into smaller, bite-sized pieces that are far easier to digest compared to listing everything out and displaying everything as soon as the page loads. Consider the likely dozens of benefits forms and other resources your faculty and staff need every school year. Tuck those downloads under an accordion so they’re always there when needed but hidden when they’re not.

School Administrative Unit 70 Benefits Portal accordions and tabs

“We took all the information that was repetitive across all of the school sites and human resources and combined it into a single portal for everyone,” said Amy Renaud from Finalsite Implementation and Training for Education Institutions.   

“This district is multi-state so it presents an even bigger challenge for organizing data,” Amy continued. “You can see how the portal acts like a separate site with main navigation at the top to give you the feeling of being fully immersed in the portal environment.”

Portals Best Practice

Condensing tons of information into an easy-to-navigate and aesthetically pleasing portal can be a difficult task for small teams or individual webmasters. But you’re never truly alone when you’re working with Finalsite. Rosie recommends connecting with your project team as early as possible when building portals for support and design tips.

“We have team members here at Finalsite that would love nothing more than to work with you from day one to design and build your portals with our input to form the very foundation of your portals (and website) all the way to the intricate design insights that only you and your project team may ever notice,” Rosie said. “Connecting with us as early and as often as possible leads to school and district portals with cleaner navigation, efficient layouts, and more appealing page designs thanks to the collaborative nature of web design.”

Zurich International School (CH)

Zurich International School (ZIS) took all of the above advice and best practices and crafted a community portal with tab-based organization, automatically updated news pulled from Posts, social media feeds that pulls in authentic content from the school’s various platforms, and an efficient design that displays an absolute ton of information in an easy-to-understand layout.  

Zurich International School Community Portal

“ZIS was groundbreaking in how they set up their community portal leveraging Posts,” said Client Success Manager Meredith Kaplan. “They challenged the product team, got them rethinking how schools would use both in conjunction, and their key feature requests got rolled out.” 

“They were one of the early adopters of Portals and, to this day, schools are calling them each day and revamping their portals accordingly. They push everyone to the portal and have 'banned' email, which is now only allowed for a crucial communication from their team to their families,” Meredith continued.

ZIS keeps a clean and simple navigation top-of-mind (and top of page) with a tab-based navigation menu that allows visitors to quickly cycle through the most important topic for their community: Weekly News, School Services and Links, and tabs for each school division. This approach to navigation means the most important content is always just a click away at the top of the page.

“ZIS is a long-time client that has always taken an innovative and creative approach to their page and portal designs,” Keegan said. “The school gets a lot of bang for the buck with this community portal. Everything is clean and organized, and they use Posts expertly with so many filters to match all of the grade levels and parent interests.” 

Rosie particularly liked the use of social media feeds to consistently pull in new authentic content.

“The portal’s design keeps the page’s energy high while remaining consistent with the design choices of the main website, largely aided by the potentially infinite new authentic content added by our Feeds module,” Rosie said. “Automatically pulling in content from multiple social media platforms eliminates the need to manually update the website. Feeds is invaluable for saving hours of time every work week for smaller website teams or solo webmasters.” 

Key Takeaway

Portals need to convey a lot of key information to some of your most important school constituents. It's easy to overwhelm them with tons of pages and content. Spring Lake Park Schools and the three runners-up all went the extra mile with careful consideration of page design and layout, masterful and deliberate use of numerous Composer modules and tools, and even integrating social media feeds to create spaces that constituents want to use and come back to regularly for the latest news, announcements, and resources. 

We cannot wait to see what schools submit next year for the Portals Award category in our second annual Double Diamond Awards show during Finalsite University 2020 next March in Orlando.


click here to download a free copy of the website redesign playbook


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

As Finalsite’s Product Marketing Specialist, Andrew writes blogs and creates videos to share information about all the latest and greatest Finalsite products. Andrew has more than 10 years of video production experience and a journalism degree from the University of South Carolina. He has an incredible passion for movies, television, reading, and writing fantasy and science-fiction. 

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