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Is Your District Making These Common Website Navigation Mistakes?
Mia Major

Crafting a website navigation that promises your district’s website visitors a simple user experience is likely the most complicated part of the website design process. You need to fully understand where your stakeholders want to go, and what the best route to get them there is. Its strategic, and requires accuracy and a keen attention to detail. Just imagine the process of verbally giving someone directions to your favorite restaurant. One mistake of a “left” over a “right” can mean they end up far away from enjoying those delicious street tacos you promised.

The pressure is on.

To ensure your website visitors get a website navigation experience that seamlessly gets them from point A to point B, avoid making these following seven website navigation mistakes:

  1. You’re Trying to Imitate a Site Navigation form a Small Business, School, or University.
  2. Your Second and Third-Level Navigation is Out of Control
  3. You Love Linking PDFs Within Your Navigation
  4. You’re Migrating the Navigation from Your Old Website
  5. There are Inconsistent Experiences between District and School Sites
  6. You Wanted Something That Wasn't "Cookie Cutter"
  7. You Didn't Trust Your Deployment Team

Now, let's dive into one of these in just a bit more detail.

Mistake #1: You’re Trying to Imitate a Site Navigation from a Small Business, School, or University

We often encourage our clients to look beyond district websites for inspiration for the web designs, but never for navigation. Navigation is an area where creativity can hurt you, rather than help you. If your district is looking to emulate the navigation of a small university or even a small business, you’ll end up hitting numerous roadblocks along the way — making the redesign process more difficult for you. And then on the flipside, if your website users come across a user experience they don’t expect, they’re going to have a difficult time finding the information you want them to find.

For navigation inspiration, we encourage districts to look at the user experiences of districts similar to theirs in size to get an understanding of how they organize their navigation to provide access to individual schools, district information, and top-hit pages like calendars, staff directories, news and lunch menus.

For example, if you’re a large district with a ton of information to share, you might be inspired by Davis School District in Utah, who has found a way to simplify the navigation experience for more than 100,000 stakeholders across 92 schools.

davis school district navigation example

Their navigation keeps it simple, with six main sections: District, Academics, School Board, Departments, Parents & Family, and Employees. There is also a “Select a School” dropdown located above the navigation, that makes it easy to access any of the 92 school sites in as little as one click.

Conversely, if you’re a small district, you might be inspired by Jackson County Public Schools, who only have four main navigation elements: About, Departments, Academics and Arts. The navigation also features a utility navigation where key stakeholders can access relevant information to them, and access individual schools in one click.

jackson county public schools navigation

Mistake #2: Your Second and Third-Level Navigation is Out of Control

In web design, there is a two-click rule most good websites follow: the user should be able to find exactly what they’re looking for in two-clicks or less. Often, districts (and private schools!) overthink this concept and desire to make everything available in one click, which results in a navigation experience with too many choices.

If your second-tier navigation (the navigation that appears when you hover on a main navigation element like “About”) has more than twenty pages, you may want to consider how you can cut back, consolidate, and restructure. 

For example, Lake Washington School District’s second-tier navigation often has twenty choices. However, by alphabetizing the options and evenly splitting them into two columns, the list is less overwhelming and content is easy-to-find.

LWSD navigation example

And of course, another way to cut back on the number of links is to consolidate multiple short pages into one during the content migration process.

How does your district's navigation stack up? Request a free website audit to find out!




Mistake #3: You Love Linking PDFs Within Your Navigation

You might think that your constituents want access to this month’s lunch menu or calendar in just one click (and they probably do!), but they don’t want it in the form of a PDF. For years, PDFs have been a crutch for districts as a simple, familiar and affordable way to get information out fast. However, linking to PDFs directly from your navigation creates a poor user experience for two main reasons (and should be avoided at all costs).

First, PDFs are not responsive. This means the fifty-percent (or more) of website traffic that comes from mobile devices to your district’s site will be sent to a document they can’t easily view on their device. Because website visitors expect to get taken to a page, and not a PDF, they may be upset with the user experience and leave your website completely.

Second, PDFs are not automatically ADA-compliant, which means that you’re directly guiding individuals to inaccessible content without giving them a different option.

In all cases, you should link to a page on your website that contains the PDF for downloading. For example, on Minnetonka Public School’s website, when you click “Calendars” you are brought to a page with a responsive, accessible calendar, with calls-to-action to download the PDF version of the calendar.

minntetonka public schools calendar example

Mistake #4: You’re Migrating the Navigation from Your Old Website

During the website redesign process, we encourage districts to take the opportunity to re-evaluate the current structure of their site and make any necessary changes to simplify the user experience. Many districts — especially if they’ve had their website for three or more years — often end up with a navigation that is confusing and disorganized due to a history of saying “yes” to a variety of stakeholders when a request came through to add content to the navigation. For this very reason, it is often a bad practice to fully migrate your old website navigation to your new website. If stakeholders complained information was hard to find, you need to work with your website team to make it easier to find.

Mistake #5: There are Inconsistent Experiences between District and School Sites

Probably one of the biggest mistakes a district can make is to allow each individual school to create their own navigation. This leads to an inconsistent and confusing user experience, especially for parents with children at multiple schools.

For an example of navigation done well, Garland Independent School District in Texas has streamlined the navigation experience across 72 schools. When you compare the navigation of an elementary school to a middle school, you’ll notice the only difference is the addition of an “Athletics” top tier navigation on the middle school. Everything else remains the same.

GISD navigation example 1
GISD navigation example 2

In order to achieve this, you need to determine what are the six to seven key pages that every school in your district should provide information on. As always, keep it simple.

Mistake #6: You Wanted Something that Wasn’t “Cookie Cutter”

“Cookie cutter” is a term that gets tossed around quite a bit in the world of web design, as schools and districts alike agree “we want something that is different.” However, a website navigation is not the place to get creative.

Imagine being given a map in a foreign language, or having your GPS sing your directions instead of reading them. While a singing GPS might seem creative, after one or two trips, you might be ready to throw it out the window.

Stick to basic navigation structure, and let your designer find ways to make your website anything but cookie-cutter.

Mistake #7: You Didn’t Trust Your Deployment Team

When you redesign your website with an external website vendor (like Finalsite) you’ll likely be partnered up with a deployment team to help you execute your redesign. At Finalsite, our team members cumulatively have 400 years of web design experience, and roll out over 300 new websites each year. So, it’s safe to say, they know their stuff. I encourage you to trust the advice from your deployment team.

Key Takeaway

Your district’s website navigation will control whether or not your website visitors have a good user experience, and avoiding these seven mistakes will surely mean you and your website visitors will get off on the right foot. If you’re interested in reading some additional best practices on improving your district’s navigation, check out these two blog posts written by our award-winning senior designers, Kelly Wilson and Julianne Hamilton:

click here to download a free ebook titled, "The website redesign playbook: public school edition"


Mia Major

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.

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