Over the years, I have worked with hundreds of school communicators and administrators in strengthening their school district's online presence. I love those moments when clients realize that a school website is fundamental to the strength of their school district's brand.
In nearly every conversation, I advise clients to establish a friendly and welcoming website that provides value to those who use it. A website that is less like a digital repository and more like a digital home, ready to give a best-in-class user experience for thousands of unique visitors annually.
Niche’s 2021 PK-12 Education Website Benchmarks report puts school districts as having over 1.4 million annual sessions on average. Based on this data, it’s almost certain that more users visit your school website each year than walk into your school’s welcome center or front office.
Because of the reliance on a school website for information sharing and marketing efforts, carefully planning the user experience is fundamental to your efforts in effectively branding your school district.
What makes a robust website and digital presence?
At the core, a solid digital presence results from a school district being intentional about its website's user experience and visual makeup. A strong communications office will use its website as the center of any school district's communications.
It’s where vital communication can be read anywhere by anyone, serving as the sole source of truth. From there, sharing via email, text, social media, mobile apps, and voicemail is much easier because you can easily direct your audience to the website.
What do we mean by user experience?
There’s a lot of information that’s a simple Google search away, but user experience (UX) boils down to feel. Think about how you feel when you walk into your school district's doors:
- Is it a positive feeling?
- Are things easy to find?
- Is there clear signage and call-to-actions?
- Are the values and uniqueness of your school system on display?
- Do you feel proud of your school system?
If so, strive for that feeling for your school's brand when families and stakeholders visit your school district's website:
- Are current and prospective families inspired?
- Are everyday tasks easy to complete, like accessing calendars, directors, and parent portals?
- Is there straightforward navigation and call-to-actions?
- Are the values and uniqueness of your school system displayed on every page?
- Does your site accurately tell your district’s story?
Designing for UX
When Finalsite designers and developers build a new website from scratch, human interaction is top-of-mind for desktop and mobile devices. They’re thinking about the holistic user experience and ensuring that it aligns with your school district's brand or essence – the core of your school system.
Think of your favorite retail store and how it makes you feel. How does that change your view of the product or service?
My favorite store is The Apple Store. Perhaps it’s because I am a marketing geek, but my mood changes when I visit an Apple store. I get completely immersed in the simplicity and intention of everything they do. This feeling reinforces my belief that the products I may buy are going to be powerful, high-quality, and sophisticated. I get the same feeling when I visit their website.
Kansas City Public Schools | Missouri
The storytelling on KCPS’ website evokes the warm-fuzzies school communities need most — complete with videos, superintendent quotes, student features, and news. Plus, it inspires prospective faculty when teacher recruitment is critical!
Pittsburg Community School | Kansas
Pittsburg Community Schools beautifully and cleanly presents important announcements, and information in an accessible, easy-to-navigate, mobile-friendly design. They’ve developed a consistent brand identity across the district, as well as its individual school sites.
How can we measure user experience?
Research and continual evaluation are essential aspects of improving user experience on your school website. You want to determine the needs, attitudes, and behaviors of a broad set of your stakeholders. A few ways to do this:
- Launch a form survey using Finalsite Forms and Page Pops. Be sure to include open- and closed-ended questions.
- Conduct small focus groups that include discussion and short exercises. (e.g., Watch focus group participants as they browse through your website)
- Check your data sources, like Google Analytics, to identify patterns and trends for users that engage with your site.
- Use your expertise and common sense.
When reviewing the research, look at the data holistically, considering all the variables contributing to an individual’s perspective. The analysis will reveal valuable insights into behavior and user preferences that will guide your work in improving website user experience.
Improving UX through strong search
When working toward improving your school website’s user experience, you should also consider what is “behind the curtain.” That is, the things users can’t see but can still benefit from, like Search Engine Optimization (SEO).
Optimizing the internal and external search for users is crucial because many users like to search directly for content through a web search browser or the inner search bar.
Search optimization involves learning how users get to your site or locate information internally, then making adjustments based on that data. You can use tools like Finalsite’s SEO dashboard or Advanced Search inside Finalsite Composer to improve on this.
To learn more about SEO, consider registering for this free learn-at-our-own-pace course, where you can walk through the most fundamental considerations for getting your school found online.
Website user experience is a significant factor in the strength of your school district’s brand. You want your school’s website to feel less like a digital repository and more like a digital home ready to give the best user experience for thousands of unique visitors annually.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joshua Sauer, APR, is the Director for District Communications Strategy with Finalsite. Before joining Finalsite, he spent six years working as a #SchoolPR professional for a large public school district in Oklahoma and one year as a freelance webmaster. Joshua is heavily involved at the national level in school PR and is the former president of the Oklahoma School Public Relations Association (OKSPRA). Joshua is an Accredited Public Relations (APR) practitioner with more than 11 years of marketing and PR work experience. He earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and communications from the University of Oklahoma and a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Central Oklahoma.