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First Impressions Matter: Crafting Great School District Homepages
Angelo Otterbein

Princeton University professor Alexander Todorov wrote an entire book, "Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions" on the power of first impressions. Among many of the tremendous insights in the book, one of the most interesting is how small, perhaps indistinguishable, nuances in a person's facial structure can have an enormous influence on how we perceive them.

Those snap judgments we make, as well as the lasting influence they have, are as critical to your website as they are to human behavior. "First impressions matter so much because they happen fast, and they are stubborn. We make judgments [about other people] in a nanosecond,” writes Whitney Johnson, Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work, and once that impression is formed, it’s “very, very hard to change it.” 

Ironically, it's easy to forget to evaluate just what that first impression is for your website — even though if someone walked into your district you'd want to ensure they have a good visit and point them in the right direction. For both current community members and prospective families looking to move into your school district, a good first impression matters. And equally as important as the first impression is the experience that comes along with it.

Here's what you can do to craft a school district homepage that makes a great (and long-lasting!) impression:

  1. Use Video
  2. Share Authentic Testimonials
  3. Ensure The Design (And Content) is Accessible
  4. Add Some Bells and Whistles
  5. Get Your Users From Point A To Point B Quickly
  6. Let Infographics Do The Talking
  7. Add Happy Kids
  8. Go Bold

1. Use Video

It's obvious, but it works. Telling a story with a well-curated series of clips across the district and schools is efficient, compelling and not nearly as hard (or expensive) as it was five years ago. Many homepages that use the video will use the entire screen, like Dare County Schools in North Carolina. In just under a minute, you see arts, athletics, school buildings, science (who doesn't love turtles?), and more generally, a school in motion. Particularly during a global pandemic when many students are remote, a reminder of what life was like — and will be — with video goes a long way.

Dare Count Schools Homepage Video Screenshot

2. Share Authentic Testimonials

People believe other people — and more than they believe you.

What value does your district offer to those who enroll? Incorporating testimonials into your homepage design helps share the story of your district and the value of your education. It's important to keep them short and to-the-point to avoid adding too much text.

The testimonials on Tulsa Public Schools homepage does a great job of bringing together students, teachers and staff who talk authentically about their positive experience

Tulsa Public Schools Student Testimonial

3. Ensure The Design (And Content) is Accessible

Your website's first impression needs to reach everyone.

Five years ago, we unfortunately didn't have much to say about accessibility and the web. But nowadays, it's entirely integrated into our design and deployment process here at Finalsite. Having an ADA-compliant website that follows the WCAG 2.0 standard means that 100% of your users can have the same great first impression by being able to view, navigate, listen to, and adapt the site to their own needs. With ADA "guardrails" built into the CMS that scan for issues as content is updated to a more robust toolbar by AudioEye, Finalsite websites ensure all users and the editors updating the site can provide a great first and lasting impression.

Northshore School District has the AudioEye toolbar implemented on its website and can confidently ensure its website is accessible to everyone.

North Shore District Website

4. Add Some Bells and Whistles

Animation is cool. Interactive this-es and thats are fun. We get it. Lots of "bells and whistles" though can work against you though. But for a district website it needs to be done properly, which largely means it needs to enhance the experience such as an improved emphasis on certain calls-to-action, or to help guide the user through the page more easily, or to add a slight punch to a particular piece of content.

Sun Prairie School District is a good example of rollover states, starting with "Welcome to Sun Prairie Experience" which defines qualities like "We Are Engaging" with quick explanations underneath. Further down, featured news articles have a tinted orange overlay to clearly show which item you're hovering on, while below that the "Experience Sun Prairie" lays out a grid of eight blocks, each with their own reveal. This alone makes the page a bit playful and visually interesting, while also providing a practical solution to not overwhelming the user with everything at once. The nice advantage of the Finalsite Platform with these is that the District can reuse the interactivity throughout the site without additional programming.

Sun Prairie School District Homepage

5. Get Your Users From Point A To Point B Quickly

District websites in particular have the additional navigational challenge of needing to organize the district information clearly in a primary navigation while also providing access to the individual schools. For larger districts, this challenge only compound in complexity. But nothing is more important in making a good first impression than not frustrating the user in helping them find what they need.

Lake Washington School District is an excellent example of good way-finding, with a site-wide navigation tied to the top of the page, in a darker teal, and the district navigation just below. 

Lake Washington School District

Then, the "Find It Fast" navigation item provides an overlay with access to Search, an icon-based set of quick links, and then some helpfully organized lists of links below.

Lake Washington School District

6. Let Infographics Do The Talking

Every school district knows what makes them unique. But too often it gets buried, and when it comes to first impressions, this is exactly the stuff that should be front and center. Infographics have become commonplace on websites for a reason: they pack a lot into a little, while also minimizing reading and catering to web skimmers. South Texas ISD takes a simple approach to using a few numbers to tell an important story about what a strong district they are.

South Texas ISD Infographics

7. Add Happy Kids

They're a given when it comes to making a lasting first impression — so shis one doesn't require much explanation. The close-up photos of students on Spring Branch ISD's website are powerful and compelling; you can't help but be in a better mood when you see them. And that's the point.

Spring Branch ISD Pictures of Kids

8. Go Bold

Kansas City Public Schools is a remarkable website with much to recognize, breaking ground on a number of fronts. Practically speaking, the site succeeds with elements like the "Select a School", top left, which is a simple but effective way to move users around. But there are other mechanisms that help improve the user experience, including quick access to a panel for "News + Social" which contains a running list of news items and access to social channels; "Let's Talk" which is outlined to highlight the call-to-action; and a primary navigation that uniquely rests at the bottom, but then sticks to the top of the browser as you move down the page. But what sets the site apart is the story that gets told as you scroll -- strong messaging buttressed by innovative design with interactive panels throughout.

Kansas City Public Schools Homepage

Going Beyond the Homepage

While your homepage needs to look great, it's important to think beyond the homepage about the user experience site wide. Your website shouldn't just look good; it should function well, too.

This means that your district's site should also:

  • Offer an intuitive experience as users scroll through your homepage, school pages, and important interior pages
  • Convey a sense of attention to detail and empathy for the user's need to find the information they need
  • Create logical "next steps" for users
  • Be visually appealing on all screen sizes — mobile and desktop
  • Have high-impact images and rich media that are appropriate for the space
  • Keep clip art and other "quick and dirty" solutions to a minimum
  • Implement logical navigation

Key Takeaway

First impressions matter. So, take a spin through these websites, and see for yourself. Do you leave with a positive first impression? If so, why? These tips in combination will help provide a framework to improving just that. Good luck!

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angelo otterbein headshot

Angelo graduated valedictorian from St. Paul's School in Baltimore, MD and from Princeton University. Despite getting his degree in creative writing and English Literature, it generally takes some doing to keep him from programming and breaking websites. Just after graduating, he started Silverpoint, and grew it to over 300 schools worldwide before merging with Finalsite in 2013.

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