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Fixing 5 “Problems” of Mobile-first School Website Designs
Connor Gleason

More and more parents, students, and teachers are accessing information on the go, making the mobile experience a critical part of your school’s online presence. In fact, more than half of web traffic is coming from mobile devices these days.

When the average American spends over four hours a day on their smartphone and checks it more than 140 times daily, it's no surprise that nearly 57% of Americans think of themselves as "mobile phone addicts.”

And as far as your prospective students go, kids typically get their first phones around the age of 11 1/2, and by the time they're 15, almost every teenager has one. This shift toward a mobile lifestyle means your school’s website user experience needs to adapt to mobile to meet these changing expectations.

Is a mobile-first design a "problem?" Nope—it's an opportunity to provide another amazing user experience. 

What is a mobile-first design?

A mobile-first website design is a way of creating a website experience and online content that starts by planning and designing with mobile devices in mind before considering versions for larger screens.

The goal is to create a cohesive, unique user experience (UX) that caters to the needs of mobile users. This means rethinking how information is presented and making sure it's accessible, clear, and easy to navigate, even on a smaller screen size.

But here's an interesting twist: a mobile design doesn't have to be a carbon copy of the desktop version. In fact, it shouldn't be. 

By reimagining how we present content, structure navigation, and engage users, we can turn these perceived challenges into strengths, enhancing the user experience and opening up chances for engagement and communication with your school community.

Problem #1: Limited Space

Mobile screens are much smaller than desktops or laptops, and therefore, there's less room to show information and graphics. It can get crowded and hard to use when you try to fit everything from a full-size desktop site onto a small phone screen.

The Fix: Maximizing Your Message

Focus on Essential Content

The key is to think about what's most important for your audience. Ask yourself, "What do they need to know right away?" This could include school news, event updates, or contact information. Put this information front and center.

Use Clear and Short Messages

Long paragraphs can be overwhelming on a small screen. Instead, use short and clear sentences. This makes it easier for people to read and understand your message quickly. Think of it like sending a text message — you get right to the point.

Clear Calls to Action

A call to action (CTA) is a short phrase encouraging people to do something, like "Learn More" or "Sign Up Today." These should be easy to find and tap with a mobile-first UX design. Make sure they stand out so people know exactly where to click.

Clean and Uncluttered Design

A simple design works best on mobile. Use space wisely to separate different parts of your page. This helps people find what they need without feeling lost or overwhelmed.

centenennial website mobile mockup

When browsing Centennial School District 62’s site on mobile, users benefit from clear, simple statements, meaningful content, and clean white space to put their most important information front and center. Icons for its “at-a-glance” section help make the most of the limited space, and bright red CTAs offer a clear next step.

Problem #2: Simplified Navigation

On a big screen, like a desktop, you can have lots of links and options to choose from. But on the phone, too many choices can be confusing and hard to click. People using their phones want to find what they need fast and without hassle — it's a huge part of a mobile-first user experience.

The Fix: Enhancing User Experience

Create a Simple, Intuitive Menu

Think about the most important places people need to visit on your site, like the home page, contact page, or calendar. These should be the main parts of your mobile version's menu. A good rule is to keep it to about five items. This makes it easy for visitors to find what they need without searching through a long list.

Highlight Key Sections

There are certain things that almost everyone visiting your site will look for. This might include how to apply to your school, where to find the school calendar, or how to get in touch. Make these sections really easy to find right from the start.

Use Dropdowns or Hamburger Menus

A dropdown navigation menu is a list that pops up when you click or tap. A hamburger menu is a button with three lines opening a menu when tapped. Both are great for mobile sites because they keep things neat and tidy until someone needs them.

A Cleaner Look

With a simple menu, your website will look cleaner and more modern. It's easier on the eyes and makes people want to stay and look around.

landon school mobile navigation mockup

Landon School, an all-boys school in Bethesda, Maryland, takes a mobile-first mindset. Its content is easy to consume on a smartphone, and its navigation is especially easy to access on a smaller screen. A simplified menu, links to popular pages, big CTAs, and a search bar make finding content a breeze.

Problem #3. Image and Video Constraints

Big, high-quality images and videos are great on desktop websites, but on mobile, they can make pages load slowly, use a lot of data, and sometimes not fit the screen properly. When people on their phones wait too long for a page to load, they might just leave out of frustration.

The Fix: Using Media Effectively

Optimize Media for Mobile Use

The goal is to make sure your images and videos are just the right size for mobile. They should be small enough to load quickly but still look clear and sharp. Some online tools can help resize and compress images without losing quality to improve loading times.

Choose Light and Impactful Media

When picking images or videos, think about which ones really add to your message. Use interesting and helpful images, but don't use images that are too big in file size.

Balancing Visual Appeal and Performance

A beautiful website is great, but it also has to work well. This means finding a balance. Use enough images and videos to make your site look good and show what your school is about. But remember to keep them optimized so your site runs smoothly on mobile devices.

mobile mockup of Community consolidated 62 websites

Community Consolidated School District 62’s site puts its award-winning storytelling skills to good use, and with images and video testimonials that share their district’s success on mobile, they can make sure their stories resonate just as well on phones as they do during a desktop experience.

Problem #4. Interactions are Harder

Thumbs and fingers are bigger and less precise than a mouse cursor and this can make clicking on small links or buttons frustrating or less accessible. If it's hard to tap on something important, like a menu or a contact form, people might give up and leave your site.

The Fix: Designing for Touch and Tap

Ensure Buttons and Links are Easy to Tap

Make your buttons and links big enough so they're easy to tap, meaning users can touch them without accidentally hitting something else.

Design for Touch Interaction

Apart from size, think about how people use their fingers to navigate. Make sure there's enough space around buttons so they're not too close to each other.

Test on Various Devices

There are many different phones and tablets out there. What works on one might not work on another. It's important to check your website on as many different devices as you can. This way, you can be sure that it's easy to use for everyone.

methodist website on mobile mockup

Methodist College’s site is thumb-friendly — many of its images double as CTAs, which makes it easier for parents, students, and staff to interact with the site and get the information they need without any hassle.

5. Limited Attention Spans

When using a phone, people usually have less time and patience – usually, they tune out after just 8 seconds. They want to find what they need quickly, and if your website has too much text or is hard to navigate, they might not stay for long. It's important to catch their attention and quickly give them the information they need.

The Fix: Keeping Users Engaged

Use Engaging, Dynamic Content

Include content like short videos, interesting photos, or quick facts. Visuals can say so much quickly, so consider replacing text with a simple icon or graphic.

Break Information into Small, Digestible Chunks

Instead of long paragraphs, use short sections or bullet points. This visual hierarchy makes it easier for people to read and understand quickly.

Richland School District 2’s site on mobile mockup

There’s a little bit of everything on Richland School District 2’s site: news, profiles, fast facts, core values, calendar highlights, and more. It’s not overwhelming on an iPhone, however. A thoughtful design, structured content, and slideshow panels help keep everything organized and enticing.

Key Takeaway

By focusing on these strategies, your school's website can become functional, but also engaging and effective to your mobile users. You want to make sure that even if someone is just quickly checking your site, they find what they need and actually even enjoy the visit. This can lead to a better connection with your school community and help share important information in a way that's easy and fun to use.

website redesign playbook

Connor Gleason Headshot


Connor has spent the last decade within the field of marketing and communications, working with independent schools and colleges throughout New England. As Finalsite’s Senior Content Marketing Manager, Connor plans and executes marketing strategies and digital content across the web. A former photojournalist, he has a passion for digital media, storytelling, coffee, and creating content that connects.

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