How to Craft the Perfect Navigation Experience on Your School's Website
Mia Major

Question for you: how would you prefer to navigate to an unfamiliar location?

  • a) Using an old-school map from the nearest rest stop
  • b) Using printed directions
  • c) Using a smartphone app like Waze or Google Maps

I'm assuming that's a resounding "c," unless sitting in unexpected traffic and possibly getting lost doesn't frustrate you in the slightest. Over the past couple of years, Waze and Google Maps have spoiled us. They've turned navigation into an experience, creating a more enjoyable experience by making drivers aware of traffic, accidents, and alternate routes to find their end destination simple.

I challenge you to think about your school's navigation in the same way. Too often, independent schools think about their site map as just that — a map: it's just a way to help website users get from point a to point b. But, it can also be used as a strategic marketing tool.

How to Create a Great Navigation

So, rather than thinking about your website's navigation as just a map, think about it as an interactive experience that guides prospective families down a path that eventually leads them where you want them: to filling out an inquiry or application form.

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Before we talk creative navigation strategies, let's talk about a few general navigation best practices to follow:

  • Don't use words or terms that are unfamiliar to your website visits. School-specific jargon in your navigation can confuse first-time website visitors, lowering page views and engagement.
  • Follow the two-click rule by making important content available in 1-2 clicks from anywhere on the website.
  • Try to maintain a two-tier navigation site-wide. For example, Academics > Science is two tiers. Because attention spans are shorter and mobile traffic is more frequent, navigation should be completed in as few clicks as
  • Make your tier two navigation elements appear on hover. No one wants to click and wait for a second page to load to learn what's in that section.
  • Think of your navigation in three parts: main navigation, utility navigation, and quicklinks. Your main navigation is where you'll have pages like Admission and Academics. Your utility navigation is most often used to provide current families quick access to their portals. Quicklinks are often a dropdown of 5-8 top pages from the site most visitors need one-click access to. Or, you can use quicklinks for different audiences, as Lenior-Rhyne University does.

LRU Navigation

Now that we have the basics out of the way — here are a few ways that schools are re-inventing website navigation to improve the user experience.

Create a Navigation Element to Say What Sets Your School Apart

Why send prospective families digging for what makes your school unique when you can put it in the forefront? Rather than just using your site's navigation as a way to find what's special about your school, you can use it to your advantage.

Wilbraham & Monson Academy uses a tab titled Distinctly WMA to guide website visitors to additional information about the programs that set them apart from the competition.

Distinctly WMA

Similarly, Westtown School shares an assortment of programs and campus features that set them apart from other schools in the area — ranging from The Westtown Clock to their STEAM program.

Westtown Distinctions

Create a Mega-Navigation to Speak About Your School's Mission

It's important to capitalize on every opportunity you get to share your school's mission online — and your school's navigation is no exception. For Westridge School, their "fundamental to develop in girls their intellectual and creative powers and their unique qualities as individuals."

And, you don't even need to visit their Statement of Purpose page to find that out. Two sections of site are organized in their main navigation using the terms "Empowering Girls" and "Educating Girls," rather than the standard "Leadership" and "Academics."

Westridge School Navigation

Use it to Identify with a Particular Student Segment

Independent schools can learn a lot from Holton-Arms School's new site that just launched a couple of weeks ago. One of their most noteworthy combinations of awesome marketing and web design? Their nifty new navigation that prompts prospective students to identify themselves as an Artist, Athlete or Scholar.

Hover over the term that resonates most with you, and you're immediately delivered relevant content that makes learning more engaging and enjoyable.

Holton-Arms Nav

Similarly, Porter-Gaud School organizes information based on audience segment. That way, when you visit your homepage, you don't wonder for a second: where should I go next?

Porter-Gaud Nav

Use it to Simplify the Website Visitor's Journey

Have you ever visited a web page and scrolled all the way to the bottom, only to realize that the page didn't have what you're looking for and you need to scroll all the way back up to the top to go to another page? While it isn't difficult, it can become slightly annoying.

As long, scrolling pages become more popular, sticky navigations are important to providing a great user experience.

Sticky menus are navigation elements that stay in one location on a site even when the user moves a webpage up or down. Visit The Episcopal School of Dallas's homepage and notice how the navigation, which is originally located at the bottom of the image, moves and then stays at the top of the screen as you venture through the homepage.

ESD Sticky Nav

Having a site's navigation options always present is a great UI feature that allows users to quickly navigate around site or page without having to scroll back to the top of the page.

Use Your Navigation to Prompt a Call-to-Action

When creating your navigation, it is important to put yourself in the visitor's shoes by asking yourself: If they wanted to visit a particular section, what is the action they would want to take — or that we would want them to take? Placing calls-to-action in your navigation bar, or in your mega-navigation is a great way to provide website visitors who are ready to take a course of action with a quick route to do so.

For example, Canterbury School has a Request Information CTA in numerous tabs in their navigation.

Canterbury School Navigation

Lower Canada College's navigation also features a subtle Apply Now CTA docked in the lefthand side of the navigation on hover.

LCC Navigation

Focus on Action Words

If you're game on trying something new, you can ditch the traditional "About, Admissions, Athletics, etc" navigation, and focus on the actions taken to learn about those items. Western Academy of Beijing (who recently won Gold in the 2017 AVA Awards) simplified their navigation with just five primary elements: Discover, Learn, Experience, Join and Connect.

Western Academy of Beijing Navigation

This unconventional navigation creates an immersive experience, by prompting website visitors to choose what they want to do, rather than what they want to learn about. Western Academy of Beijing kept their sitemap simple, making this kind of navigation possible. Schools with more complex site maps might not benefit from this kind of innovative navigation.

Most Importantly, Use it to Create the Simplest UX Ever

Behind every successful website is great navigation. Why? Because great navigation improves the user experience — meaning they spend longer on your site, and can find the information they want at a rate they expect.

In short, great website navigation has the potential to lower bounce rates, further communicate what sets your school apart, and delight your website visitors. So, before you redesign your next site: think about how your navigation can provide an experience, rather than just a means to an end.

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Mia Major

As Finalsite's Content Marketing Manager, Mia plans and executes a variety of inbound marketing and digital content strategies. As a former TV reporter, freelance cinematographer and certified inbound marketer, Mia specializes in helping schools find new ways to share their stories online through web design, social media, copywriting, photography and videography. She is the author of numerous blogs, and Finalsite's popular eBook, The Website Redesign Playbook.

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