What have we learned from conducting hundreds and hundreds of website audits over the years? That everyone is trying to get their website right, that doing so is never easy, and, spoiler alert: it's also not really possible to a get perfect score. There is always something more you can do or enhance, and in the face of design, navigation, usability and content, there is a lot to manage.
So what are a few things we have gleaned? Well, let's start with how we got here in the first place.
We all like grades
Strange, isn't it? Most of us spend the first 20 years of our lives being graded. Pop quizzes, final exams, standardized tests, SATs, oral reports... and then poof! There's no grading at all. And yet we crave to know something fundamental about our work: is it any good? Am I doing a good job? And, better yet: what should I be doing better?
I'll save the psychoanalysis of grading and one's inherent need to be judged for another blog post some day (if, of course, I get a good grade on this one). But it forms the basis for why Finalsite created a very unique and accessible Website Audit for clients and non-clients alike. One of our talented education consultants (who comes highly graded, I hear), Max Eisl, came back from a trip visiting overseas schools and commented how he was always being asked his opinion on a school's website. He helped lead the effort to formalize an evaluation and build criteria so that we could do a better job providing a more comprehensive and efficient way to let a school know how they're doing. Since then our team of consultants has done hundreds of audits.
It's no surprise that some of our most popular webinar topics are our "website throwdowns" whereby we give schools grades with just a cursory five minute review. But it's something! Sometimes five minutes is all you get with a user, so if you're not in a throwdown sort of mood, you can ask your favorite passerby just what they think of your website.
In any case, here are a handful of things that seem to be recurring themes and topics in audits and throwdowns.
1. Find Yourself
Search for your school on Google. I'm always surprised when people sound surprised when I show them what happens. Put your prospective parent hat on, come up with some normal sounding things a typical prospective parent might search for and see what happens. Ask your long lost cousin to search from a different state and see what you think -- it's easy to forget that search results vary from one person to the next sometimes based on their location or behavior, so don't assume that what you're seeing everyone else is seeing. But dig in here.
2. Dig Deeper
Okay, so you found yourself. Now what? What is that parent or prospective parent really doing. Role play for a minute. Imagine yourself, after dinner, 30 minutes of downtime, checking out schools for your kids; or Saturday morning panicked about summer programs; or after your child's shadow day and open house, confirming a few things you think you heard. You're on your school's website. So? Did you get your question answered? Was it easy to find? What questions did you still have? Were you impressed? If you answered "no" to any of those questions, time to beef things up.
3. Responsive/Not Responsive
Ok. You know the drill. If your site isn't responsive, please stop reading this blog and call us.
4. The phone is what is glued to your hand
So that role play exercise above -- the one where you pretend your kids are getting on your nerves but you still have to shop around for schools. Pretend again and shop around at your school as if you had never been on the site before, and do that from your phone. Is it good? Fast? Annoying? Maybe the website is "responsive," but is it "mobile friendly"? The mobile experience is important and also not easy. Finalsite spends a lot of time working on mobile websites to get them just right, and there's always room for improvement.
5. If you post an enormous hero shot of smiling people, arms locked, staring into the camera celebrating something, it should be an automatic F
Ok, maybe I've seen too many of them in my life. And I'm sure that the celebration of the great faculty member who served 50 years is important, or that reunion event was just so fantastic, or the two kids who got honored at the athletic banquet brought tears to parents' eyes... but if all we're seeing is a bunch of people responding to "say cheese!" it is meaningless to the rest of us. Remember they are perfect strangers to everyone except people at the school. And in most cases outside of the subject matter, those candids are terrible pictures to begin with.
If you can't take the pressure you're getting from the Director of Advancement or Head of School to "get those pictures up on the web" -- use social media, or craft a story that has real content and save that incredibly important homepage image for what it was intended for in the first place.
6. Likewise, if you post an enormous hero shot of an advertisement for this weekend's play, or the upcoming bull roast, or the Holiday potluck -- you should also get an F
For the same reasons above, don't repurpose that large mustard yellow graphic with big orange block letters from the Parents Association (you know the one) for your marquee homepage image. Just don't. Chances are, your parents do not use the homepage for finding out about major events like that, nor should they. That's why there is a parent portal, and why we have eNotify to send out targeted emails and reminders, and areas of the site dedicated to news and events.
7. People don't need to get to the third tier from the homepage
From time to time, we see this in the navigation: you roll your mouse over About, then see History and lo and behold, there's another arrow! So you scroll down to History, and a new menu pops out for Archives and Galleries. I'm sure there's a usability expert that might say it's okay, but since this blog is about opinions, mine is: don't do it. Asking a user to scroll down and then over just isn't very easy.
8. Social Media can look pretty lame
Any good content management system allows you to drop in a Twitter or Facebook feed. But if you just stop there, then... You should have not started in the first place. A basic, unstyled list of tweets dropped on a page just doesn't work. It's akin to tacking up your favorite movie poster at an art gallery. We developed Finalsite Feeds to leverage the content of social media but in a design that looks great and is presented coherently.
9. Which one of these is not like the other?
One of the first things I do when I look at a site is evaluate how the navigation is organized. If you can't distinguish the "main navigation" (often referred to as "tier one") from the "utility navigation" or the "constituent navigation" because they aren't distinctly separated visually or in any sort of hierarchy then group things accordingly and start over. You'll know there's a problem when you see running along the top: Calendar, About, Newsletter, LMS Login, Staff Portal, for example.
10. "Quicklinks" aren't quick
It's akin to that drawer we all have in our kitchen where there's no other place to put that rosemary dicer, or the Star Wars eraser your kid came back with from a birthday party, or the mini deck of cards and three dozen pens and pencils. I suppose it means that the drawer represents "everywhere else" which means it is at least "somewhere" but it's not very helpful once you open it. Likewise, a menu item that reads "Quicklinks" isn't often very quick because it is generally random and not very thoughtful (and gets worse over time). What's more, what needs to be quick for you may not need to be quick for me.
Am I normal?
By virtue of the fact that you have read (or skimmed) this blog, you are! The brave editors and webmasters and digital content folks like yourselves who wake up every day trying to get their website just right are tireless and should be commended for staying positive. It's hard! And if the website is just "a small part of your job", I empathize. It's a lot. The good news: no one else has it perfect either. Keep it up!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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.