Customers, trends, and business needs change over time. Websites are no exception. The structure and design may have worked for you in the past, but now the data is pointing you in a new direction. But how do you continuously improve your site design without exceeding budgets or missing timelines?
Below are four guidelines to satisfying target audiences and reaching your website goals.
1) Identify your website's goals
The goals of every project are the compass that guide all decisions and actions. In website improvement—no matter how trivial or critical—one change can make a significant impact on revenue. In education, changes to a website can be caused by the need to promote a new online program, adapt to visitor behavior, and implement new technology for learning portals. Industry trends are demanding education institutions offer a variety of learning options—from completely online to blended, or hybrid, learning—student expectations are changing and websites must maintain an institution's reputation in the face of continuous change.
Subsites and microsites serve their own purposes in relation to the top-level site but must provide quick access to the main site to avoid confusing visitors and losing their interest. Identifying the goals of each subsite and sticking to structural and design guidelines is crucial to managing changes in the future.
2) Evaluate your existing site
Regular improvements to already complex university websites tend to overcomplicate over time rather than simplify. In the quest to add new and important information, web management teams can easily lose sight of the user journey. To avoid this pitfall, designers should first comb through the data by taking a look at user behavior, internal keyword searches and form submissions. Another pitfall is blindly following design trends or succumbing to peer pressure—what's best for the competition isn't always best for you. It is important to apply industry trends in light of your website data, and not vice versa.
Web design trends tend to apply across a broad range of industries. Videos, for example, are becoming more and more the expectation for busy and distracted visitors. The trend placing greater emphasis on creating an experience is compelling education institutions to create videos to supplement their site's content. So if form submissions are below target, maybe a video could provide the much-needed "punchy" CTA. However, as with all decisions, each change should be supported by a long-term goal and backed by data.
3) Focus on the outcomes
This guideline ties in well to the previous ones. The push to create a brand that is a leader, relevant, or trendy is a pain felt by many a marketer today. Unfortunately the focus on producing new and cool can distract from sticking to website goals and can result in losing sight of website users.
If gradual changes to your website are based on solving problems and achieving your goals, then the focus should be on reaching an outcome rather than creating an output. To illustrate this point, let's consider a sales meeting. The customer has pain points and the experienced sales person addresses the pain by highlighting the product's benefits—not its features. This focus on the benefits—or achieving the outcome of removing pain—could help in the planning phase, placing user experience at the center of website design change discussions.
4) Choose and refine your approach
Now we're getting to a critical step in the website improvement process. Continuous efficient improvement can be hindered by management politics, escalating operating costs, conflicting timelines and result in missed deadlines. Digital project managers can choose from a variety of approaches, depending on the project scope and their organization's preferences.
The all-too-familiar and traditional waterfall approach has its drawbacks, but should not be utterly dismissed. The waterfall approach requires work to be completed sequentially, in phases, and testing usually occurs at the end of development. Waterfall is best suited for smaller projects with a fixed scope, time, and budget and is ideal for managing remote workers and external players. The agile approach, on the other hand, prioritizes individuals and interactions—the relationship—over processes and tools. Because change is expected, clear communication is a requirement, not a luxury. Agile project management is great for larger, complex projects that involve active client participation.
Possibly the biggest obstacle to refining or shifting to an all-together different approach is the "one-size-fits-all" mindset. Especially in the field of academia, the tried and proven approach is more comfortable for established organizations hesitant to adopting change.
But in an ever-changing and competitive market environment, continuously improve a university's website's design will require a mindset accepting of the new and unfamiliar.
In higher education, the website is the "ultimate brand statement", according to a report by Hanover Research. The academia industry is catching up to trends in the corporate world—user-centered website design is no longer optional and is a moving target.
Clayton Dean is the co-founder of Circa Interactive , a digital agency that specializes in higher education, and has over 10 years experience helping non-profit institutions increase marketing budget efficiency, expand brand awareness, generate inquiries and exceed enrollment goals.