Your website is one of your university’s most important marketing tools. It’s your online hub for sharing information about research, news, student life, academics, athletics, and more.
To paint your university in the best light, your website must provide a positive user experience (UX) for your audience. A study by Nielsen Norman Group shows that young adults seek qualities like easy-to-read text, interactive features, fast load speeds, and mobile functionality in the websites they visit. Consider your university’s website – does it offer these features, or could it do more to appeal to your audiences?
In this post, we’re going to look at the qualities that contribute to a positive user experience for higher education websites. Then, we’ll review some of the best university websites for user experience.
What Makes for an Effective Higher Education Website User Experience?
Before we dive into UX must-haves for your university website, let’s make sure we’re clear on what user experience actually means. User experience is the way visitors interact with your website. Clicking buttons and links, using your search function, navigating from one page to the next and back again – these are all elements of user experience.
Kanopi’s guide to higher-ed website design highlights the following user experience necessities:
- Streamlined mobile experience – Your university’s website should be just as easy to use on mobile devices as it is on desktops and tablets. That means the mobile version of your website should feature a simple design, large buttons, and easy-to-read fonts.
- Clear user journeys – User journeys or pathways are personalized website experiences that appeal to unique audiences. For example, someone who’s using your website to look for upcoming events will take different actions than someone looking for giving opportunities. Your website should feature clear pathways and resources for each of your unique audiences – including current and prospective students, faculty, staff, alumni, and parents.
- Accessible content – Accessibility means your website is usable for all audiences, including people with disabilities. Accessible content is required by law for universities to ensure that information is available to everyone. Build your website with accessibility in mind by including alternative text for images and ensuring sufficient color contrast between foreground text and the background.
When paired with a simple, aesthetically-pleasing design, these user experience basics can help your university’s website appeal to visitors and tell your story more effectively.
Let’s review a few examples of higher education websites that embody these UX principles.
The University of British Columbia: Mobile User Experience
The University of British Columbia’s website not only offers a professional, streamlined desktop version, but an engaging experience for smartphone users as well.
Here are the features that make UBC’s mobile experience so successful:
- A simple design that makes effective use of white space to keep the page uncluttered
- A top-level menu that’s easy to read on mobile devices
- Large social media sharing buttons that let visitors instantly connect on social media
Think of your website’s mobile version – how can you adapt your brand elements and navigation to provide a seamless mobile experience? First, start by running your website through Google’s mobile-friendliness test. This tool will gauge the functionality of your website on mobile devices.
If your site isn’t mobile-friendly, the testing tool might identify specific errors, such as incompatible plugins or text that’s too small. Review your site in the mobile editor of your content management system to adjust any elements that aren’t hitting the mark.
Cornell University: Accessible User Experience
Cornell University’s website is an effective example of what accessibility looks like for higher education institutions.
Here are a few of the elements that make Cornell’s website accessible to all:
- Strong color contrast between the text and the background that ensures all written copy is easy to read
- Descriptive alternative text for images that makes it easy for visitors using screen readers to interpret images
- A web accessibility assistance email that visitors can message with any accommodation issues
To ensure your university’s website achieves similar levels of accessibility, design your site with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines in mind. These are universally-recognized accessibility principles that offer clear steps for making a more user-friendly website.
Implementing these accessibility recommendations on a large scale can be complicated, so it’s recommended that you work with a web development agency that specializes in accessible design.
Western Washington University Department of Design: Creative User Experience
Your university’s website can still offer a user-friendly interface while leaning into creative design elements. Western Washington University’s Department of Design website is a great example of how you can incorporate creativity into your user experience.
The WWU Design website features unique elements such as:
- Interactive homepage elements that allow visitors to create their own design
- Effective use of images and videos that show prospective students what it’s like to be a part of the design program
- A simplified menu that sticks to the need-to-know information, making navigation a breeze
You might consider incorporating similar elements into your website for your university’s art or design departments. Even if you’re designing your university’s main website, you can still find places to incorporate creative elements.
Whether you incorporate an interactive timeline into your university’s history page, or include a dynamic image slideshow on your student life page, there are lots of creative ways to bring interactivity and engagement to your website.
Kenyon College: Unique User Experience
When you visit the Kenyon College website, the first thing you might notice is that it doesn’t look like the typical higher education website. Instead of a header with clear menu links and buttons, the website just includes the Kenyon logo at the top with a button that allows you to open a pop-out menu.
Here’s why this layout works:
- The striking header image offers a unique homepage experience, providing more visual intrigue.
- A comprehensive collapsable menu provides links for all user groups while keeping the homepage uncluttered.
- Users have multiple ways to explore the university online, including in writing, photos, statistics, or with an online tour.
Kenyon’s website offers a unique, engaging twist on the typical higher ed design best practices. Consider the different ways you can think outside the box with your web design to present your university in the best light.
A meaningful university marketing strategy starts with careful consideration of the best ways to design your website’s user experience. Draw inspiration from these higher education website design best practices and examples for your own website to revamp your user experience and start connecting with a broader online audience.