Think of your college or university website as a living, breathing communication tool. Kind of like an on-campus ambassador who kicks off the conversation—whether your audience is a first-time visitor, potential student, current student, parent, faculty member or alumnus, he or she is greeted with a warm welcome through visual storytelling and a hierarchy of content that's easy to understand and provides a deeper context.

Anticipate these experiences when building a website design—it's vitally important in how your university is perceived, both internally and externally.  Here are four key design considerations when building (or rebuilding) your university website.

1. Put Yourself in your Audience's Shoes

When your homepage loads, what does your audience want to know first? How can this need become a priority on the webpage? Thinking about the fundamentals of why your audience is coming to your site in the first place helps build a hierarchy of importance and personalized experience for your users. 

Taking it one step further, when you ask the same questions over and over again each time from a different perspective (i.e., visitor, student, faculty member, etc.), designers start to see patterns and connections among these varying perspectives. This information helps determine the audience's experience with the website as a whole by designing intentional visual choices (i.e., colors, textures, overall look and feel) and content hierarchy.  Only the most important headlines make the cut above the fold. 

2. Simplicity Matters

Speaking of above the fold, what's on the top of each webpage matters the most, so your menu navigation needs to be a streamlined rockstar machine—like the one featured on University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), for example. UNL has its menu broken down into six primary categories that touch base with about every kind of person who would visit its website. As a rule of thumb, three, four, six or eight primary categories are the sweet spot that gives your audience enough options from which to choose without feeling overwhelmed. 

Be mindful that not all content needs to have the same level of importance as the rest of your website. Save the most important information for the most important sections of your site and avoid duplicating the same message across multiple webpages (unless it's the menu). When content can be condensed and explained in one page or less, this creates a clear train of thought for your audience to follow and prevents confusion such as, "Did I just read this?" or "Am I still on the 'About' page?" 

3. Do Your Homework

Literally and metaphorically speaking, research, testing and focus groups help you see how your audience navigates/behaves with your site and where successes/challenges could appear that may have not been known before. Here are a few ways to approach research:

Develop a message map

Answer big-picture questions—why, how, what—to help better tell your university's story.

Conduct surveys & interviews 

Take a qualitative approach to understanding your audience on a personal, one-to-one level.

Analyze the data

Heatmapping where users are going to first and collecting data on how much time they're spending on each page helps build a better understanding of why these behaviors are happening and which pages are getting the most traffic.

4. Keep It Current

Like your university's curriculum, you'll want to keep your website up-to-date. But won't these continuous updates cost more money and time than waiting two to five years to revamp your site? The best solution is growth-driven design (GDD)—a new, streamlined approach to launching your website quickly and improve every few months based on data-driven results.

The idea with GDD is that your investment is consistently spread out over time, with an on-time launch. In the first six months, most sites engaging in the GDD process see an upwards 16 percent increase in leads and 11 percent increase in revenue. GDD also keeps your content current and on trend—something a vast majority of your audience, people 20 or younger, will appreciate.

Want to talk about your GDD opportunities? Talk to our team about your next website project.

Design for Your Audience

The more you communicate with your students, faculty and alumni by keeping them up-to-date, providing results that reflect the website's aesthetic choices, keeping the details simple and straightforward and thinking of your audience as a whole, the stronger your message and overall website design will be.

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