University sites are some of the most subtly complex around: hundreds of pages, dozens of departments, different audiences (prospective students, current students, staff, faculty, parents), all with competing priorities. It’s a recipe for a confusing site and a frustrated user.  Recent user experience work we have done for leading universities has uncovered some best practices to avoid those pitfalls.

Best Practice Number One:Group Navigation by Type

There is a lot to navigate to in a university website, and not all content lends itself to being navigated the same way. Some pages are better found and consumed through discovery, while others need one-click access. There are three main navigation types for most university websites:

  1. Content Based Navigation – This is your standard About, Admissions, Academics, etc that have pages organized underneath them that lend themselves to being read through and discovered. They should be displayed in the standard top navigation scheme.
  2. Audience Based Navigation – University websites have several well defined audiences that frequent the site for very specific reasons ie: Faculty, Staff, Students, and Alumni. Give these audiences a persistent navigation to help them find the content relevant to them without having to search high and low for it.
  3. Utility Based Navigation – Remember way back in the day when the only reason you ever used your university was to get to “Blackboard” (or the chosen Course Management System of your university). The things a user wants and needs now should be pulled out of the primary top-level content based navigation and grouped to give users one click access. These are things like the Registrar, Blackboard, and Academic calendar.

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Best Practice Number Two:Do Not Break Clearly Established Conventions in Navigation

Prospective students are often looking at and comparing multiple university websites in short amounts of time to decide where to attend (This is even more the case with advanced degrees). Do not be the University that tries to be super cool, hip and different in naming and ordering of the top-level navigation.

  1. Create a Heat Map– Heat maps are a good method in discovering common conventions. In a spreadsheet list out your 30 closest competitors. Next to each university list out all their navigation headings from left to right. Color code the navigation items across all universities to see trends (ex: About = blue, Admissions = red, Academics = green, etc). When colors line up consistently, you found yourself a convention. For law schools, we found the first three navigation items should be “About,” “Academics,” and “Admissions” – after that conventions broke down and we had some flexibility to be creative in naming and ordering.

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Best Practice Number Three: Provide Mapping
  1. Bread Crumbs – Universities have huge page counts. Show people where they are, where they have been, and where they can go to avoid user frustration. Communication majors will recognize this as “Tell the audience what you are going to tell them. Tell them. Then tell them what you tell told them.”
  2. Be Weary of Hyperlink Overload – Hyperlinks can be good. Too many hyperlinks makes users heads spin. In conducting user interviews we found looking at a page full of hyperlinks results in immediate navigation to Google to search for the item sought. For resources pages, use buttons and content groupings to ease the headache.

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Best Practice Four: Make Your “About Us” Count

The folks over at the Nielsen Norman Group do a good job of laying this one out. “The About Us page is one of the top places where prospective students go when deciding if a university is a good fit for them.” Logically this makes sense, and is demonstrated well with a user story, “As a prospective student, I want to find out about the university so that I may determine if it is a good fit for me to attend.”

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Best Practice Five: Clearly Delineate University Programs and Degrees

Prospective students want to know if the program they are after is offered.  They want the ability to quickly and fully understand how the program differs from other programs offered at the university and the same program offered at other universities.

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Conclusion:

In designing university websites, it is important to keep in mind the massive amount of content housed within the site and the array of different audiences who are looking for it. Then design to make it enjoyable/easy for those audiences to find the content important to them. These best practices make that easy.