Summary: Effective university websites can increase conversions, strengthen institutional credibility and brand, improve user satisfaction, and save time and money.
Universities that prioritize a good user experience leverage the website to contribute to larger institutional goals and see a clear return on investment. Based on our user testing, the guidelines in this article can substantially improve the user experience on most college and university sites. The sad conclusion from our research is that most of these sites rank far below the usability levels expected on today's Internet.
In preparing a new full-day course on designing university websites, we conducted a range of user studies. In total, we tested 57 higher-education sites with users in the United States, Canada, UK, and Taiwan. We recruited prospective students, both undergraduate and graduate, as well as parents of prospective students. Users were asked to think aloud while performing exploratory tasks like, “Imagine a teacher recommended that you look at [University]. Browse the website and see if it might be a good option, ” and more directed tasks like, “Find out how much it costs to attend [University].” We selected some universities for testing, but we also asked users to do any of their own pending tasks for schools of their choosing.
Why should universities care about usability? Aren't students smart and computer savvy? Well, even though you want high-IQ applicants, prospective undergraduate students haven't received the benefits of a college education yet and often have fairly poor research skills. While they know how to use computers, they are not always great at advanced strategies like query reformulation and they are often perplexed by insider language filled with terms and concepts that they haven't encountered yet.
In any case, it's an empirical fact derived from observing many prospective students using many university sites that these users are often frustrated or thwarted by the frequent usability problems on university sites. The best university websites speak clearly, even to yet-to-be students, and make it easy for everybody to find what they want. The rest fail.