Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking about web site redesigns and what a ridiculous process it can be in higher education. Even a simple site (40-100 pages) at my University takes anywhere from two months to a full year depending on how many people are involved.
It seems after 6-12 months faculty and staff get tired of looking at the same homepage and their first thought is “the site looks old and is ready for a redesign”. We web workers know the tale all too well, from “the site needs more movement” to “everything we put out is green and gold (school colors), can we use a different color to make our site stand out?”
So I am proposing with all web site redesigns to work right into the proposal a schedule of changes based on some basic parameters. These incremental changes will make the site feel fresh and new while re factoring itself to better fit the users needs in the process. Everyone is happy, especially the web design and development team who can spend their time working on something more meaningful.
This has to be the best technique to show clients (administrators) the direct reactions to design/copy changes (especially ones they make). The fastest and free way to do this is with Google Website Optimizer. Google makes is easy to setup, you just have to create two unique URL’s for your content setup and a conversion page. Run it for a desired number of conversions and it maps and give you direct results. I found it works great with navigation ordering or “promotion” placement.
Another great way to use A/B testing on your own or with Google Optimizer is alternating content for internal vs external audiences. Most universities own a range of IP’s so it is easy to program your site to display different content based on the users location. Although you cannot guarantee that a prospective student is not using a computer on campus, you have a high likelihood they’re not. So putting a greater emphasis on prospective student content for outside computers could yield better results.
One thing we have done especially with higher traffic sites over time is pepper in some hidden features. It may sound silly but when people discover that an arrow they never clicked before opens a drawer and they can get more information they get excited. Its these types of experiences as long as they add value can make a user enjoy browsing your site and keep them coming back.
What is nice is Google Analytics has the ability to track page view and actions. This way you can see what percentage of users are discovering these features.
User test groups
The most direct way to get feedback is to actually watch users use your site. It doesn’t even have to be direct focus groups in a formal setting, a great way is to just go to the library and watch users use your site. I like to go up to a random student and ask something like “Im not a student yet but I am trying to look for some scholarships, where is the best place to do that on the ____.edu site” and just see where they take you. Or even if you don’t go up to them and have them use your site, seeing how they interact with the sites they do visit (facebook is an exception) can be super valuable.
With testing and analytics designers/writers/developers get immediate feedback and understand what is working and how users are interacting with your site. It also shows that your institution cares, not just administration coming through every once and a while, but small and frequent successes.
But remember, it is all about conversion. Every homepage needs to have a goal, where do you want the user to go, how do you want them to get there. These simple tweaks need to increase your conversion rate. Start with the site or page that will make the most impact, if you oversee your university’s admissions site, start there. If you just oversee a single department start with the program information and request information areas. The web is flexible and adaptable, use it to your advantage. Last but not least, show results. It not only gives you approval to make the changes but also brings a level of legitimacy and authority to you or your team.
Wash, rinse and repeat
Don’t get me wrong there are some great and valid reasons to redesign. If your site has outgrown its current navigation, the needs of your users have changed or the business goals of your department have changed, then a redesign is in order.