Now that the new academic year is in full swing, and the dust has settled on enrolment and induction for 2017, the next cohort of UK students are getting ready to fill in their Personal Statements and submit their applications to UCAS by the January 2018 deadline (Oxford and Cambridge potentials will have done this already!).
But are these potential students looking at university home pages to find out what they need to know about studying at your institution – and if so, what are they finding? Is it a help or a hindrance?
What is the home page for?
I’ve worked in web and digital in, and with, the UK Higher Education (HE) sector for (more or less) 20 years, and there is no doubt that the role of the university home page has changed dramatically over those two decades. Articles used to proclaim that the home page was the most valuable/important page on your website; the most valuable real estate in the world; your ‘24/7 window to the (or on your) world’; your ‘first impression, and you only get one chance at a first impression’.
But this was before the prevalence of targeted, measurable, and trackable marketing and communications campaigns, where individual audiences could be targeted with specific (sometimes deep) pages tailored to them and their needs. And it was certainly before the advent of social media, where audiences are now far more likely to have seen your presence on another channel before visiting your website, let alone your home page.
So, what is the home page for in this omni-channel world that we now operate in?
Top Tasks – can your audiences carry out theirs easily and efficiently?
Well, some things certainly haven’t changed.
Back in 2002, Neilson Norman Group recommended that the home page should help users find what they need and “offer users clear starting points for the main 1–4 tasks they'll undertake when visiting your site”.
And this advice and methodology continues to this day: even more so.
Most web and digital professionals in the UK HE Sector are now aware of the concept of ‘Top Tasks’ and their management – a survey technique developed over the last 14 years or so by the amazing Gerry McGovern.
Top Tasks Management is a model that says: ‘Focus on what really matters (the top tasks) and defocus on what matters less (the tiny tasks).
Your home page, and every other page for that matter, should have a clear task or action associated with it, and be designed and written from the user’s point of view rather than the institution’s. And measuring how easily and efficiently these top tasks can be carried out should form part of your governance reporting and KPIs, rather than reporting on hits to the home page or similar.
Concentrating on ‘top tasks’ leads to cleaner, more streamlined home pages, rather than the home pages of ye olden days where everybody ‘needed’ a link from the home page to be found. Users need to be guided through completing their top tasks rather than being given a list of everybody that has some content somewhere within the website.
Content that works well identifies what people are wanting or needing to do, at that point in time, and enables them to do it quickly and efficiently, rather than just firing out, scattergun approach, what the institution wants to say.
Home pages used to be a selling tool for the organisation – ‘this is what we do, aren’t we great, here’s some (probably old) news’ – but those days are gone. Home pages that are inwardly organisational-centric, rather than user-oriented in focus, will be visited once, for a very short time, and then never again.
So, what are the top tasks for UK Higher Education Institution (HEI) audiences?
And this is where it can get a bit tricky, and where a clear, segmented plan is needed.
Universities have so many different audiences, all of which will have different top tasks depending on the time of year. As mentioned at the start, (UK) prospective students in their last year of college, or Year 13 at school, will currently be concentrating on applying to university, whereas those in Year 12 might be starting to look at Open Days as the thought of university now becomes more of a reality.
As the end of the year approaches, those in employment might be thinking about a job change or some professional development, and so could be looking for jobs on offer in the sector, or for professional development courses that have a January start.
New graduates, those from Summer 2017, could still need career advice, or might be looking to share their graduate success with prospective students.
Businesses may be looking for partnerships to develop their business or a product within it, whilst researchers at other organisations could be looking out for other researchers to collaborate with.
How are UK universities tackling this ‘multi-audience’ conundrum?
As you can see, there are a lot of audiences with a lot of different top tasks to consider. So, how are UK universities fairing when it comes to developing home pages that serve the needs of these varied and diverse users?
Well, better than ever, I would say, although there is always room for improvement!
Home pages are clearer, more focussed, and more usable than ever before. The adoption of mega menus, and audience-specific mega menus à la Loughborough, as well as mega footers has helped to tidy up some of the ‘I need a link on the home page’ mess, and responsive design has optimised HEI websites for use on many different devices – vital in this age of marketing to, and communicating with, Generation Z, who are permanently connected through some device or other and are comfortable with a multi-device, multi-media world.
Attention spans are short, and so a clear, and easy to use, search engine is key – and these are getting more and more sophisticated, for example through the adoption of platforms such as Funnelback, which provide enterprise search solutions across an institution’s website and more.
Universities that understand their primary audience (it could be prospective students, it could be those interested in research, and so on, depending on the organisation) and design home pages for their top tasks are onto a winner. For example, bold and obvious ‘Course Finders’ enable prospective students to go straight to the bread and butter of their top task – “do you do the course that I am interested in?”
Timely, targeted campaigns linked to the audience and its top tasks, serve to attract the reader’s attention, as the content both resonates with, and assists them in, what they have come to the website to do.
But there still seems to be a prevalence of very long pages filled with ‘campaign’ notices or news that, to me, look to be taking up valuable space where targeted and user-oriented content would be better placed.
Getting it right
So, here are just a few examples of UK HEIs whose home pages are helping rather than hindering. I’ve wrapped the top tasks up into user stories, which are a great tool for designing web content and services that meet user needs.
User Story 1: I am a prospective student and I want to see what courses you do so that I can decide whether your institution is right for me
Right at the top of the page – can’t miss it!
A bold banner inviting prospects to their Open Day with a ‘friendly’ course finder to boot. This just about sat above the fold (on my laptop screen) so it might be worth shrinking the advert box a bit to move it up.
Nicely in the top half and middle of the home page (on desktop and mobile), also accompanied by a timely ‘book on our Open Afternoon’ invitation.
Like Bradford with a relevant ‘campaign’ panel inviting prospective postgraduates along to an Open Evening.
User Story 2: I am a prospective student and I’d like to see what the campus is like as I prefer a campus university to one that is spread across a city
This user story generally required moving from the home page to the ‘Study at XX’ page to get to any virtual tours, maps or similar (unless the mega menu/footer on the home page was used), but there is no doubt that the standard of video and virtual/360 tours is both impressive and improving all the time.
Here’s some that were accessible direct from the home page:
User Story 3: I’m the parent of a Year 12 student and I’d like to know how university X ranks in the various league tables and other rankings so that we can make an informed choice as to whether to short-list that university and visit them on an Open Day
(The caveat here is that universities with somewhat lower rankings won’t be shouting about them quite as much!)
A clear and concise way of presenting high scores across several different rankings. Each icon links through to the full information.
A clear, usable slider with many of the university’s rankings and accolades all in one place, with each icon leading to more information.
An approach taken by a few universities, that of putting icons in the bottom footer below any mega footer. Again, icons lead through to more information.
There seems to be little doubt that most universities see their primary audience as the prospective student, and tailor their home pages accordingly, usually adjusting their content as to where this primary audience is in the ‘decision making cycle’ across the year. HEIs are making it easier for prospects to find ‘Study’ sections or enable users to ‘search for courses’ and get key information about studying at that institution, which is, after all, the bread and butter of most UK HEIs.
However, some pages are still very long on desktop, let alone mobile devices, with large banner ‘ads’ or news items taking up valuable space, and I would encourage these organisations to reconsider the real estate on their home pages and ensure that organisational vanity doesn’t get in the way of user needs and their ability to carry out their top tasks quickly, easily and efficiently.
After all, if the user can’t carry out their top tasks online, they’re not likely to have confidence in their experience at that institution in real life.
Got some better examples?
If you have any more excellent examples, do share them in the comments below – we love to hear about universities doing great things!