Where Higher Ed Sites Need To Go

The single most important thing higher ed websites can do is change the fundamental organizing principle away from the org chart (content organized via department) and toward people. This means organizing content via degree programs which represents the fundamental connection point between student and school.

User tests show that students have consistent informational needs when deciding which university to attend:

  1. Do you have a program of study that interests me?
  2. Can I afford that program?
  3. Does the school’s culture/vibe feel right (will I fit in)?
  4. Grad level students’s needs will lean more towards faculty, their interests and research opportunities away from cultural fit on a social level (grads don’t usually live on campus so the social component isn’t as important)

This basic set of questions all revolve around degree programs, not the broader departments within which they exist. Because of this level of specificity, departments should take a secondary role in how a higher ed site is structured. Degree programs should instead be the central organizing framework.

I see too many university sites where I can find a program of study through the top level pages only to be taken to a departmental site’s homepage where I have to find the same degree information I thought I was originally linking to all over again.

With a shift in how higher ed sites are organized, other pieces begin to fall into place: building communities around logical points of interest, presenting appropriate content (research, faculty, pricing, culture, etc.) within context and, importantly, filtering out a lot of stuff that’s not relevant because it has nothing to do with a student’s preferred degree program.

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  1. Thanks for a great post. Is there a single source for the user test results you referenced? If so, can you share?

  2. Mike H.:
    We used Screenflow to capture screen movements, audio and sometimes video of the participant to record the sessions. Our testing rules don’t allow us to show the recordings to the general public, but I can share the notes I took.

    For context, we use the “listening labs” methodology in our approach to testing our ideas.

    Generally, we follow this outline:

    • We ask the person what program they’re in, what year of study they’re in and their general comfort level with the web is (including the existing tools at du.edu)
    • We ask the participant if they used the web to conduct research on the schools they considered attending
    • We ask what information they wanted to find to conduct their research
    • We then ask them to complete tasks similar to what they’ve indicated is important to them (I say similar because we can’t practically build out a prototype that covers every single program of choice so instead we ask them to find information on the programs we do have built out)
    • We ask the person to talk their way through their actions as they use the prototype to reveal problem areas, confusion, etc.
    • When the tasks are complete, we open the discussion up to broader topics covering design, current student issues, labeling, etc.

    Once we’re further along, we may choose to test on a tactical level- one visual design versus another, minor differences in functionality, labeling options, etc., but for now we are concentrating on understanding macro level behavior, wishes and needs.

  3. Mike H.:
    We built a number of prototypes based on the information we gathered from feedback (here’s version 6).

    Not all links were built out, of course, but you can mouse over links until you find the ones that are active. For the program aspect, which is the crux of the idea, go to either the undergrad or grad areas (the program grid on the homepage wasn’t linked up, but would work similarly). For the undergrad area, we built out the psychology major degree under social sciences. For the grad area, we build out the accounting masters degree under business. From there you can mouse over things and get a sense of the flow.

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