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Higher Education Website Design Trends 2015

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the annual High Ed Web Association Conference in Portland, Oregon. The sold-out conference was attended by a mixture of website developers, IT staff, marketers, and vendors, all working with higher education institutions. Through some great sessions, discussions with dozens of web developers, and our experience working with top colleges and universities, Eduvantis has identified three of the top higher education website trends for 2015. All of these trends have one primary theme in common: They are focused on creating the best user experience possible for visitors. 2015 will be the year of “user experience.”

Higher Education Website Design Trends 2015

1. Responsive design instead of mobile

Visitors are no longer looking at websites on their standard smartphones: They have tablets, “phablets,” and every device in between. (I recently watched my cousin searching for college information from his Xbox!) According to Mary Meeker’s 2014 Internet Trends report, over 25% of all website traffic globally now happens on a mobile/non-desktop device and this is projected to reach over 50% in the upcoming two years. I recently spent time navigating through higher education websites on Google Glass and it was a disaster. Google Glass will not likely be the device of choice for your website users, but my experience highlights an important point: A university website needs to adapt to the user, no matter what device they are using. Using purposeful responsive design can ensure that users are having the best experience with your website and your brand.

Best-in-class example: The Oberlin College website doesn’t compromise design and is easy to navigate on any device.

Oberlin Home

2. Visitors don’t want to read your website. They want to “experience” it. 

Digital user experience continues to have a strong impact on brand perception. Consumers are also in control of the experience they want to have on your website: They can click on whatever they want and decide to leave on a whim. This means it is critical for institutions to design dedicated visitor funnels, so you can funnel visitors where you want them to go and make the easy choice be the action you want them to take. In addition to funnels, make dynamic content the focal point of your website. Turn your website into a sensory experience. All of the data points to the same trend: People want to watch your videos and view your photos, and will scan-read some of your website, but mostly only the headlines. So many websites are text-heavy and, while text content is an important element of any search engine optimization strategy, it should be integrated to support dynamic engaging content. Instead of “telling,” a higher education website should focus on “showing.”

Best-in-class example: The Duke University undergraduate admissions homepage does an exceptional job showcasing the Duke experience using large photos, videos, and engaging graphics.

Duke Home

3. Beautiful websites don’t generate leads. Easy-to-use websites do.

A common theme we observed at the conference were websites that looked great, but were difficult to use. It was hard to search for information, find what we were looking for, and even fill out an inquiry form. Higher education websites have evolved significantly from a visual perspective, but many of them are still dense and difficult to use. As consumers have less and less time to visit your website, it is critical to make it as easy as possible to share key program information. How do you know if your website is easy to use? Test to see what works and then keep testing. There is always a way to make your website easier to use and create a better experience for your users. There are now an unprecedented number of tools available beyond Google Analytics to better understand how users are navigating your website. Focus on what visitors click on and more importantly why they leave. Then fix your website and make it easier to use.

Best-in-class examples: Arizona State University and its Carey School of Business are easy-to-use websites focused on lead generation.

ASU Home

There are many other exciting trends in higher education website design, including program comparison tools, advanced forms to optimize conversions, A/B testing of home pages and landing pages to increase engagement and user actions, as well as advanced social integration. At Eduvantis, we advise many top higher education institutions on their website strategy and redesign projects in order to support an increase in brand awareness, engagement, and enrollments.