As part of our digital strategy process, we always spend time developing user personas. User personas -- essentially profiles of the different types of users who will engage with a website -- help us determine how to organize content and how to speak to key benefits and differentiating factors of services or products. There are few instances in which user personas are more important than in the designing of a website for an educational institution. The reason being that higher education institutions are usually quite large in scale and have a handful of highly specific and distinct user groups, often with differing goals or purposes.
Most institutions will see website traffic from the following user groups: current students, faculty and staff, alumni, parents of prospective students, prospective undergraduate students, and prospective graduate students. You can imagine that each of these user types will have different goals in mind when they come to the website. With so many different needs to be met, it's critical to usher users down the right path towards the information they seek. If users can't find what they're looking for quickly, you can be sure they won't stick around to search for it. Let's look at some ways to define clear user pathways on higher education websites.
Much of the traffic coming to any higher education website is going to be from faculty, staff, and currently enrolled students who use the website as a portal to the academic resources they need to access on a daily basis. It's the job of the website to quickly funnel these users to the pages and resources they need, without forcing them to search too much or think too hard about it. Offering shortcuts to these most often used resources in the header of the website is an effective way to meet the needs of these users.
The University of British Columbia both offer easy access to links and services their communities use frequently:
Allow users to self-identify
One of the best ways to define clear user pathways is to offer browsing entry points based on a user identifying him or herself. Users who self-select as prospective students, for example, can be given an overview of key admission information as well as further pathways to research the aspects of the college experience that appeal to them. Alumni, on the other hand, can be directed to an area of the site dedicated to alumni achievements, events, and ways to give back.
Oxford University offers quick links for staff, current students, alumni, and visitors, as well as clear paths for three different types of prospective students (undergraduate, graduate, and continuing).
Offer multiple ways to browse
Asking users to self-identify within a certain group isn't the only way to define pathways for users. In fact, it's a good idea to offer multiple ways to navigate the site -- including by interest or program, for example. Offering varied entry points to deeper browsing helps ensure that every user's needs are spoken to and that each website visitor is able to find a pathway to the information he or she came for.
Bucknell University offers pathways to material that's interesting to users from varied groups.
Write the right CTAs
Another element of creating successful user pathways is the creation of calls-to-actions (CTAs) that speak appropriately to the natural next step of a specific user. When it comes to prospective students considering your institution, for example, it's important to offer different next steps for students at different stages of the process. Students who are just getting to know you may be interested in requesting information to be sent to them, or in learning more about the programs offered. Students who are more familiar with your institution might be interested in planning a visit. Those who've made up their minds will want a pathway to opening an application. Keep the progression of user needs in mind when you plan your CTAs.
The University of Miami and The University of Vermont both offer a handful of options for next steps to prospective students:
Offer a customized experience
Customization is the ultimate means of defining user pathways. A handful of higher education websites allow users to customize the website experience to their specific needs or interests so that when they return next they'll only see content that's relevant to them. If that isn't a great way to guide users towards the content that suits them, we don't know is.
Northeastern University asks users to fill out a small questionnaire (and create an account) to customize the website to their interests:
Bucknell University allows users to select categories of interest:
The importance of clearly defined, easily-navigable user pathways to the success of an education website cannot be overstated. It's critical to guide your many user types through the vast assortment of content available on your site, towards the information that matters most to them. Always keep the needs of your users in mind, and follow the above strategies to ensure your website satisfies each of your visitors.