Our UX agency has worked with a number of clients within the education sector for many years. Liaising closely during projects with their various stakeholders to deliver brainstorming and empathy mapping workshops as well as usability testing sessions. This is all for the purpose of identifying and understanding exactly how to deliver effective user experiences to these stakeholders, typically teachers, students and parents. These sessions are invaluable for identifying key journeys through a website, and for identifying any kinks in a user flow which have a detrimental effect on users engagement with calls to action. These issues are typically attributed to poor structure, layout and/or design.

Designing websites for improved user experiences

A great interpretation of UX from Dan Makoski (VP of Design at CapitalOne) is that “you can’t design experiences, but you can design for them”. This quote is quite apt to this post, delivering a message that if organisations know as much as possible about users of their website, they can deliver websites which deliver exactly what users want. The user interface (UI) design is therefore a critical element towards achieving the goal of designing for a great user experience, as the design is what impacts the user on landing to a website for the first time.

Why is a strong website design so critical to the education sector?

We live in a digital age where device usage is increasing rapidly every year, especially amongst those of an age where they are using online search for various schools or universities. The expectation from this key user group is to be presented with a website which not only looks great, but is able to deliver by providing clear signage, easily digestible content and which provides these very users with the ability to engage and interact without stumbling blocks in place. This is all supported by a recent study that found that 32% of students said technology played a part when choosing their university, a percentage which those working within the education sector need to pay close attention to, by having responsive websites for all device types, and which serves to impress on the design front.

The impact of design on user experiences, courtesy of the University of Gloucester

I was studying at the University of Gloucestershire (UOG) in 2008, only a year after Apple’s first release of their 1st generation IPhone. For most students back then, we were using flip phones and had no idea at that time what a responsive website was. Here is the earliest screen grab we could find of the UOG website.

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Screenshot from 2008

At top level, the website itself was very clean design wise and well presented for that time, with the key features clearly indicated to users within the top navigation. The most advanced feature was a 360° tour, a popular feature for the time which provided a more impressive beyond static images into the layout of the campus.  Similarly to other universities, UOG didn’t need to think too hard about delivering a responsive design as general smartphone sales had not really impacted as already alluded to. In all honesty, responsive was barely a concept at this point in time. If looking at the most popular smartphone in the market, the IPhone, there were just 1.39 million sales worldwide in 2007, compared to 231 million reported last year in 2015.

iphone_stats

Moreover, where we see Universities now placing emphasis on social media channels across their homepage, UOG and others would not have focused much attention on this back in 2008. Facebook had only launched across the UK in 2005, so it comes as no surprise not to see social icons on the homepage design from 2008. At the time, the UOG website delivered on my expectations and requirements as the website worked well on my laptop, which (before smartphones were introduced) I used most days to browse the net.

Fast forward a number of years to 2014, and (as Alumni) I decided to revisit the UOG website, where I noticed that a drastic change in the user interface (UI) had occurred. What was noticeable was the introduction of social media channels on the homepage and a larger hero image, displaying a forward thinking approach. However what struck me most was the inconsistency shown with the brand logo in multiple colours, and the bold choice to use turquoise on a pale brown background. I’m not a designer, however this was not easy on the eye, and I had already lost the focus of where I was heading on the site through being distracted by the colours being overbearing and hugely distracting. The key factor of delivering a smooth user experience is to be smart with colour when designing websites, something seemingly overlooked by this version of the site. Moreover with my laptop now collecting dust and now using smartphone technology to browse websites, the site had not yet become responsive.

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Screenshot from 2014

Having checked back again recently, I was pleasantly surprised to have noticed the short lived design above had changed. UOG had clearly paid closer attention to the expectations required from a website in 2016, and listening to industry trends by taking measures such as including a homepage video. These trends are substantiated by studies completed by The University of Dartmouth, where their research found that 86% of colleges and universities now have a presence on YouTube. 

What is noticeable with the latest version of the UOG site is that the website is now much improved. The video drone footage of the campus has replaced the now out dated 360° tour, the turquoise has now shifted from being the primary colour scheme to being used to effectively highlight buttons such as “view courses”. Lastly, the website is responsive to render on smartphones.

 UOG3

Screenshot from 2016

The importance of UX to achieving more impressive education based websites

There are many challenges for schools, colleges and universities when it comes to tackling their websites. As highlighted within this post, it took the University of Gloucestershire the best part of 5 years to achieve a nicely designed responsive website.

What we can learn from UOG as a case-in point is, if a project managed approach to UX is adopted in the first instance, education institutions can improve their chances to increase conversions, strengthen institutional credibility and brand, improve user satisfaction, and save time and money by having a solution in place from the outset. With a project managed approach to UX, other, much deeper sitewide issues can be identified, not just user experience issues caused by design as emphasised within this post. 

Our agency is currently in the midst of delivering a new website for a renowned International School based in Belgium, the British School of Brussels. Stay tuned for further updates…