7 fatal mistakes of school website design

If you’re in charge of your school website, or on the team that manages it, there’s a good chance you get an earful of suggestions on how to improve it. Most often, the complaints you get have to do with stale content or parents not being able to find what they’re looking for.

We get a vantage point here at Campus Suite of seeing school websites before they undergo the massive overhaul that is re-design. Remember now, what we mean by design (and re-design) is more than just photos, colors and layout. Design takes into account navigation and accessibility in addition to the look-and-feel of a website.

Your school is not alone when it comes to the challenges of keeping your content fresh or making that content easy to find or access. If you’re setting out to change website providers or re-design your website with your current content management system supplier, there are some fatal mistakes of school website design you need to be sure to avoid.

1. Not ADA-compliant or fully accessible

Did you know that 20 percent of the population has a disability of one sort or another and that one in 10 people have disabilities that present obstacles to using computers? That means that your school website needs to be accessible and ADA-compliant.  What’s more, beginning in 2018, it’s the law. Any school receiving federal support is required to have websites that meet WCAG 2.0 standards for website accessibility.

Interestingly, the design standards that make websites easier for people with disabilities to use also are fundamentally good design principles for those of us without disabilities. Please refer to this article on How to Make an ADA-compliant School Website for a review of the most common accessibility problems plaguing many school websites. Also, the School Website Accessibility Education Center is a good place to start if you need additional help on making your website ADA compliant.

2. Unfriendly for mobile users

Speaking of access – or lack thereof – how does your website look on mobile devices? Currently we are seeing close to 50% of visitors are using mobile devices to use school websites. With more and more websites visitors ‘hitting’ your site from smartphones and tablets, you need to make sure your school website is mobile friendly.

If your website is non-responsive to your mobile users, it leaves a sour taste in their mouths. You know it. I know it. We’ve all been on sites that are just so darn hard to maneuver around on, you leave in frustration. These sites do not, unfortunately, feature responsive design, which enables a great user experience regardless of whether you’re viewing on a desktop or an iPhone.

Remember too, that content from your school website is being, or ought to be shared through social media, so if your website is not working well with these popular channels, you’re alienating a big chunk of your audience. In addition, more and more schools are integrating mobile devices into the classroom.

So does that mean you need a mobile app? Not necessarily. While a mobile app will push and pull content from your website, a well-designed, responsive website can also reach your mobile users in the popular social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, etc.) they’re accustomed to using.

2. Weak contact page and directory

Another area of website design where many schools fall down is the contact page and directory sections. These areas are traditionally among the most popular pages on your website, so you have to make sure you do a good job with these.

You want to make it easy to find all the faculty and staff contact information. The best way is to have a searchable directory. Visitors simply plug in a name, title, or department, and up pops the info.

Not only should it be easy to find how to reach teachers, advisors, principals and other key staffers at your school, you want to be certain that when visitors find the information, that it’s current and accurate. Place a link to your school staff directory on key pages. And make sure your listings are laid out in a logical fashion (by department, grade, etc.), rather than simply a long alphabetical listing.

3. Way too many links in the navigation

Another common mistake made by many schools (and commercial enterprises, for that matter) is to clog up the navigation with way too many links. Have you ever gotten overwhelmed trying to navigate a site or feel like you’re lost in a maze of links?

The golden rule is to have no more than seven links per section. That is sometimes hard to achieve but after seven links you can no longer skim read links, you have to read each of them. That number can be higher, providing the visitor feels as if he or she is moving toward what they’re looking for. It starts with organizing your information optimally.

How well your content is organized is one of the most important aspects of usability. Regardless of navigation or other design considerations, the website will be hard to use if you don’t organize the information properly. Here are some tips to keep in mind to make sure your website doesn’t wind up with a confusing amount of links:

  • Start with creating an outline.
  • Ask your website hosting provider for site architecture best practices.
  • Build a hierarchy of how the content is organized, create a landing page with links organized into groups.

4. Burying your popular pages

Your calendar, directory, and teacher pages are accessed time and time again, so make these easy to find from your main navigation. There may be other pages too (e.g., athletics, lunch menu) that are common go-to pages and you should be featured prominently. See our Google analytics article, which outlines on-page analytics to help determine what pages are actually being read and how often.

5. The dreaded PDF calendar

Sure it’s nice to have a hard copy of the school calendar posted on your refrigerator, but as soon as that calendar is printed, it’s probably going to be out of date. Many schools post their calendars in a PDF on their website. Not the best idea. Make your school calendar interactive. This allows for changes your school may be making to the calendar. In addition, an interactive calendar enables users to download I-cal events directly to their personal calendars.

6. No search

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty much search dependent. Whether it’s Google searches, Youtube searches, searching for files on my computer in my finder – you name it. Having a search page and search windows on key pages throughout your website helps eliminate frustration from users who may not be so intuitive in navigating your site. Help them find what they’re looking for with good search – a feature increasingly important too for your mobile users.

7. An unfriendly 404 page

It happens. A link breaks on your website. A user clicks on the link and a big, glaring 404 ERROR or FILE NOT FOUND message appears. Maybe the page was deleted, the user typed in the wrong URL. Regardless of the technical glitch, create a friendly 404 page that clearly tells visitors that the page they’re looking for can’t be found, and give them a couple of reasons why.

Your page should be consistent with the look and feel of the rest of your site. People get scared when it looks like they stumbled into a technical black hole. You can even create another page that allows them to report a broken link.

Avoid at all costs

Regardless of how happy you may be with your school website, or how ‘well designed’ you think it might be, take the time to do a little check up with these common school mistakes in mind. Mistakes like these can be costly, for visitors to your website won’t be coming back often if you make it difficult for them.

Remember, looks can be deceiving when it comes to websites. Rotating banners and huge images might look great on the surface, but is it what your visitors are looking for when they come to your site. Check out another of my previous posts: 5 tips for school website design, which covers some best practices for designing a school website.

Whether you’re looking for wholesale changes in your website, or can only afford to make some spot improvements, be sure to avoid these common school website blunders.

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As co-founder of Campus Suite, Steve believes behind every great school is great communication. His tech savvy and passion for design fuel his desire to help administrators understand, embrace and seize the power of web communications.

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