There’s a common malady that pervades many school websites. It’s one we’ve all encountered at one time or another. It’s found on retail websites, commercial and non-profit websites, and yes, even school websites. We call it “Unfriendly Website Syndrome.”
Symptoms of this disorder include disappointment and frustration with your website, and can even lead to a decline in visitor traffic to your school’s most important communication hub.
In this article, you’ll learn how to ward off unfriendly website syndrome – UWS – (sorry, it’s an acronym you can disregard after reading the article.) Follow these tips to make sure your school website is one that parents, students, staff and your entire school community can look forward to visiting and using – and depend on to stay connected with your school.
1. Fresh, accurate content
When checking your website for symptoms of UWS, keep in mind the number one reason people are hitting your site: to obtain up-to-date, accurate info. What’s on the lunch menu? Where’s the field trip form? When is spring break? What’s the email address for my child’s math teacher?
Stale and inaccurate information reflects poorly on your entire school operations.
Fresh and accurate content should be a priority. This is ESPECIALLY important in the beginning of the school year when your entire school community is searching for information as they gear up for back-to-school. Those initial site visits and the accuracy of your content go a long way in forming lasting impressions about the usefulness and dependability of your website.
TIP: Lean on content owners to make sure their respective areas of responsibility are up to date. If you find errors or stale content, make corrections right away. Conduct periodic, regular reviews to check for out-of-date content.
2. Audit your navigation structure
Ever been overwhelmed trying to navigate a site or feel like you’re lost in a jungle of links? Many schools have a tendency to try to cram too many links into their navigation. This Unfriendly Website symptom can confuse visitors, leave them without the info they seek, and keep them from coming back to your website.
A good rule of thumb is to have no more than seven links per section. While sometimes hard to achieve, limiting the number of links to seven makes it easier for the visitor to hunt. (After seven links you can no longer skim-read links; you have to take more time to read each of them.)
TIP: Good navigation starts with organizing your information. Otherwise, the website will be hard to use. Start with creating an outline. Ask your website hosting provider for site architecture best practices, then build a hierarchy of how the content is organized. See Keys to building a sitemap for your school website.
3. Make popular info easy to find
Where do your parents and other website visitors go the most? Do you even know your most frequently accessed information and pages? When organizing your navigation and designing your website, it’s critical to make the most popular info and pages easy to find for your visitors.
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, (e.g., lunch menu, athletics pages) that are common go-to areas of information and should be featured prominently.
TIP: Google makes it easier than you might think to determine your website usage statistics. The data is there to help you improve your site. Check out this Google analytics article, which outlines on-page analytics to help determine what pages are actually being read and how often. See How schools can use Google Analytics.
4. Make it accessible for all
Speaking of access, a crucial aspect of school website design is making sure all your school websites are ADA compliant and fully accessible. With 20 percent of the U.S. population having some form of disability and about one in 10 of us with disabilities that hinder computer use, website accessibility continues to be a major priority for school administrators.
Keep in mind, disabilities are not limited to vision and hearing. Cognitive and physical disabilities can present obstacles for how users process information, or how they physically interact with computers and mobile devices. Note, too, that accessibility also applies to any documents – such as PDFs – that are linked to your site.
Schools are required by U.S. laws (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act) to make their websites fully accessible. Schools and their website providers need to follow WCAG standards, worldwide standards for web accessibility, to assure their sites can be used by everyone.
TIP: Check out this article on How to Make an ADA-Compliant School Website for a review of the most common accessibility problems plaguing many school websites. The Campus Suite School Website Accessibility Education Center is a also good place to begin your school’s journey to website ADA compliance.
5. Keep it friendly on mobile devices
With more website visitors depending on their smartphones and tablets when visiting your website, you need to make sure your school website can be readily and easily viewed on mobile devices. Statistics vary, but it looks like more than 60 percent of website visits are conducted via mobile devices these days – and that number is sure to continue to rise.
We’ve all experienced frustrations when hitting a website via phone. The key is something called responsive design, which adjusts the layout and navigation depending on the device on which you’re viewing it. If your site does not feature responsive design, it’s a major pain to scroll, zoom and pinch your way to the content. And if your site does not feature responsive design, well, your mobile users are probably letting you know it.
Not coincidentally, responsive design and ADA compliance/accessibility go hand in hand, for the design standards that make websites easier for people with disabilities to use are also fundamentally good design principles for the rest of us. WCAG standards (see above) are based in large part on responsive design, and the recent updates – from WCAG 2.0 to WCAG 2.1 – largely address mobile use and making sure content is even more accessible via phones and tablets. You can expect an article soon on WCAG 2.1.
TIP: View your school website on a smartphone and tablet on a routine basis. Remember, that’s what most of your website visitors are doing. Work with your website provider to ensure your content management system does, in fact, feature responsive design. Mobile friendliness goes hand-in-hand with navigation and full accessibility, so emphasize simplicity and clarity when organizing and designing your website.
By now I hope you’re familiar with ‘‘Unfriendly Website Syndrome’ and the remedies to keep your school website from suffering needlessly. Make sure your content is up to date and accurate, visit your navigation and sitemap to optimize how your visitors get around on your site, make your most frequently accessed info very easy to get to – especially for those with disabilities, and make sure your website is friendly on mobile devices.
Keep these preventive measures in mind, and your school website can steer clear of this widespread syndrome.
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.