Your school's homepage – the landing pad for so many of your website visitors. What kind of shape is it in? Do you get feedback on how great or weak it is? Like the curb appeal of a house on the market, does your school's homepage make visitors want to enter?
There is nothing easy about designing or improving a school homepage. Where do you start? Even if you do gather all of the data and survey your visitors, you still need to make educated decisions. It then becomes hard to translate all of the information into the design and make it work for everyone.
Even as a school website design expert, I am challenged in making a website homepage unique and effective. But then again, the question arises if it even needs to be unique. It darn well sure needs to be effective.
Schools are not in the business of designing websites that stand out and effectively communicate – professional images, user friendly and easy to find what you want. Instead, they depend on website vendors that may or may not provide a school website design that serves your school.
Often website designs are created from a template that are quickly produced. But even a custom designed website doesn't guarantee your website won't be ugly or ineffective. During the whole process of designing the website, the school's web management team sometimes doesnt even know how to judge good from bad.
We came up with a few things to keep in mind when you are updating the design of your website or creating a new website.
Keep it simple
In the world of the web designers and programmers alike, we all know a nice, simple design takes home the trophy. Unfortunately this does not always translate to a school website designer.
There have been many studies on what makes a website successful, and all the data points to simplicity. Google conducted a first impression study, and, you guessed it, visitors judge the beauty in a blink of an eye – 1/50th of a second to be exact. So if your website is complex, the blinking eye will deem your website not a beautiful.
If you have too much stuff going on on your homepage, it can be doing more harm than good. All of the Alerts, Quicklinks, Calendars, Social links, Icons, Search boxes, and photos may not be necessary if it is making the design to complex. All of those competing elements may be making it hard to do the primary things that need to be accomplished on the homepage.
Web design is a skill that marries art and science and requires a lot of expertise. We’ve put together some best practices you can use to follow to make your home page simple.
Whitespace, or what is known as negative space in the design community, is very important to creating simplicity. Whitespace allows the your eye to relax and your mind to breath. It lets you focus on the content, not the clutter.
When establishing a design, make sure that there is enough spacing to create 'flow' to the design. In other words, give each container of content on the page the right amount of room so it does not look like everything is crammed in on top of each other.
Don’t try to be too different
People find beauty in stuff they are familiar with. There is a sense of comfort when you arrive somewhere and you know what to look for and go to. Being different can create a challenge for your visitor and drive them away. There should be patterns to your design. Do your homework and look at what other schools are doing and what works.
Move content below the fold
In the old days, it was advised that having the content 'above the fold' way very important. By above the fold, we mean the content on the upper half of your web page and so visitors can see it without scrolling down the page. It is still important however that space above the fold needs to be clean and simple because now users are impatient. We live in a world that if it takes more than three minutes to get our Big Mac from a drive-thru, we are honking the horn. We live in a scroll-friendly world so focus more on the simplicity above the fold and move below if necessary.
Make it user friendly
How do you make your website user friendly? It's a term we all use, but what does it really mean? It starts with simplicity, but you have to make sure what it includes, is what the primary function. Simplicity is how it looks, usability is how it functions. Usability means “how easy it is for the user”.
When it comes to websites, the number one complaint from parents is: "I can’t find what I am looking for." So basically you have a website that is deemed as not useful and a waste of time. That is what usability is all about. You could have the prettiest website and won countless awards, but if the website is not user friendly, all bets are off. It would be like driving a sports car with bald tires.
There are some things you can do to make your website more user friendly. Some need to be addressed in the planning, others may be able to be achieved with your current design.
Survey your users
There is a wealth of information in the feedback you can gain from your users. Just ask them. You may be surprise what you find out. It is helpful to conduct a survey and ask them what they use the website for and how you can improve it. There are several online survey services you can use to make it easy to collect this information. This data will be beneficial to establishing the goals.
Every great website design starts with goals. A school website is different than other websites because it has to serve a variety of users – parents, students, faculty, staff and the community at large. However, you need to establish goals and the purpose of the homepage. Is it to provide important content to parents? Is it to share the latest stories to the school community? Attract new prospective families? Create some goals and prioritize them to make decisions about what content goes where.
Limit the amount of links and content
Do you really need a 142 links, 14 banners and the entire sitemap on your homepage? No. Trust me. Identity what is your visitors are looking for. One way to determine this is using Google Analytics to see the most popular clicks on your home page.
Make a great impression with your school homepage
The homepage on your school website is that all-important first impression. Remember, 1/50th of a second. That's a lot of pressure on making sure you've got a well-designed homepage.
Even those frequent visitors to your school website who might be looking for lunch menus, athletics schedules or calendar info rarely take a detour around your homepage. So you need to make sure you're taking full advantage of it.
Pull together your website team (add a parent or two, and even a student for a broader understanding) and critique your school's homepage. Give the results to your web designer or website vendor, and factor their feedback into the redesign or planning of your new website.
If you feel like your school home page is not delivering for you, it's probably not.
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.