By Dominique O’Brien and Liz McLean.
Keeping up with the latest technology can be challenging for schools. There is no doubt that, with the growing influence and ubiquity of the internet, there is increasing pressure on schools to have a continuously updated, feature-rich and useful website. While the world is experiencing exponential technological growth, it can sometimes feel like we are chasing our tails when it comes to reflecting our schools’ education policies and values in an online environment.
In 2010, Nielsen released an internet and technology report that found the average Australian spent a total of two working days (or 16 hours) every week online. Since then, users have taken it to the streets with wireless and mobile access continuing to climb. Organisations the world over, but especially in modern societies such as Australia, are struggling to keep up with the increased demand for their online presence. For schools, this means content for stakeholders from students, parents and teachers (including prospective students and teachers), and the functionality to harness the latest web tools. The days of a website being a few static pages built in-house by clever high school students or parents are over.
So where should schools begin? Luckily, the fundamental strategies of web design still apply, so your aim should be to seamlessly combine audience-focused strategies with the latest web trends. The result will be a modern, stylish and functional site that is built on tried and true web principles.
We’ve provided a Get Started guide of six tips to get you thinking before embarking on a new website development project.
1. Think about the user experience and arrangement of information
Bear in mind that web users have an extremely short attention span. In fact, your site has precisely three seconds to capture a user’s attention. Failing this, they will often leave immediately and all you’ll be left with is a high bounce rate and dissatisfied stakeholders.
Simple navigation is the key here. With content-heavy sites, use multiple levels of menus with clear, obvious categorisation and headings. A-level menus are more prominent and accommodate important pages such as ‘Learning,’ or ‘Our Community’. The B-level menus are smaller, less eye-catching and are designed to have functional menu options such as ‘Contact Us’, or ‘Gallery’.
If you have Google analytics (or similar) set up on your current site, identify the popular pages and make them easy to find – don’t bury them deep in the site. There will definitely be areas that you will want your users to visit, for example, ‘Enrolments’. Are these easy to find and are they highlighted in some way on the home page? Take time to explore sites and set yourself a task, such as, how much are the fees at this school? Then ask yourself, how hard was it to find this information, and why?
2. Engage a web development company
Badly designed sites with fragile code make your site difficult to maintain and increase costs over the long term, especially if staff are unable to update specific areas quickly and easily. Poor design will also turn users off immediately (remember the three-second rule).
Working with a professional web development company is the best way to ensure that your website is easy to use, maintain and update. When choosing a company, ensure that they understand your values and have worked with schools in the past. This is crucial, as they will have a greater understanding of what will be required in terms of both development and design. By working with professionals, you can ensure that the advice you are getting is spot-on and the level of service, support and workmanship is consistent and flexible. Consider how you want your site to be managed going forward. If you require staff to update it internally, the best option is a content management system (CMS). A good organisation will also offer training on how to use your site, so it can be almost fully-managed internally. Also, consider ongoing support and maintenance. Does the service stop as soon as the site goes live, or is that simply the beginning?
3. Develop a strategy
Take a strategic approach to your new site and consider the following factors: Who are you targeting? For example, if international students are your focus, is that information front and centre?
If you need to have portals for key areas with different audiences (e.g. students, parents, staff, sports, music, drama), will you address these with different landing pages, or by means of secure areas accessed by logging in? Perhaps a special menu system? This can be a great way of engaging visitors and directing them to the parts of your site most useful to them.
Consider what actions you want the user to take. Do you want them to download a form, make an enquiry or just get some information? Again, make it simple and ensure you have the functionality to facilitate it.
Show your colours. The core values of your school and your commitment to technology need to be illustrated throughout the site. How will you achieve that through content, design and engagement?
Make a plan for ongoing development of your site. Updating your site frequently encourages return visits and even boosts your Google ranking. To stay in touch with your visitors, you must plan for the future.
Consider reviewing websites in similar fields. For example, university websites, with typically a much greater depth of content and functionality, can provide you with ideas for your own content and structure.
Reflect on all of these potential inclusions and then work with your development company to decide how you will go about implementing them. Each element should be accessible in a way that is dynamic and interesting.
4. Consider recent design trends
Web design trends come and go, but they are an essential part of the web development process. In 2012, there are some trends that look great and significantly improve the user’s experience. For example, fixed width is out, dynamic layouts are in, which means that sites can be viewed more easily across a variety of screen sizes and devices, as the content simply adjusts to fit. In line with the ‘consumption is everywhere’ philosophy, you can’t beat a good info graphic. An info graphic is organised with supporting imagery, charts and data into a bite-sized graphic that concisely conveys even the most perplexing content. This is great if you are not entirely sure how to display complicated information.
We are all familiar with the term, less is more, and websites are no exception. A minimalistic user-interface, combined with clear, simple information architecture and uncluttered layout, helps to reduce distractions and keep users focused on their goals.
5. Consider current technology trends
Once you have determined what your website will be primarily used for, you can then decide what functionality you will need. If increasing enrolments is your focus, an online enrolment form will allow future students and their parents to apply online. For ongoing site management, determine the access levels of internal administrators. Super administrator access will allow access to everything on the site, while an administrator will have restrictions to some areas and content editors can be restricted to certain categories, and so on.
Keeping parents and other members of your school community up to date may also be a priority. Here, you would want to utilise a calendar component that lists upcoming events. If you want to visually showcase your school’s best assets, use a photo gallery or work with your web development company to create a virtual tour.
How about an online uniform shop? Think about what it will sell and how it will work within the site. Could online payment make uniform purchases easier for time-poor parents? These are just some examples but, with the wonderful world of the web, if you can dream it, you can build it.
6. Get familiar with WCAG 2.0
The industry standard, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0) framework, defines how to make web content more accessible for people with a range of disabilities. The primary goal is to provide a unified standard that is adaptable enough to meet the needs of individuals, organisations and governments internationally. The term, web content, refers to any information on a web page or application, including text, images, video, documents and sound.
To make it more accessible, content is provided to users in different formats. An example is the provision of text alternatives to non-text content. In a nutshell, the more usable your website, the more people will be able access it. In Australia, the federal government requires all government agencies to become compliant by 2015 in order to adhere to international best-practice standards. This includes both external websites and intranets (internal sites). Any sites that are working with the government, or applying for grants of any kind, will need to be compliant after this date.
There is no doubt that the redesign of a website is a daunting task in a myriad of ways. In order to keep your head above water during the process, use this list as a guide and remember to get some professional advice to help steer you in the right direction.
What to ask a prospective web developer:
1. What do I do if I want to move my website to another company?
Closed-source content management systems known as proprietary systems belong to the development company so if, for any reason, you want to move away from your original developers, they will keep your site and you will have to redevelop from scratch. Instead, choose an open source CMS that is yours to move, and which can be supported by multiple companies. For instance, Joomla, Word Press or Drupal.
2. What other schools have you developed websites for, and what did you create?
Getting a development company with school or other educational organisation experience, means they understand what you need and can bring ideas and knowledge to the table. Finding out what other schools offer could be an inspiration for your own site. Ask to see design examples and sites that fit your type of content structure and target audience.
3. What support do you offer? What is the cost? How do you handle CMS updates?
While you can do a lot of website changes on a modern website yourself, it is invaluable to have help and support on-call to make any complex updates, fix errors or just to assist.
Find out what options are available. Asking directly can also help you avoid sneaky, hidden ongoing costs.
CMS upgrades help maintain a secure site and often include improvements to features in the system. Keep up to date and informed by asking about regular maintenance.
4. What project management is provided?
Having an experienced project manager to guide you through the process, helps to keep your project on track. A good relationship with the company has many advantages. Use their knowledge to improve your online presence.
Dominique O’Brien and Liz McLean are experienced website project managers for Butterfly (Melbourne & Sydney).
For more information, please call 03 9009 9604.
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