Takeaways from HigherEd Web

This week I was at HigherEd Web, a conference on everything related to being an web professional in higher ed. This year it was in Portland, which is simply too convenient to pass up.

I’m still processing it all (sessions were, almost universally, exceptional), but while I’m riding the train home, I wanted to put down some thoughts while the memories were fresh.

Prospective Students can’t always identify why content is on the page

Mark Heiman, an awesome fellow from Carleton College, gave a session on the lessons they’d learned doing focus groups with people from the surrounding areas, who weren’t necessarily familiar with Carleton.

One of their tests showed well designed homepages from poorly known colleges, and then asking for candid feedback. It became clear that these students thought every item on the homepage was directed at them, including links intended for current students, faculty, and alumni. Of particular note was their strong dislike of “donate now” buttons — they felt those buttons conveyed a sense of financial instability.

But that doesn’t mean we can or should hide that button. Mark thought that age (his focus group participants were mostly 16-17) was a significant factor, and that as we age, we get better at piecing together more subtle branding messages. We can use that to our advantage when we design pages.

We need to do task completion testing

We should watch people try to complete a few simple tasks after being presented with a redesigned page for the first time. When we launched a new design, we had a couple links that students really struggled with, and which a couple hours of testing might have immediately identified.

Be outcome focused

One session, by the folks at Purdue, talked about how after a tuition freeze and budget reductions, they’ve become more outcome focused, instead of app focused. Every project needs to have a solid answer to the question “How does this help student success?”

That’s a great focusing question. The answer might be as awesome as providing a new platform for instruction, or as benign as providing a cost savings to keep tuition down.

They also mentioned testing. After developing something, they partner with their research department to run a study on before and after effects of whatever was developed, to make sure its having the desired impact, and to develop better apps in the future. We need to do more of that, and validate that we made the correct change.

Students receive too many messages

Regardless of if they’re current or prospective, students universally feel like they receive too many messages. We need to be sure to provide methods to limit the type and quantity of communications and a way to specify the medium.

A related difficulty is that people often think their message is both important and urgent. But a message advertising an event next week should have a very different priority and use different mediums than one warning about tuition being due next week. And it’s important that people who craft those messages self police to categorize their messages appropriately. Abuse of any one medium will result in the messages being lost in a vast sea of other messages.

Not all problems have tech solutions

Everyone knows this, of course. But sometimes there’s a problem and you’re just desperate to do something, anything, to help out. But it might be that you’re just crafting a new interface to a broken business process. Talk to the stakeholders first; your new interface might be the catalyst to drive process improvement.

Cross-team communication is super important

Again, another one we all know. But actually hearing some teams talk about how they’ve integrated the web, marketing, communications, social media, design and admissions people was really enlightening. I just wish I also knew how to make that kind of coordinated work happen &embdash; beyond scheduling weekly meetings for everyone to sit down and talk about their disjointed projects.

We need to care even more about mobile

When I first started doing the redesign at Lane, it was important to me that the site worked on mobile, since that’s how the majority of my students used the Internet. But it appears I underestimated just how mobile-centric web visitors have become. In addition to the evidence presented in Noel-Levitz’s E-Expectations Report, I heard session presenters state that up to 70% of their prospective students are using mobile as their principle method of accessing the Internet.

Our main website may be mobile friendly, but many of our others aren’t. We need to fix that.

I will definitely be requesting to return to this conference next year.

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