Usability, Web Design

3 Top Factors Driving New Higher Education Websites

If you’ve been in discussions about a college or university website redesign, you’ve probably heard these terms: accessibility, responsive design, and integration.

Sites that are five or more years old tend to show problems in one or more of these areas, each of which offers compelling arguments for redesign. Read on for a brief primer on each factor and why it matters.

1. Accessibility means making websites that work for all users, including people with disabilities

website visitorsGood accessibility practices address the needs of users with visual, auditory, motor, cognitive, and seizure-causing impairments. They include, for example:

  • Providing descriptive alt text for images
  • Including captions, transcripts, or sign language interpretation with video and audio files
  • Making sites that can be navigated with keyboard controls only
  • Eliminating flashes or animations that might trigger seizures
  • Structuring web pages to be scanned by screen readers (assistive technology that turns written text into spoken words)

Building accessible websites is the right thing to do, fulfilling your college or university commitments to your students and communities. It also reduces legal and regulatory risk, as almost all higher education institutions in the United States are required to provide accessible websites under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The World Wide Web Consortium has defined Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) that set the global standard for accessible sites. WCAG 2.0 Level AA standards represent a baseline and are the target for most redesigns. Federal agencies and contractors are required to meet this standard by January 18, 2018. Many colleges and universities have pledged to follow suit.

Adopting a content management system (CMS), setting up workflows, and defining guidelines for content contributors can help you hit accessibility marks. You can require elements like alt text and establish accessibility checkpoints prior to publishing new pages. As a complementary tool to our OU Campus™ CMS, our OU Insights™ module delivers comprehensive accessibility reports alongside checks for search engine optimization (SEO), broken links, and spelling errors.

 

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2. Responsive design describes sites that look good and perform well on phones, tablets, and computers

responsive web designWhen smartphones first hit the market, colleges and universities scrambled to offer mobile alternatives to their websites, usually stripped-down lists of links that could fit a small phone screen.

But before long, web designers and developers found a better solution. They started building responsive websites that could scale to any size phone, tablet, or computer screen. Today, many designers adopt a mobile-first approach, establishing how a site will look and function on a phone, then building out for progressively bigger displays.

You can check whether a site is responsive by changing the width of your computer’s web browser window. Try it with this page—see how the top menus hide behind the “hamburger” icon at right, or how right-column content drops below the post as you narrow the window to your phone size?

Users expect responsive sites, and if yours doesn’t meet their expectations, they’re likely to leave you behind. An outdated, non-responsive site that doesn’t really work on a phone sends a negative message about your institution. It also may make you harder to find, as Google’s search algorithm now privileges mobile-friendly sites.

3. Integration connects strategy, content, and workflows across websites, social media, and other digital channels

connectivityToday’s higher education websites need to serve as digital hubs for their institutions. They need to greet users arriving from various sources and push content out to different channels. They also need to establish an institution’s voice and set a common tone for increasingly decentralized communications.

Establishing an integrated digital hub can mean:

  • Creating a central bank of content to be repurposed across website pages and other digital channels
  • Delivering automated, customized feeds of content (think event postings, news headlines, or course lists) to specific web pages, including your home page
  • Building in tools for promoting content across social media accounts, through email digests, etc.
  • Making it easy for users themselves to share web content via social media, email, or app
  • Publishing photos, videos, illustrations, interactive graphics, and other kinds of content that invite sharing
  • Tracking traffic sources, campaigns, and events in Google Analytics, and making decisions based on data
  • Establishing content guidelines, governance structures, and other tools that foster consistency and efficiency
  • Pulling data from other sources like your online catalog, student information system, or people directory 

A web CMS like OU Campus is essential in achieving this kind of integration. It can help you share resources, automate publishing and promotion, integrate disparate data sources, track results, and get large teams working toward the same set of goals.

A website redesign is the ideal chance to evaluate CMS options and choose the tool that delivers the integration—as well as accessibility and responsive behavior—you need. At OmniUpdate, we work directly with our customers’ in-house teams and third-party design firms to establish business goals, create workflows, migrate content, and bring new site designs to life. (See a related post on the benefits of tackling strategy, redesign, and CMS implementation in tandem.)

Most campus decision-makers quickly embrace the argument that your site needs to serve all users, work across every device, and tell a persuasive story. If your site shows problems with accessibility, responsiveness, or integration, it’s time for a change.

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And don't forget to request your free OU Insights scan! 

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Court Campion

Director of Marketing

Court has over a decade of award-winning digital marketing, creative management, social media, and strategic ideation expertise and has worked with small to global agencies and large celebrity brands. He understands the needs of the information age and attacks problems from unseen angles to deliver results that matter. When he isn’t online, he spends his time devouring media and curating his growing art collection.