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Web Design, Usability

Tips for Streamlining Your Site’s Navigation (Part I)

website navigationWhen was the last time you counted the number of links on your institution’s home page? Between menus, dropdowns, featured content, and calls to action, a college or university home page can quickly surpass 50 links, especially if it has been a while since your last redesign.

In part, this cluttered navigation reflects colleges and universities themselves—complex, decentralized institutions with dozens, if not hundreds, of distinct programs that serve diverse, sometimes competing, audiences.

Higher education websites accrue links as new programs launch, priorities shift, and influential units lobby for visibility. Site managers often lack clear frameworks for determining whether or where to add links, and sprawling menus make sites harder to use (especially on mobile devices).

Fortunately, the tide is turning. Recently redesigned college and university websites show dramatically simplified navigation and a clearer focus on key audiences and goals.

Your next site can do the same, routing your most important site visitors to the information they want and helping your web team keep sprawl in check. Here’s how:

Prioritize Audiences

To understand the audience challenge, look no further than the audience-based menus still common across higher education websites.

The practice of providing dedicated links/pages for prospective students, current students, faculty and staff, alumni, and so on has been steadily falling out of favor, recognizing that pushing visitors to self-identify and assuming what content they want is problematic. But it still hangs on, in part because it’s hard to imagine an alternative.

In fact, the alternative already exists. The home page (and any site-wide navigation it establishes) is no longer the only game in town, and today’s Internet users commonly chart their own paths to information.

On many campuses, internal audiences are more likely to rely on Intranet sites or get day-to-day news from institutional social media accounts. Meanwhile, external audiences are bypassing home pages and their menus, delving deep into sites from search, social posts, digital ads, and other channels.

These trends open opportunities to narrow your home page and site-wide navigation focus. Chances are, you’ll make prospective students your top priority.

Focus on External Audiences, Namely Prospects

It’s hard to argue with this emphasis. Recruitment is imperative for most institutions, home pages have a unique role in introducing your institution, and strong messages about academic quality and opportunity resonate across all kinds of audiences.

This isn’t to suggest you should ignore campus constituents, alumni, or donors, but many contemporary sites make them secondary.

It’s increasingly common to find unobtrusive but easy-to-spot links for these audiences tucked next to a search box or in a footer menu. Also, these links commonly go straight to most-used tools (e.g., Intranets, information or learning management systems, online giving pages) rather than audience-based indexes.

This lets main menus speak directly to prospect needs and guide them through discovery, application, and enrollment.

Build the Case with Analytics

Your site’s analytics probably support a focus on prospects—on most college and university websites, admissions and academic program pages draw more visits than anything else. Whatever your priorities, Google Analytics tools can provide a powerful, data-driven case for streamlined navigation.

First, assess which of your pages get the most use and how users typically find them. Google Analytics content tools quickly identify most trafficked pages and directories, while the Behavior Flow tool shows common paths through your site.

Second, learn what you can about how existing menus are used. Google’s Page Analytics extension for Chrome shows exactly which links get the most clicks on any page.

You may discover things you don’t expect. For example, maybe your existing faculty/staff index or landing page is among your site’s most-visited pages, complicating a move away from audience-based navigation. But digging deeper might reveal why site visitors pass through this page, letting you identify specific links they want and then adding those links to a utility or footer menu.

Keep in mind that you’re assessing your current site, and existing navigation has influenced the results you see. Aggregated visitors, however, are like water—they find the most efficient way to where they want to go. Analytics reveal those destinations and suggest more direct routes.

Propose a Better Way

By considering audiences and consulting analytics, you’ll develop a deeper understanding of how your site is working and where it needs to go. In Part II of this post, we’ll look at how to design navigation based on best information architecture practices, create alternatives to link-heavy menus, and stay true to a more streamlined, user-friendly structure.

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Marcel Ayers

Director of Web Development

Marcel is a California native who has called Camarillo home for the past 19 years. A lover of both coffee and tech, he founded an online coffee bean and home roasting supply business in 2003 and then an IT and web development company in 2004. Today, as Director of Web Development at OmniUpdate, Marcel oversees the process of bringing customer sites into the OU Campus system. In his free time, you’ll find him taking advantage of the California outdoors from mountain biking and skiing, to surfing and hiking.

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