Why universities fail at website structure

Website structure is undoubtedly one of the hardest things to get right. This is especially true for the higher education sector. Getting the structure right isn’t just about how a site looks. It’s about how a user gets from A to B and finds what they’re looking for. For universities this can be the difference between a full or an empty Open Day.

As part of our ongoing work with Acquia in the higher education sector, we’ve been talking to students about university website structures. The most common user case for a university site is a prospective student searching for a course, with multiple tabs open and quickly scanning a range of university sites. They are time-driven and impatient. This alone highlights the importance of good user experience. 

Here are just some of the student panel's comments:

Are university websites structurally sound?

To get a bit more perspective, I asked Daniel Wilson, our resident Designer, for his thoughts on website structure, particularly for Universities. This is what he had to say:

  • Get your labelling right!
    Using commonly named sections such as ‘courses’, ‘departments’, ‘alumni’ etc. ensures users generally know where to look when browsing through several websites at once. When working on the architecture for Goldsmiths, this theory was proven when testing the sitemap in Treejack (our testing software). 
  • Highlight key information.
    A well designed content page will pull or highlight key details from the body, such as tuition fees and admissions etc. As highlighted by the students in our video, a properly structured course page should work at a glance, but use the correct functionality to allow a user to delve deeper if need be.
  • Keep tertiary navigation still!
    One thing that drives me crazy on content heavy sites is the use of multiple tertiary navigations, when you delve deep into a section, you can sometimes find a menu on the left, on the right and at the bottom. Just use one tertiary that is constantly positioned so that users can quickly associate that space with navigating. 
  • Users look below the fold.
    It’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to display everything above-the-fold, thinking that users won’t scroll. In the testing I’ve witnessed, it’s actually the opposite and users scroll almost immediately, sometimes missing things above the fold. In fact, with touch technology on tablet and mobile, it’s far easier to scroll and pages are longer.
  • On-page navigation is just as important as global.
    When I'm designing a website I dedicate a chunk of time to on-page navigation, so that the global navigation isn’t the only way into a site. This can be particularly important for smaller devices like tablet, where the global nav might be hidden behind menu buttons. I feel the need for a site to be navigable without using the global nav is crucial to good UX. Unfortunately I find a lot of sites tend to see the homepage as a giant promotional slot, often catering for a minority of users. When I design a homepage, I try to find a layout that has a good balance between navigation, promos and context.

If you want to know more, just let us know. We'd be happy to chat. In the meantime, why not check out our Goldsmiths, University of London case study. It's won awards don't you know?