When you’re in charge of a school website, you’re often getting a lot of feedback on how it can be improved. One complaint that often pops up has to do with stale content and how parents can’t find the information they need.
As part of our work at Beyond Web helping schools & educational institutions, we get an interesting perspective on how their websites are evolving. When it comes to design, you need to look beyond simple changes like photos or colors- it needs to be a meaningful change. Remember, design also encompasses the navigation and accessibility of a website.
Some of the challenges you’re facing are not new to educators specifically. For example, keeping content up-to-date or making it easy to find is very important for any school’s digital presence. When upgrading or redesigning your current website, there are some things you want to make sure not to do. Some common errors in building websites for schools are not having any navigational system at all, adding too many pages, and no search function.
You probably already know this, of course. So why, then, are so many school websites so bad? There are a number of reasons, but often times it boils down to ownership of the project and confusion about what a good school website design entails.
We can’t help you out too much with the first part of the equation, unfortunately—other than to strongly recommend that you assign one specific person responsibility for building and maintaining your school website! But we can give you a list of the most common school website mistakes to avoid. Avoid these, and you’ll be well ahead of the game.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
1. Not Mobile Friendly
We all know how big mobile has become. What about your school website? Mobile phones and tablets have become a more common means of accessing a website. If you want these visitors to experience a friendly browsing experience on your school website, it’s important that the site is mobile compatible.
Mobile usability is all the rage these days and your school website should be responsive on all devices. If you fail to do so, your site will perform badly on mobile devices and you’ll leave a sour taste in the mouths of your users. Unfortunately, some school websites are not responsive which means you have to keep switching between viewing on a desktop or on a mobile phone. This means that even though the content is good, your prospective students will never get the full effect of what your School has to offer.
Also consider the fact that your school website may be shared on social media sites. That data is not optimised or properly formatted for those channels, so if you want to reach the audience, you will need to work on fixing it. In addition, more and more schools are adjusting their curriculum to accommodate digital devices in classroom, which means your website should look great on mobile devices.
So does that mean you need a mobile app? Not necessarily, Mobile apps can be great for adding functionality to an existing website, but they’re not the only option. In fact, a responsive website is ideal for reaching your target audience on social media which they’re used to using, such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
2. Inadequate Contact Page & Directories
When designing a website, many schools fall short by forgetting to take into account the contact page or directory pages. These are among the most popular pages on any school website, so you want to make sure that you showcase these pages properly.
You can make it easy for people to find important information by creating a searchable directories of all the faculty and staff contact information. Visitors can simply search for a name, title, or department and will be presented with the appropriate contact details.
People may search for your school’s staff on the Internet, so they should be able to find their contact information easily; it also needs to be accurate. Add a link to your staff directory on key pages so teachers can easily find other teachers in their department or grade. Make sure the listings are easy to follow, not just alphabetical.
3. Complicated / Poor Navigation
Many schools and enterprises make the mistake of cluttering their navigation by adding too many links. For most users, this can lead to feeling overwhelmed and confused, and will leave you lost in a maze of clicks.
The golden rule is to have no more than seven links per section. After seven links you can no longer skim read the links, but must get through each one individually. The probability of visitors staying can increase if they feel that they are progressing toward what they are looking for. This is one reason why it’s essential to organise content so it can be found efficiently.
The most important aspect in website usability is how well you organize your content. You can have a perfectly designed website but it will be hard to use if the information doesn’t make sense. Here are some helpful guidelines to keep in mind when adding links to your website:
- It’s a good idea to sketch out an outline before starting.
- Contact your web hosting provider for best practices when it comes to website architecture.
- Build a hierarchy of how the content is organized.
Be sure to read our article ‘5 Steps to Better School Website Navigation’ which covers some best practices for creating easy-to-use website navigation.
4. Information Overload
We’ve all landed on a website where we are immediately overwhelmed by information overload on the homepage. Many websites simply have WAY too much information and content on the homepage, with no clear hierarchy and no clear understanding of what you should be looking at first. Your school website should be neatly organized, with an emphasis on the content that is most important. In addition to solid navigation, a well-designed homepage will also allow visitors to easily find what they are looking for.
Remember, visitors are only going to give you a few brief seconds before they form an impression of your company and decide to stay or bounce. So it’s important to create an engaging homepage with all the essentials you want visitors to know that will grab their attention and compel them to visit other sections of your website.
It’s also important to note that if your inbound marketing and social media efforts are working, many of your visitors won’t land on your homepage first, so make sure your interior pages, blog and landing pages don’t overwhelm either!
5. Not Fully Accessible or ADA-compliant
Did you know that 20% of the population has a disability? It would be important for your website to provide accommodation for these disabilities. This includes making it ADA-compliant. Educational websites are usually subject to government legislation or guidelines that govern what they contain and how they function:
- In the USA, schools and higher education institutions are required to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which includes provisions for accessibility.
- In the UK, the Equality Act applies to all public institutions including schools and higher education.
- In Australia, the Disability Discrimination Act applies.
Other countries and states will have their own legislation and guidance. Guidance generally relates to the provision of services for people with disabilities and other disadvantaged groups. The obvious application of this in education is around access to learning: accessible premises, learning materials etc. But your website is part of the service you provide to students, potential students and parents, and chances are you’ll be required to make it accessible to everyone.
Also, be sure your website is formatted for readability. In other words, make it easy on the eyes! Choose fonts that are easy to read and make sure the font size and color are suitable for your audience. It’s preferred to use dark text on light background, as most studies and polls have shown that people don’t like viewing light text against a dark background on websites because it strains their eyes and is harder to read.
Websites that are more accessible to people with disabilities also often have features that make it easier for those without disabilities, too. Please refer to our article on ‘How to Make Your School Website Accessible’ for a review of the most common accessibility problems plaguing many school websites.
6. PDF Files for Online Reading
Most people dislike PDF files when browsing the web. It often interrupts their flow, and performing tasks like printing and saving at a standard level becomes difficult. Layouts are often designed for a printed page which is always a different size to what people use to browse around on the internet.
Having a hard copy of your school calendar might be nice, but as soon as you print it, it’s probably going to be out of date. Many schools post their calendars in a PDF on their website. Not the best idea. Make your school calendar interactive. This allows for changes to be made in real time and events to be downloaded directly onto personal calendars.
PDF is great for printing and for distributing manuals and other important documents (Policies) that need to be printed. Reserve it for this purpose and convert any information that needs to be browsed or read on the screen into real web pages
7. No Search Functionality
I don’t know about you, but I rely heavily on searches for work and life. I use Google searches, Youtube search results, and finder search fields on my laptop to find information that may elude me otherwise.
A search box is a simple feature many websites lack today. Without a search box, it’s more difficult for visitors to find the specific web pages they’re looking for on your website. The absence of a search box causes a poor user experience and reduces users’ time on your website.
Having a search page and search windows on key pages throughout your website will help eliminate frustration from visitors. You can help them find what they need with a good search feature – one that’s increasingly more popular on sites these days.
8. An Unfriendly 404 Page
When a link in your website breaks and you want to provide the user with more information, consider informing them what happened and where they can find the appropriate content. Despite the 404 error, every website should create a simple, friendly page that informs visitors where they can find the information. This 404 page should include one or two reasons why this is the case.
Consistency and branding go a long way and make navigating your site much easier for your users. This is especially true when it comes to error messages or pages that don’t have a clear purpose. You can create a page that allows users to report any broken links on your website, but also keep this in mind when you’re designing these pages in the first place.
Avoid at all costs
Regardless of how happy you are with your school website, or how well-designed you think it is, take the time to review these common school website mistakes. It’s important to avoid mistakes like these when designing your school website. If people find it difficult to navigate your site, they won’t be returning often!
Keep in mind that everything you put on your website might not apply to your visitors. Graphics and colors might be appealing at first, but too much of the same thing will make them lose interest fast. Check out another of our previous articles: The Definitive Guide To School Website Design, which covers some best practices for designing a school website.
Whether you’re looking for wholesale changes to your website or can only afford to make some spot improvements, be sure to avoid these common school website mistakes.
Do you have any questions about how you can improve your school website? Send us a message today!
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