I’ve helped drive a lot of website design projects in my career, in both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors. And I have to say, nonprofit organizations don’t hit nearly as many potholes along the way as do for-profits. However, instead of numerous potholes, our nonprofit and higher education clients tend to stumble head-first into the same huge sinkholes. These are the web design flaws that are specific to your sector, more so than any other. I compiled a list and summarized descriptions of the top five things higher education and nonprofits should watch-out for when creating or redesigning a website.
1. Simplify your navigation.
It might seem strange that I, as a designer, might use IA (information architecture) as my first point, but it’s actually the most essential step to design. It affects everything that follows.
Higher education and nonprofit organization websites typically have thousands of pages; getting people to the correct content is fundamental. You would assume that an institution’s primary communications vehicle should offer everything to everyone at first glance. Right? That’s correct – when it’s a 10-minute television infomercial. Website interfaces, on the other hand, work better when they have less navigation presented up front. First point of access to your site should have minimal incisive content, and emphasize visuals with content that immediately captivate and motivate your visitors to look further.
Win their hearts and they will look for the right content. But when you present them everything, they won’t be able to find what they want; and their frustration will likely drive them elsewhere.
2. Internal audiences are not your primary audience.
Education and nonprofits are great places because there are a lot of voices that make up the brand. It makes them unique and ever changing. When using this brain power for a digital effort, try to focus on the consumer. And when I say consumer, don’t focus on the outlier consumer, but the overwhelming majority of your users. Who are they? What are their needs? How are their needs different than mine? Yes, your internal audiences are most familiar with your institution, thus are great sources of information. But information is not content. Content must be created from the point of view of your primary target audience. This will make the process a lot easier to solve problems that can seem unclear during development.
3. Focus on quality of content, not quantity.
It’s not a new trend that mobile usage is driving website behavior. Having quality content on fewer pages means less people getting lost on their devices. This means you need to help users find what they need faster and without straying in the wrong direction. If you reduce the number of pages on your site, that means less navigating and less opportunity for discouraging visitors.
4. A website is not a static instrument.
Unfortunately, however much blood sweat and tears you put into your site, it will never be perfect when it first launches. I don’t mean a pixel not being properly placed; I am talking about visitors not using the site in exactly the way you thought they would. My best experiences on digital projects have been when there is a phase two process, almost immediately after launch. This allows you to examine outcomes such as how consumers use the site, what pages need more development, etc. Identifying gaps and fixing the issues will make your website more well-rounded and satisfying.
5. Simplify your navigation again.
This point is so crucial, that it needs to be said twice. The initial impression is everything to a consumer. You must first connect with them emotionally before you can convert. Simplifying the navigation to get them to your primary goals is your main objective. Let secondary and tertiary goals fall off, or think of a creative way to get those goals accomplished without putting them in the navigation. Possibly shift important content from the navigation to the homepage instead. If you successfully engage a user, they will find what they need.
Think of it as a TV commercial. How much do you retain from a commercial? Maybe one line or one image. You can’t sell everything in that commercial…you just have to get them in the door. Consumers need to be brought in slowly piece by piece without being overwhelmed.