Six Steps to Prepare for a Website Redesign

by Sarah McMaster
Mount Wachusett Community College
Gardner, MA

The average website has a lifespan of about three to five years, and higher education websites are no different. In fact, college websites may be on the shorter end of the spectrum because our audiences have very high expectations and, for the most part, are savvy Internet users.

Do you want to disappoint your prospective students before they ever pick up the phone or set foot on your campus? I’m pretty sure that answer is a resounding “no.” So, dear readers, you have a web redesign coming up! Here are six initial steps to help you begin the process.

1. Gather a cross-functional team.
Just as your website should represent the full breadth and depth of your institution, your Web team should also have diversity. Call upon tactical as well as “big idea people” from marketing and communications, external affairs, IT, admissions, your executive council or decision-making body, student life office, living breathing students, alumni, and any other areas that will add value to your team.

2. Start communicating now.
It’s never too early to develop a communication plan and start using it. Letting people know ahead of time and inviting their participation in focus groups or usability testing, for example, helps to cultivate buy-in and generate excitement about the upcoming project. This will pay dividends later, trust me.

3. Measure everything.
And start with your existing website. Conduct testing now and set baselines for performance, navigation, design and usability based on results from your current website. This will be your comparative data later and help you determine whether your redesign has been effective or not. Carry forward with data-driven decision making. Should it be Prospective Students or Future Students on that navigation button? Ask your audience which makes more sense to them.

4. Purpose before design.
Design is fun. It’s pretty and exciting and what people will identify with when they arrive at your new, shiny site. But design is not everything, and it should be one of your last stops on the way to success. Before you go wild with color schemes and style sheets, have a firm, agreed-upon purpose, primary audience, content structure and administration model in place. A visually stunning website won’t do anything for you if visitors can’t find your admissions application, if department offices can’t update their pages efficiently, or if you miss the mark on how your content is written in relation to incoming students and their preferences.

5. Know your limits.
Do the research ahead of time and be aware of when you’ll need to call in an outside resource to keep your project on track. Budget accordingly. While some institutions may have a bevy of programmers, designers, writers and marketers on staff, most have small shops with limited resources and capacity. Don’t be the hero. Know if you’ll need a programmer or graphic designer. Plan ahead if you’ll need to replenish your digital assets to support your new media-rich website.  This brings us to the last point.

6. Plan to be engaging.
Your website is a front lobby, a gathering spot, an information repository and much more. Plan to use videos and to integrate social media functionality from the get-go. Don’t let these important aspects of your website be after-thoughts. Millennials and the upcoming generation expect better. And while you’re at it, make it scalable and flexible.

These six tips have barely skimmed the surface of a large college-wide website redesign, but hopefully they offer some helpful food for thought as you begin to think about the next version of your website and how it can be (or continue to be) a powerful and influential asset for your institution.

Sarah McMaster is director of new media at Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner, Massachusetts.

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