Sometimes, you need a way to explain the importance of navigation on college and university websites. Those who aren’t working in website world, as in the leaders who are executive sponsors, may not understand the conventions and the benefits of information architecture done right. I hope you’ll use the advice that follows to educate and persuade internal stakeholders about some of the basics.
Don’t be different: Use conventions that prospective students expect and understand.
When I drive around my hometown or in a city 500 miles away, I know there will be stop signs along many of the roads I drive. I expect them, I know what to do when I see them, and I know they will be red, white and octagonal.
The same should apply to navigation labels on higher education websites. Navigation labels on the website tell prospective students what you have and where to click. When prospective students (of any age) come to your website they typically want to see if you offer what they want to study. Academics is your product and prospective students expect to find a list of subject areas to consider and degrees to earn.
Put your product in expected places and make it as easy to recognize as a stop sign.
“Academic Programs” is to “Majors” like “Come to a Standstill” is to “Stop.”
Here’s another example. If you have a place students can go to for help writing papers, say so. As prospective students compare schools and the tutoring services offered, they may not understand that a navigation label called the Martha & Paul Green Center for Student Success will lead to a tutoring service for writing. When students don’t find it — whatever it is — they may leave your website, assuming your school is not right for them.
The bottom line: Call it what it is. Use the word — not a fancy or jargon variation — as the label for navigation. Don’t be different. Follow conventions when you should.
Stand out by placing benefits along the way.
When I go to the grocery store, I want to get in and get out. I’m task-oriented; I know they sell food and my list tells me what I need. If cereal is on my list, I will look for my favorite one on the aisle where the other cereals are. (If I don’t find it in the expected place, I may decide to shop at another store.)
Whether or not I’m able to find my cereal in the store I’m in, I may spot something that wasn’t on my list; but that’s okay because I like it and it’s a good deal. Along with cereal for breakfast, I now want Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food, 3 for $10. I didn’t come into the store looking for it, but I made the purchase. I’m happy.
Let’s apply this scenario to a community college website. Prospective students may visit community college websites looking for majors and information about how easy it will be to transfer to a four-year school. Your school’s plant biology courses are well placed; but so are those of three other community colleges within driving distance. But wait, your website offers an unexpected benefit — unlike other community colleges, you have an active and vibrant campus life with many clubs and organizations. Some prospective students may view that benefit as a stand out — they may ultimately enroll because you offer what they need and what they want.
A label like Office of the Dean of Students and Student Leadership and Engagement won’t work for highlighting benefits you offer.
The bottom line: Showcase benefits — don’t hide them within vague navigation labels no one will click on.
Navigation labels matter on a website.
No matter your role, root for website navigation that helps students get to what they want and discover what they didn’t know they were looking for.