Before Overhauling That Website, Do Your Homework (CHE)

About a year ago, James Madison University asked Randy Budnikas to improve its website. Before getting to the technical stuff, he posed some questions. What, above all, was the home page supposed to be?

The answer: a marketing tool to promote JMU. With that in mind, Mr. Budnikas asked university officials to consider their target audience. Although many people come to the main page, the most-important visitors, most everyone agreed, are prospective students and their parents. Turn them off, and they will leave, perhaps never to return.

Retooling a website is an exercise in prioritizing some goals over others, even if it means de-emphasizing that blurb about Professor Bigshot’s award-winning research. Early on, Mr. Budnikas, the university’s online marketing manager, reached a conclusion. “Everyone was bored with our website,” he says, “because it was for everyone.”

So began an increasingly familiar process in the realm of student recruitment, where a sound online strategy is essential. Redoing a college’s virtual front door often means accepting that a 21st-century home page should cater, first and foremost, to potential applicants. A successful redesign, experts say, starts with research on what they want from the site — and what they actually get.

Such research requires patience, says Mr. Budnikas: “One reason a lot of websites are unusable is because they were rushed.” And sometimes designers — presto! — copy a cool-looking idea without thinking it through.

Previously a software developer at Amazon.com and Rosetta Stone, Mr. Budnikas has nothing against snazzy designs. But a beautiful website is not necessarily an effective one. Although JMU’s previous homepage looked pretty good to him, he saw a hodgepodge: calendar listings for faculty and staff here, content for current students and alumni there. “You were not sure,” he says, “where your eye should go.”

People scan websites in predictable ways, research has shown. Typically their eyes move in an F-shaped pattern, going left to right across the top of the page, perhaps a couple times, and down the left side. That amazing promotional video tucked in the lower right corner? It often goes unnoticed.

The key word here is “scanning.” On home pages, visitors tend to hunt around, searching for specific terms, Mr. Budnikas has found. They’re less inclined to read the chunks of text that some earnest soul on campus carefully wrote and edited. Only when visitors click their way to a specific page do they tend to slow down and absorb information.

So Mr. Budnikas and his colleagues mocked up a new, simpler design with significantly fewer words. Factoids went with large photographs. A prominent button prompting students to schedule a campus visit claimed the choice real estate on the left side of the page.

The admissions page also got a makeover. Internal data revealed that only about 1 percent of visitors clicked through the many links in the middle portion of the screen. The proposed redesign was much less cluttered, with fewer options, and the campus-visit button again appeared in a conspicuous place.

The Eye Test

Finally it was time to hear what current students thought. During “hallway tests,” Mr. Budnikas gave them printouts of the new designs and asked for feedback. The students were helpfully frank.

The university also did high-tech research, using the psychology department’s eye-tracking software. Student volunteers were told to go to the home page and schedule a campus visit. (One group used the old website; the other got a redesigned version.) Cameras recorded the sweep of each student’s eyes across the page, capturing “hot spots,” all the places where their gazes lingered.

The experiment suggested that the new design was on the right track. Students were drawn to the statistics (“16:1 student-faculty ratio”) embedded in photographs, the campus-visit prompt, and a “JMYou” button, which lets users create personalized accounts and request specific information about the university.

When surveying the previous home page, students looked all over the place. Many did not see the “JMYou” button, a crucial means of engaging prospective applicants. That confirmed the decision to display it prominently in the new design. Not surprisingly, students spent little time looking at the bottom of the pages they viewed.

Only after about a year of “pre-analytics” did Mr. Budnikas and his colleagues start building the new pages, which went live in July. Last-minute concerns about whether the new home page sufficiently promoted the campus performing-arts center threatened to delay the debut.

“Everyone wants their thing on the home page,” says Mr. Budnikas, so someone in his position has to bring data to those conversations. Future students, he says, “don’t want to see homecoming in the upper-navigation bar.”

That’s not to say he ignored faculty and staff. In an early mock-up, Mr. Budnikas moved links meant for them, as well as for current students and parents, to the bottom of the page. When user feedback showed that nobody was noticing the links, he moved them back to the top, in a small font. The trick: finding creative ways to fold what’s important to all constituents into the design without sacrificing the emphasis on serving prospective students.

Even the best home page, though, can’t impress teenagers who never see it. Although moms and dads might call it up, Millennials often bypass it. “How students are searching the web, how they’re getting to our pages, has changed,” says Ashley Budd, assistant director of social media strategy at Cornell University. “Everything is a Google search for them.”

That’s led her to think harder about search-engine optimization than she did even just a few years ago. If a student’s search for financial-aid information leads to the wrong page, how easy is it for him to navigate to the right one? “People say, ‘Every page is a home page,’ and that is a huge change,” she says.

Just because a sparkling new one is up and running doesn’t mean all the work is done. Like a college should have goals for its web pages, Mr. Budnikas says, it should track its progress regularly. Otherwise it won’t know what’s working.

James Madison’s goals were to increase registrations for JMYou accounts and campus visits. So far the university has seen a significant uptick compared with last year: more than double the requests for information. By October, Mr. Budnikas figures, the university should be able to evaluate the success of its redesign.

But the experimentation will continue. He has wondered what might happen, for instance, if he flip-flopped the campus-visit and JMYou buttons. Does their placement make a difference? The data will tell him. In these days of digital recruitment, there’s always more homework to do.

Eric Hoover writes about admissions trends, enrollment-management challenges, and the meaning of Animal House, among other issues. He’s on Twitter @erichoov, and his email address is eric.hoover@chronicle.com.

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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