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Breaking Away from the “Sea of Sameness” in Higher Ed

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There’s a quiet dread shared by every higher education web manager.

“If you take our logo away from our header,” they fear, “we’d look like every other university website out there today.”

Brand differentiation in higher education is difficult. There is a “sea of sameness” when it comes to the way most colleges and universities position themselves: expert faculty, ideal location, experiential learning, a global alumni network. Sound familiar?

This “sea of sameness” often bleeds into the brand’s creative expression. Many homepages could be easily replaced by any other institution’s homepage. Look familiar?

A list of common homepage sections

Breaking away from the “sea of sameness” is no simple task. Once you’ve moved beyond the identical examples of shiny sites sent over by your leadership team, it’s time to differentiate. Gen Z is notoriously demanding, and your website must be precision-engineered and unique. After all, it has to stand out among your competitors — and the nearly 5,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. alone.

Here are three ideas to help you break free.

1. Move to modular design

We believe modular design will improve and help maintain higher ed websites for the long haul. In the past, institutions focused efforts on developing web pages that serve specific content needs and short-term goals. Template-based design is difficult to improve and maintain. Worse, it has contributed over time to the “sea of sameness.” These pages are typically designed with integrated functionality and complex visual design.

At mStoner, we make a conscious effort to think, design, and code with greater flexibility in mind. We make functional and aesthetic web components that can recombine into a number of goal-driven experiences.

The beauty of this style of modular design? Your team can easily upgrade a component that is underperforming without sacrificing the integrity of the page or the site as a whole.

Modular design systems will also empower designers and content editors. Teams will make smarter decisions that don’t require huge effort. If you need to augment a page with new functionality, you can assemble existing components. And you can create new experiences without the limits of a template designed for a different purpose.

By taking a modular approach at the onset of a redesign, we’re able to build a product that is flexible, adaptable, and improvable based on new institutional goals or changing user needs.

Adapted from Three Higher Ed Design Trends for 2018

2. Search for answers beyond higher ed

Students, prospects and alumni don’t spend all day browsing higher ed websites. Like most people, they spend much of their time on consumer sites from Netflix to Amazon to Facebook. Their point of comparison when they first visit your site isn’t your competitors: it’s the web’s most popular sites.

Get outside the “sea of sameness” by considering how your audience interacts with their favorite sites and building to those expectations. How easily can applicants start — or finish — an application? Where have you placed your search bar and how do searchers filter results? How does your design encourage prospects to get in touch?

If your design isn’t built considering the implicit standards of the popular web, you’re just building another higher ed website for other higher ed designers, not for your actual audience.

Need a life preserver to get out of the “sea of sameness”? Consider hiring a UX designer or consultant. These professionals bring a deep understanding of the industry. They will ask new questions and surface new insights that will help you differentiate your site. They’ll also build personas that can help you prioritize your investments.

One key differentiator beloved by consumers but too rarely considered? Site search. A key platform for user satisfaction and market research, search is relied upon by some 68% of website visitors. Too often, poor site search results in quick departure from a site. Effective search — with filters, synonyms, machine learning, and more than ten blue links — makes a tremendous difference for consumers. And insights gleaned from good search analytics can help higher ed leaders understand the specific interests of visitors in their own words.

3. Find insights in your website data and experiment

Good data doesn’t necessarily mean good insight. Over seventeen years building websites for higher ed, we’ve found at mStoner that well-intentioned people with good data can still make really bad decisions.

Learning to draw true insights from the right data is part of the shift from of the “sea of sameness.” It’s no longer enough to scan a high-level audience report from Google Analytics once a month. Find the why behind your data before you build a case. Your analytics will only help to identify existing issues: it’s your job to diagnose the cause and to generate potential solutions.

For example, web managers often debate how far visitors scroll down key pages, and whether visitors need cues to help them see important content. Gaining insight on visitor scrolling behavior requires tracking scroll depth on key pages and reviewing the data to determine how visitors scroll. Equipped with this knowledge, you can make important content placement decisions that work for your audience instead of relying on what your peers are doing.

How do you know what site improvements will move you closer to hitting or exceeding your goals? Test and experiment!

You might create and test a couple of variants of key page elements, such as the color and the copy that you use for a call to action on a specific page. Deploy an A/B test to discover what combination of words and colors works together best. Based on the results of this experiment, cascade changes across the rest of your site.

Adapted from Four Strategies to Move Your .edu from Project to Process

Whether you’re starting to look at a new site or are just refining your existing property, swim against the current in the sea of sameness. Provide your project with a solid foundation by carefully scrutinizing your audience, technology, and brand. For an easy win, focus on the small challenges you can tackle now. Then improve incrementally over time by carefully following the (right) data. And never lose sight of who you are designing for. You’ll be swimming in new waters in no time.

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