Higher education is changing rapidly and is affected by changes to technology. Universities are competing for students globally, and everyone has more options than ever before. However, what we hear from potential clients is that they are not exactly sure how to take advantage of their digital platforms. That’s often due to a lack of strategic vision, and can be complicated by shrinking budgets.
For example, a university marketing officer reading up on best practises for designing and launching higher education websites will come across the buzzwords of our industry: user-centred design, user testing, iterative design and delivery, agile, continuous integration and so on. But put all of these together in a project brief, and you suddenly get a project which, when sized, can make eyes water.
So, how do you do more site development with less budget? Here are our five recommendations from working with universities and other groups all around the world.
1. Time-box your planning and research phase
Research, planning, prototyping, and iterating sure sound fun and exciting. They also mean that you need to commit your own resources on top of external paid resources for the duration of the planning and research phase. This all adds up and can quickly use up the lion’s share of the budget, leaving other phases of the project untouched.
The key here is to time-box the phase and prioritise what is needed. Instead of asking how much or how long it would take for an ideal phase, ask what can be achieved in a set time frame (i.e., in a week or two). By fixing the time frame, you are essentially capping the budget, and that helps the agency focus their resources on delivering the maximum value for the given effort.
That should come with the understanding that the project will run in an agile way which means that tweaks and changes can be delivered during the whole life cycle of the project. By doing it this way you are lowering the cost of change and enabling fine tuning as you go along and learn more by your staff, students, alumni, researchers and so on.
2. Start with minimal design up front
As your project progresses, your plan will change and adapt as new knowledge comes to light. This especially true for design. At the beginning of your project, you should not be after the perfect wireframe or pixel perfect designs in Sketch.
Aim to move to code as soon as you have an acceptable design direction and some understanding of the IA. Software like style guides (such as Pattern Lab) allow your design team and front-end team to work independently so that each can hit the ground running straight away.
There’s another great benefit to using a style guide tool like Pattern Lab. Making changes and adding new functionality is easier to do in a style guide than in a hard-coded design. Since tools like Pattern Lab are accessible via the web (allowing changes and progress to be seen in real-time), a style guide also allows for better collaboration between the agency and the stakeholders, which in turn minimises the feedback loop.
3. Involve users to test the actual product as you go
It’s crucial to involve users to determine whether you are building the right solution. User testing is the best way to create a product that is engaging and fun to use leading to better user experiences.
In Higher Education institutions, for example, you can easily set up student clubs and other initiatives that can continuously offer feedback on the usability of the website. Remember, you’ve already lowered the cost of change by keeping the previous stages lean, so now it’s time to reap the rewards.
What’s most important is to involve users when you would get maximum benefits from the feedback, and you have the shortest loop from feedback to implementation. User testing with the working product minimises the time it takes from identifying a change to implementing it and launching it.
4. Decide a clear content strategy and tone of voice
Creating a site with the users in mind is essential. Since these users have varying expectations, technical knowledge, and knowledge of what you offer, it’s important to have clear messaging on your site. Part of this is determining at what level the language, look, feel, and tone of voice should be pitched to engage your visitors as quickly as possible.
To do this, you need to determine a clear content strategy that addresses the following types of information and data:
- What students like and dislike about the site
- How often will they visit the site and why?
- Do your users have suggested improvements?
- Does the website reflect the university mission, purpose, and ethos?
Find answers to these questions by speaking to all of your different users: students, alumni, and staff. Getting a clear picture of this information will make deciding a clear content strategy easier.
5. Invest in a long-term relationship with a vendor
A long-term relationship with an agency allows organisations to have several returns on investment down the line. As an example, FFW is working with a global organisation to create a single platform that will power in total 40 websites with similar functionalities, similar branding, but different content. The same model applies to groups like nonprofits or universities where different branches, departments, or schools may need their own seemingly-separate sites.
An agency like FFW can help you plan for the long-term and develop a roadmap to improve your platform and reduce overhead in the long run. Ultimately, a good partner can help you lower the cost of implementing individual websites, plan for content governance, and offer long-term support and maintenance assistance. If you’re interested in learning more, contact us. We can share how our processes maximise the efficiency of your platform so that every bit of money you spend improves your site and offers a return on your investment.