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Rebecca LarsonRebecca Larson, Director of Web Communications at Wheaton College, is one of the 12 presenters of the 2018 Higher Ed WEBSITES Conference.

In this 4-question interview, Rebecca tells us about the best website advice ever, the most challenging part of the job of a higher ed web pro, a great web tool and shares a top 3 of favorite higher ed websites.

1) What is the best advice you’ve ever been given about higher ed websites?

The best advice I’ve ever received is to let data drive your decisions, not opinions.

Various stakeholders will have strong opinions regarding everything from the colors on your website to where to place the “Apply” buttons.
Who wins when the VP of Advancement wants a green button and the CIO wants a blue one?Let your users decide through user testing!

How can you convince a department that they should delete a page with poor content? Show them the Google Analytics for that page. If only 3 people came to the page last year and they each stayed for 3 seconds, it’s probably safe to say that page should go.

Throughout our website redesign project, user input and testing were a key part of the process. Using thorough interviews with constituents, card sorting exercises, user personas and stories, and focus groups with users, as well as data collected more broadly from industry experts, our consultants created a new IA and visual design which reflects the needs of our particular audiences, not the opinions of our staff or faculty.

We have integrated this value into our Web Governance Guiding Principles, which include our commitment to a “Strong focus on usability and user centered design” and our intent that “user testing will be integrated as an important aspect of ongoing development and improvement of the site.”

A timely example of how we are using data to make decisions comes from one of our Centers, which has reported to us that its users can’t find information quickly and easily on the site, especially in mobile view. However, this feedback is anecdotal, and received 3rd and 4th hand. So, we’ll be using online user testing in the near future to verify whether other users are actually finding the navigation confusing, or if this department is just hearing from one or two demographic outliers. This will then make it easier for us to decide whether or not to spend time and money restructuring that part of the site.

2018 Higher Ed Websites Confernece

2) How do you cope with the most challenging part of your job?

One of the most challenging parts of my job is maintaining high quality content throughout the site.

We have a decentralized content management model, so departments are, for the most part, responsible for their own content. Often people struggle to understand how content gets updated on their site, what content should go on the site, who is responsible for maintaining and reviewing content on a regular basis, and how that content should be formatted properly. To address this challenge, we have done the following:

  • The web team makes trips to departments and groups on campus on a rotating basis to present “Best Practices for Maintaining your Website.”
  • We provide ongoing monthly training for users on a variety of topics such as “Text Formatting” or “Using Microcontent Calls to Action” or “How to Optimize Your Site for Search.”
  • Our CMS Trainer goes to a different department every few weeks for several hours to work directly with the content owners to address problems or questions in person.
  • We send a WebComm Newsletter every few weeks with tips, updates and best practices for our users.
  • We’ve implemented a new CMS with a reminder feature which will allow users to set up reminders to review content after a period of time.
  • In our Web Governance we’ve defined campus community roles and responsibilities for pagemasters, web content owners and Chairs, Deans, Senior Directors and Vice Presidents.

Admittedly, this is a long game, but we have seen some progress over the last few years, with more people coming to trainings and more people actively engaging with their web content on a regular basis.

3) What is your favorite tool?

Juicer is the social media aggregator tool we use to pull social feeds into our website. It’s integrated into our homepage, and we’re using it as a scroller on the bottom of landing pages for various departments and groups on campus.

I like Juicer because it’s easy to connect to your social accounts, and it provides a great deal of flexibility in terms of the way the stories are displayed. You can customize the design, as well (post order, feed style, show only posts with images, etc.). It also provides a moderation function to allow you to choose exactly which stories go out into your online feeds. This is helpful to avoid redundant stories, or those that don’t translate well for various reasons into your design.

4) What are your top 3 favorite higher ed websites?

  1. Wheaton College
    It’s my favorite because it’s my baby! We just launched the new site last fall, and it’s been exciting (and a little scary) to see it come to fruition. It’s not perfect, but I’m proud of the work we’ve done and how far we’ve come in just a few short years.
    Wheaton College
  2. Johns Hopkins University
    JHU was one of the site we looked at during our redesign project. I like the simplicity of the site, as well as the parallax scroll effect (something I don’t think is done well on a lot of websites), and the unique persistent navigation on the right. The site has a fresh, dynamic feeling which mixes photography, infographics and video without getting too busy or distracting.
    John Hopkins University
  3. Northwestern University
    Northwestern’s site was another we looked to during our redesign as an example of a look and feel we liked. I appreciate its clean layout, which allows for a good amount of white space (you’ll see echos of that in our site, too). Its navigation is clear and easy to understand. And, at least at the landing page level, the design maintains a pleasing consistency.
    Northwestern University

A conference focusing on higher ed WEBSITES?

The 2018 Higher Ed WEBSITES Conference (now available on-demand!) is a must for higher ed web professionals and teams looking for inspiration, ideas and best practices to kick off their summer projects.

Read below what a few of your higher ed colleagues who attended the 1st edition of the Higher Ed WEBSITES Conference say about the experience.

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