Karine Joly No Comments

We have a tight web professional community in higher education.

We share, we borrow, we get inspired, we contrast — and compare. A lot.
A few web design agencies have also specialized, over the years, in higher ed websites. With our very complex governance systems, familiarity and experience with higher education is always an asset for any team tackling a new web design project 🙂

As a result, like in any other tight community, the good, the bad and sometimes the ugly can spread faster among higher ed websites. It’s always healthy to know our strengths and weaknesses as an industry.

So, I asked the speakers of the 2019 Higher Ed WEBSITES Conference to identify the best (and worst) trends in higher ed web design.

While each of your higher ed web colleague made their selection independently, some clear patterns emerged from this panel of 12.

Higher Ed Websites Best Trends and Worst Trends

The worst higher ed website trends in 2019?

Worst Trends = Sad FaceWhat makes your web colleagues cringe when they look at higher ed websites?

The HEW19 panel identified the following trends that wouldn’t be missed if they were to go. Find out their reasons by scrolling down or following these quick links:

I believe that data always trumps opinions. So, I’d love to hear from you (email Karine at HigherEdExperts dot com) if you have data that challenges any of these trends :-).

Off-target content

Joshua Charles, Director of Web Governance & Communications – Rutgers Business School

Joshua CharlesThis is by no means new, but one trend I hope to see disappear in higher education is singular websites designed for everyone.

“Everyone” is not a real audience. Prospective students are real, as are prospective parents, current students, faculty, and alumni. Sites that don’t have a clear understanding of their target audiences and user journeys often go hand-in-hand with poor user experiences. That’s not good for end-users or the school.

Cade Whitbourn, Web Operations Manager – Charles Sturt University

Cade WhitbournIt’s not a trend so much, but we still see a lot of bad content where universities like to talk about themselves in the most complex language possible full of jargon and important sounding phrases.

And it’s not necessarily university-specific, but there is a lot of content we see where it’s just the organisation or business unit talking about themselves, expecting the user to find their own way by interpreting the information the best they can. It would be nice to see more higher education institutions taking the time to write and present content to suit the needs of their audiences.

Stephanie Geyer, Digital Marketing VP – Ruffalo Noel Levitz

Stephanie GeyerWhen it comes to worst trends, I’m stunned that institutions are still developing one-size-fits-all homepage experiences that often lead with school news. This eschews the foundational concept of relevance to the marketplace.

Sure enough there will be “news” that is relevant for prospective students but putting it all in a bucket for users to sort through is not the way to get them to read this content. For each news story, the institution should consider the market it best serves and then apply to all of the channels that touch that group. There are so many ways now to serialize content and website development options that allow placement of the right story on the right page in the right moment.

Conny Liegl, Senior Designer – California Polytechnic State University

ConnyOne of the worst things universities seemingly like to hold on to is their archival mentality.

It’s almost like we’re afraid to let go. Instead of deleting outdated or poor quality content on the current site, we like to keep it around. Website navigations are often cluttered and pages are bloated, because administrators are rather “adding on” content than replacing it. With old and new content blending together, it is hard to communicate the right information to your users and stay on brand. Brand consistency is essential, and I would love to see universities carry out their brand online with a clean, relatable design.

Background videos

Erik Runyon, Technical Director – University of Notre Dame

Erik RunyonThe worst? Full-screen. Hero. Videos. (aka, we bought a drone). The large videos found at the top of many higher ed homepages do extremely little to advance the story or mission of the universities using them. Most could simply be swapped with any other institution. Other than the branded clothing worn by the walking, smiling, arts-performing, and athletics playing students, you probably couldn’t tell one from the other. But, what’s worse is that they’re terrible for site speed and download size. I’m especially looking at the higher ed websites that load the videos on mobile, but don’t even show them.

Mike Henderson, Web Smithy – Adams State University

Mike HendersonI would put background video in a bad design trend bucket. If not implemented well it can really slow down the page load of a site.

It also adds an accessibility issue if you don’t provide the user a way to turn off the animation or present a pause button. Conversions can also be negatively affected by background video. A colleague of mine ran a test on their homepage and conversions fell 20% when the video was present versus a static image.

Ryan Dee, Senior Web Designer/Developer – University of Nebraska–Lincoln

Ryan DeeBig videos are the worst design trend. The average web page size weighs in over 2MB.

When recruitment efforts are focused on international and rural students, high speed connections can’t be taken for granted. Site performance must be a higher priority. Even with 5G around the corner, users increasingly expect sites to load instantly. Hero-sized videos that go on for 20 or 30 seconds – or longer – just feel gratuitous at this point.

Aaron Coleman, Senior Web Developer – University of Nebraska–Lincoln

AaronThe overuse of moving background video is the worst. There was a time when this trend felt like the future, but that time has passed.

There’s still a case for subtle motion here and there (after all, this isn’t print), but background video for the sake of background video just feels distracting.

Carousels

Elizabeth Gray, Web Developer – Purdue University

Elizabeth GrayI believe one of the worst design trends going around is the resurgence of carousels. Although carousels are often requested and used in higher ed, the idea of switching content automatically often repels me.

On a personal level, carousels leave me feeling frustrated that I have missed content or that the content I wanted just disappeared.

On a more professional level, carousels are difficult to make fully accessible and can dilute branding. Sometimes less is more!

Tiled design for majors and programs

Jason Buzzell, Director of Digital Communications – University of Nebraska at Omaha

Jason BuzzellThe worst design trend I’ve seen on higher ed websites is the tiled design with images and text with filters for majors and programs.

From an esthetic side it looks very nice but from a user-perspective it can be hard to scan, search and find the program or keywords you need. This goes for a lot of filtered lists. Just give me a tabular setup or at least a way to toggle between the two depending on how I like to search or scan. The other problematic trend is the big hero image or traditional image spot with kind of a dizzying video background. I think it’s ending, but I’m not so sure.

Hamburger menus on desktop websites

Courtnie Ridgway, Digital Media Strategist – Tarleton State University

Courtnie RidgwayThe worst design trend has to be the hamburger menu on desktop. I am not a fan of the hamburger menu on mobile, but with limited space available it is a good compromise. I just can’t get behind the use of the hamburger menu on desktop.

I am a big fan of quick links and making a website as easy to navigate as possible. The hamburger menu is often harder to access and takes away from the convenience of traditional navigation.

Unaccessible content

Kimberly Charles, Director of Digital Communications – University of Illinois at Chicago

Kimberly CharlesThe worst design trend is the “read more” or “learn more” (or as seen on University of California, Irvine, just “learn”) link – we’ve finally learned not to use “click here,” but we haven’t made much progress. Ambiguous link text is bad for both usability and accessibility. Users that scan pages for links either visually or with assistive technology have no context by which to judge a link that is ambiguous. Think of your links as a call to action.

DePaul University uses contextual learn more links on their homepage. In the “We Are DePaul” section they have “Learn more about Life at DePaul” and “Learn more about Chicago” – these are very specific and let the user know what they can expect to find when clicking through those links. Higher Education websites should aspire to be the most accessible and usable examples of good web design as one indicator that everyone is welcome on our campus.

The best 2019 website trends in higher ed?

Best trends = Happy FaceWhat makes your web colleagues hopeful and happy when they look at higher ed websites?

The HEW19 panel identified the following trends that they’d love to see spread more widely. Find out their reasons by scrolling down or following these quick links:

Increased focus on usability & accessibility

Erik Runyon, Technical Director – University of Notre Dame

Erik RunyonThe best trend? An increased focus on usability.

This can encompass user experience, content, accessibility, and performance. We should all focus more in higher ed on improving the browsing and reading experience for our visitors.

Jason Buzzell, Director of Digital Communications – University of Nebraska at Omaha

Jason BuzzellThe best trend in higher ed websites is a focus back on the fundamentals and simplification of the navigation and bubbling up program content with a focus on prospective students on homepages.

This wasn’t always the case several years ago, especially at public universities. I am seeing a huge shift of a majority of homepage content dedicated to recruitment-focused content instead of the typical news and events.

Kimberly Charles, Director of Digital Communications – University of Illinois at Chicago

Kimberly CharlesBest design trend is a commitment to mobile-first, clean design with impactful images and streamlined navigation.

The best of these designs gracefully expand for tablet and desktop with lots of white space and images that become more beautiful and relevant at full size.

Elizabeth Gray, Web Developer – Purdue University

Elizabeth GrayUniversal Design is one of my favorite design trends. The idea that in order to design for UX, accessibility, mobile responsiveness, etc. we should not think of one sub-group of people, but rather design for everyone.

Think of a door to a building: the door is too heavy for young children to push or the handle may be too small for those with arthritis to turn. In these cases, we use a button to open the doors automatically. We have then designed for accessibility for a specific sub-group. However, if instead we made the door lighter with an easy push and pull handle, we have now created a universal door design. Universal Design says instead of the afterthought of adding something, go in thinking “What are some of the limitations to our users, and how can we correct them to make the experience better for everyone?”

Stephanie Geyer, Digital Marketing VP – Ruffalo Noel Levitz

Stephanie GeyerI’m always happy to see colleges and universities finally come to the realization that their website, first and foremost, is a sales tool.

This is a challenging position as many schools are still far from embracing the fact that they do need to market and sell their programs. Working on navigation to put prospective students (all markets, not just the high school crowd) and decision influencers first and then developing content that really positions the brand and program details is crucial. Want to stand out from the competition? Start there.

Cade Whitbourn, Web Operations Manager – Charles Sturt University

Cade WhitbournI’m a fan of a highly streamlined and consolidated information architecture (IA) that results in only a few top level menu categories.
The fewest I’ve seen is 3, with Southern Cross University, University of Tasmania and others. The emerging norm seems to be about 4. Websites that take this approach generally also give prominent placement to search and use a very targeted secondary global navigation with entry points for key audience groups (prospective and current students, staff, etc.)

This trend in higher ed websites recognises that you should not mix topics and audiences types into your IA and provide a tailored entry point for each of your primary audiences. The website of the University of Tasmania also does this very well.

Open-source platforms

Joshua Charles, Director of Web Governance & Communications – Rutgers Business School

Joshua CharlesOne trend I would love to see continue is the usage of open-source platforms like Drupal. The flexibility, sustainability, security, and cost-effectiveness are night and day compared to the old days of proprietary systems and vendor lock-in.

This relates to web design because the number of agencies and individuals experienced in open-source platforms is likely far greater than vendor-specific platforms.

Great storytelling

Courtnie Ridgway, Digital Media Strategist – Tarleton State University

Courtnie RidgwayGreat storytelling is the best trend on higher ed websites. The web is full of brands selling products. I love websites, specifically in higher education, that sell an experience through storytelling and conversational text.

Colorado State’s admissions page is a great example of how a university can accomplish this. With text like, “You’re almost there. Here are the next steps on your road to becoming a Ram. The content feels personalized and welcoming.

Personalized content

Conny Liegl, Senior Designer – California Polytechnic State University

ConnyThe best design trend in higher ed I’d like to explore more is personalizing web content based on audience type and a user’s location.
We could cater specifically to a student studying in the library for example, and display custom, relevant information on their device. These tailored experiences could engage users in new ways, and help streamline web content.

Big text

Aaron Coleman, Senior Web Developer – University of Nebraska–Lincoln

AaronThe best web trend in higher ed is BIG text.

University sites can often feel a bit rote, and while there’s definitely a place for all the fine print and legalese, I’m a big fan of sites that aren’t afraid to punch up the type a bit. Sure, keep things semantic, but guide me where you want me to go, and don’t be afraid to punch it up a bit.

Little videos

Ryan Dee, Senior Web Designer/Developer – University of Nebraska–Lincoln

Ryan DeeThe best? Little videos! I’m intrigued by videos that are all around smaller in size – shorter length, smaller dimensions, fewer bytes.

For example, I love the use of cinemagraphs on sites like TQ but these could be made much smaller by using .mov files instead of animated GIFs. If/when the HEVC format takes off, the file size shrinks even more dramatically. Video doesn’t have to be the first thing you see on a page either. Locate it “below the fold” and lazy load it for even better performance results.

Faster websites

Mike HendersonI tend to look outside of higher ed to find new design trends. Something I’m seeing a lot of momentum around are headless CMS installs with static site generators.

Tools like Gatsby have plugins that will connect to a CMS like WordPress to serve as the primary data source. These tools are very performant out of the box hitting very high marks in Lighthouse audits.

A conference focusing on higher ed WEBSITES?

The 2019 Higher Ed WEBSITES Conference 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 Higher Ed WEBSITES Conference say about the experience.

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