For my master’s thesis research I wanted to determine how students at the schools where I previously worked (Globe University, Minnesota School of Business and Broadview University) assess the quality of a college/university website. This was just one of several research questions addressed in the thesis “Effective Content Strategy For Campus Websites at Career Colleges.” But assessing quality is an elusive, subjective exercise. To help understand which elements students consider when assessing quality, I added this question (Figure 1.) to the survey, which was answered by 108 respondents: How important are these website elements when assessing quality?
- Structure of navigation
- Graphics (charts/graphs)
- A-Z index
- Easy-to-scan pages
- Aesthetics (design)
Survey respondents rated each of these as Very Important, Important, Of Little Importance and Unimportant.
Why focus on website quality?
While researching the literature, I found that some students equate website quality with the quality of the organization (Poock & Lefond, 2001). In my survey, I also asked students “how important is the quality of the school’s website to you?” The response was nearly unanimous with 96% of respondents reporting that website quality is either important or very important. It would, therefore, stand to reason that a college would want to do everything in its power to create and deploy high-quality websites as they accurately reflect or become a beacon for the brand. The topic of institutional quality is even more relevant today with national focus on student debt, graduation rates, and job-placement rates.
Of eight items considered, students rated them all, except photographs, as important or very important to assessing site quality. In the literature review I also found evidence (Poock & Lefond, 2001; Sandvig & Bajwa, 2004; Alexander, 2005) that supported student affinity for sites that are easy-to-scan and easy to navigate.
Students (81%) also found an A-Z index to be a highly desirable function and associated it with a quality website.
Another consistent theme with my secondary research was that college students in general are goal oriented and tend to move through sites very quickly. Designers should make note of this and present page content so that it’s easy-to-scan and digest. Content should not be delivered through PDFs because students are reluctant to download and read them. Their preferences are to read content directly from a web page.
What was a surprise to me was how students did not consider photographs or images to be a reflection of quality. Instead of linking images to quality, another measure of photograph importance on a website could be determined with the question—do photographs add to your understanding of the content? Web readers still want meaningful information and prefer more information, not less. Moreover, Nielsen (2010) found that website users and students only prefer photographs that are relevant to the key messages of the page. Photos with captions were also gauged to be more effective than photos without captions.
7 elements of high-quality college websites
To summarize, students found these seven items to be most important when assessing website quality:
- A–Z index
- Easy-to-scan pages
It would be interesting to see if these results hold true for other college and university websites. My guess is they would, but I would love to hear from your own experiences.
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- Alexander, D. (2005). How usable are university websites? A report on a study of the prospective student experience. Monash University, Information Technology Services. Victoria: Southern Cross University.
- Nielsen, J. (2010c, November 1). Photos as Web content. Retrieved November 10, 2010, from Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox: http://www.useit.com/alertbox/photo-content.html
- Poock, M. C., & Lefond, D. (2001, Summer). How college-bound prospects perceive university web sites: findings, implications, and turning browsers into applicants. College & University Journal, 15-21.
- Sandvig, C. J., & Bajwa, D. (2004, Fall). Information seeking on university web sites: An exploratory study. Journal of Computer Information Systems, 13-22.