In the second installment in a series of articles summarizing the results of my thesis, “Effective Content Strategy for Campus Websites at Career Colleges,” I look at information architecture. Not surprisingly, student expectations of college websites are unlike any other audience group. Moreover, students have little patience for sites that don’t deliver what they want, immediately. Read on for what students expect from college students

Sandvig and Bajwa (2004) observe that university students are goal-oriented and tend to move through websites as quickly as possible. What students expect from college websites-Teagarden.techThey studied nine university websites: Harvard University, Pepperdine University, Princeton University, University of Michigan, and University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, University of California Los Angeles, University of Texas Austin, and Yale University. One of the questions they asked was “How do university students navigate or seek information on university websites?” (p. 14). Website attributes users liked most were simplicity and good organization. Least-liked attributes were clutter and poor organization. Nielsen (2010b, p. 3) found that college students “prefer sites that look clean and simple, rather than flashy and busy.”

Students are multitaskers

Because students are goal oriented, designers should create a website structure, or information architecture, that enables students to navigate and scan through a site quickly. In fact, following students’ predilection for content with a simple look and feel, Poock and Lefond found the second most important factor to students was architecture and organization (2001, p. 17). “Ninety-five percent of survey respondents [students] rated site architecture as important or very important” (2001, p. 18). Nielsen echoes Poock and Lefond’s finding that architecture is important to a site with this observation: “Students are multitaskers and move through websites rapidly, often missing the item they come to find” (2010b, para. 1).

Top-down architecture

A simple information architecture and complementary content will do a better job of meeting the needs of current students compared to an architecture that addresses the needs of multiple stakeholders. Morville and Rosenfeld observe that a common technique for organizing the information architecture of a website is to employ what is known as top-down architecture (2007, pp. 42-45). In this approach, the architect or content strategist tries to anticipate what questions users may have when visiting the site. The authors suggest top-down questions such as these:

  • Where am I?
  •  I know what I’m looking for; how do I search for it?
  •  How do I get around this site?
  •  What’s important and unique about this organization?
  •  What’s available on this site?
  • What’s happening there?
  • Do they want my opinion about their site?
  •  How can I contact a human?
  • What’s their address? (p. 44)

I used questions like these to help guide decision-making around navigation, aesthetics and copy. My goal was to create easy-to-comprehend web pages.

In addition, Sandvig & Bajwa (2004) claim when it comes to navigating websites, students have a clear preference for browsing over search. To provide users with superior browsing experiences calls for a well-designed navigation interface. Alexander (2005) found that poor placement of navigation elements led to delays or failures in finding information. Moreover, Alexander found that poorly written link text affected 31% of users (2005, p. 12). Poorly written link text typically does not provide enough information to the reader to properly set the expectation for what’s on the page. For example, a one-word link like brochure is too vague, but the link academic program brochure is more descriptive and provides enough context to satisfy the user’s curiousity.

Students are search dominant

In a more recent study of college student web behavior, Jakob Nielsen (2010a) found that students are “strongly search dominant” and turn to search immediately if they can’t find what they’re looking for. Nielsen contends that nearly half of all web users are “search dominant,” (2006). Jared Spool (2001), however, contends that users are not inherently search or browse dominant, but rather they choose either behavior based on the design of the website. For instance, if users encounter link failures on a home page, they immediately employ search to find what they’re looking for. Spool observed users participating in both search patterns, depending on the design of the website.

Still, information architects should provide clear paths to the most commonly sought information on the site. Ironically, the three-click rule—once espoused by Nielsen, Loranger and other usability experts—is now considered an unnecessary convention. Dagan (2008) reported that Loranger now contends that the number of clicks is not important as long as the content flow makes sense and is logical.

Do A-Z indexes aid navigation?

One method architects use to facilitate efficient navigation and search on websites is to use an A–Z index (Hedden, 2005). Nielsen, however, dismisses the A–Z index as a tool of “lazy design teams” who resort to alphabetizing when architects can’t create a better structure (Nielsen, 2010b). Nielsen found that users rarely think in terms of A–Z unless there is an “inherent logic” to the pages, such as a list of countries. He contends that sorting does not work on many websites because users may not even know what they’re looking for. However, specific sections could benefit from A–Z sorting, such as a list of academic programs or majors on a college website. Moreover, Hedden (2005) notes that college and university websites are one category of site that is well suited for an A-Z index, primarily due to content such as academic programs and class listings. I did not launch the campus sites with content organized under an A–Z convention.

Steve Krug (2006, p. 31) offers these tips for making sure users see and understand your website:

  •  Create a clear visual hierarchy on each page.
  •  Take advantage of conventions (top primary navigation, left secondary navigation).
  •  Break pages up into clearly defined areas.
  •  Make it obvious what’s clickable (underlines and color differences).
  •  Minimize noise (eliminate clutter). (p. 31)

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Works cited

  • 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.
  • Dagan, D. (2008, November 16). Three-click rule defunct, says Nielsen Norman usability group. Retrieved June 21, 2011, from ThatDanny!:http://www.thatdanny.com/2008/11/16/three-click-rule-defunct-says-nielsen-norman-usability-group/
  • Hedden, H. (2005, January 5). A-Z indexes to enhance site searching. Retrieved June 12, 2011, from Digital Web Magazine: http://www.digitalweb.com/articles /a_z_indexes_site _searching/
  • Krug, S. (2006). Don’t make me think: A common sense approach to Web usability(2nd ed.). Berkeley, CA: New Riders.
  • Morville, P., & Rosenfeld, L. (2007). Information architecture for the World Wide Web (3rd ed.). Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.
  • Nielsen, J. (2010b, December 15). College students on the Web. Retrieved December 17, 2010, from Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox: http://www.useit.com/alertbox/students.html
  • Sandvig, C. J., & Bajwa, D. (2004, Fall). Information seeking on university web sites: An exploratory study. Journal of Computer Information Systems, 13-22.
  • Spool, J. (2001, May 01). Are there users who always search? Retrieved February 19, 2011, from User Interface Engineering: http://www.uie.com/articles/always_search/
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