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7 common challenges in higher education website design

Common challenges with university web design

  1. Stakeholders resistant to change
  2. Engaging stakeholders with digital projects
  3. Enhanced accessibility requirements
  4. Representing all departments
  5. Difficulty getting broad user feedback
  6. Integrating old systems
  7. Lacking authenticity

When it comes to higher education website design, institutions are often faced with a unique set of challenges. Challenges can include juggling multiple stakeholder groups, quality assurance and accessibility compliance, and integrating with legacy software.

University websites have the added pressure of standing out in an extremely crowded sector while also ensuring compliance with stringent requirements such as enhanced accessibility and data protection. With the greater emphasis placed on university websites that has emerged post COVID-19, navigating these challenges is more important than ever. It can be difficult to balance technical and legal requirements, alongside designing an effective website that engages prospective students and tells a unique story.

In this article, we’ll break down some of the main challenges higher education institutions may face and how best to approach them during your website project.

1. Stakeholders resistant to change

A common and challenging situation is balancing cautious stakeholder groups, who in many cases, can be resistant to digital change. One of our clients once used the analogy of an old leather jacket; it’s been 20 years since it was new and it’s now faded and scratched, but the owner still loves that old jacket. Because of this, stakeholders who are resistant to change are often the ones who will shout the loudest to get their point across.

It’s important to give stakeholders the space they need to provide relevant input, but it’s useful to prioritise feedback to avoid delays and confusion. It helps to clearly set out the main website objectives at the start of each website project, which can be shared among stakeholders. Using data can help overcome these objections by pointing to the objectives of the project – as this data will often prove the need for change.

2. Engaging stakeholders with digital projects

Higher education institutions are often decentralised, with various stakeholder groups operating autonomously. Academic staff can often be a key stakeholder group, but as they are focused on their teaching and research, working on a commercial website project can be a bit of a shock to them. Convincing them to provide input for the website project can be tough and potentially cause significant delays, but is important because they will be key users of the website.

To help stakeholders who struggle to engage in digital projects, project leaders must work much harder to keep their comments relevant by asking the right questions at the right time. Be sure to engage with these stakeholders early, and help them to understand why their input is valuable. Distil your questions and workshops down to take up as little of their time as possible, and use analogy, storytelling and interactivity to encourage engagement.

Engaging multiple stakeholders in a project

3. Enhanced accessibility requirements (WCAG 2.2)

For public sectors such as government, healthcare and education, enhanced accessibility is a legal requirement, however in 2024, 95.9% of homepages had detected WCAG 2 failures. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) outlines the requirements that websites and digital products must meet to be accessible. For sectors, such as higher education where enhanced accessibility is required, WCAG success criteria are more complex.

In August 2023, WC3 published the new WCAG 2.2 guidelines, which include 9 new success criteria that higher education websites must be aware of. To ensure that your website is up to date with WCAG 2.2, conduct regular website audits to ensure compliance.

 

4. Representing all departments in higher education website design

Higher education institutions often have multiple stakeholders, each with their own unique needs and priorities. With higher education website design, these stakeholder groups are broad and can include prospective students, academic groups, alumni, and faculty members. The challenge here is in designing a website that effectively represents all departments and groups without overwhelming users with information.

We recommend creating a working group of around 7-10 people who share a ‘core vision’ ie. the overall website goals. The key to this group is balance, as you want to make sure you’ve included people with expertise in certain areas such as UX and design who will be able to provide valuable input.

Additionally, it can be beneficial to engage with students and in particular, first-year students. Although they might not be initially forthcoming or be a particularly representative group, even a small number of these students surveyed or interviewed can provide valuable input. To incentivise feedback, small cash rewards such as a £20 Amazon voucher, can help to generate interest.

5. Difficulty getting broad user feedback

It can be difficult to get broad and representative user feedback on the current website to input into the new website. Educational websites have the challenge of gathering useful feedback from their users, who are mostly current or prospective students. Some institutions may rely on a feedback form on the website, however, gathering meaningful feedback can be challenging due to the diverse needs and preferences of these user groups.

Look for feedback from a select group of students, we recommend between 5 and 10 in order to gather varied and concise input. However, balancing the needs of the website project with this group of students can be challenging: you need the group to be engaged with the project and unbiased. On balance, it’s often easiest to pay students for their input.

Multiple different people

6. Integrating with old systems

Many higher education institutions rely on legacy systems that are often very old, such as student information and booking systems, and many of these are non-standard – in some cases having been built specifically for that institution by a sole software developer. Integrating older systems into modern websites can be complex and time-consuming. For example, if an institution relies on a 10-year-old system, there will be technology restrictions in that it’s likely that it won’t easily integrate into a more modern and secure site. The best workaround to this challenge is to replace legacy systems where possible, with newer systems that better integrate with the institution’s digital strategy and goals.

Where older systems must be used, careful attention should be paid to these and technical discovery is important to ensure that integrating these systems doesn’t negatively affect the other core objectives of the project.

Old technology and computer

7. Lacking authenticity

There is a challenge in designing a higher education website that truly stands out from the crowd. Universities have their own personalities and their websites shouldn’t shy away from showing it off. It’s what makes an institution unique and relatable. The difficulty here is ensuring the website is authentic while also being informative and useful as a recruitment tool. Too often the temptation is to treat universities like brands – and the result is that they become more generic for fear of alienating certain audiences.

We recommend following best practices up to a certain point but emphasising storytelling and authenticity above box-ticking. Successful university websites capture the brand’s digital identity alongside designing engaging and user-focused website journeys.

An effective higher education website design can be a complex challenge. Addressing the challenges mentioned above while ensuring compliance and accessibility can be overwhelming. However, by recognising these challenges and working proactively to solve them, higher education institutions can successfully create websites that are modern, serve their diverse users and stand the test of time for years to come. If you’re looking for some inspiration, we’ve written about the 10 best higher education websites and why we think they stand out.

If you’d like to partner with a digital agency that specialises in higher education websites, do get in touch with someone at Crucible. We’d be happy to chat about your website project!

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