5 Rules for Effective Higher Ed Web Design

We've designed and built over 100 higher education websites, covering the spectrum of public and private institutions like UMass, Smith, and Vermont Tech; ivy league schools like Dartmouth and Yale; community colleges; and departments, schools, and colleges within a university.

In our two decades of such experience, we've been exposed to what works... and what doesn't. 

Rule 1: Get Real

So said one of our student participants in a recent user test session for a university website.

We can also learn a valuable lesson from the consumer world, where studies have shown that displaying only positive reviews hurts conversions and showing some negative reviews can increase conversion by 67%.

Being real means being credible.

So how can you do this? The answer will vary from school to school. Generally speaking, social media is a great way to "get real" with your audience. Be brave and don't assume you must rip down every negative or potentially controversial post (though responding to these is still key). Your audience will get a more genuine feeling if it's not all sunshine and roses.


TAKE ACTION! Utilize this handout we created for managing your social media response, from the good to the bad, and how to capitalize on the ugly.

I don’t read testimonials. They’re always from a bunch of type-A, hoo-rah people who never say anything bad.”

Rule 2: Don't Guess. Test!

Expertise and domain knowledge can take you only so far.


Rule 3: Get people off your homepage

... and deeper into your site.

You want prospective students (and their parents) to explore, start a conversation, and ultimately provide you with their contact information. From there you can continue the conversation that will lead to applications.

That means your homepage needs to:

  • Be general enough so it doesn't alienate any target demographics;

  • Feel like a credible representation of your school that prospective students and parents can relate to in some way;

  • Be easy to navigate, with clear jumping-off points for the eye (web users don't read - they SCAN).


Rule 4: Someone will dislike your design

Focus on your big picture goals, and tell a great story.

Every design choice must be driven by some real intention that aligns with the institution's goals. You're not choosing blue, but rather you're choosing reputable, dependable, and stable. You're not choosing red; you're choosing energized, confident, and passionate.


TAKE ACTION! The next time you're talking about design (whether it's your home page, a landing page for a targeted marketing campaign, a mobile view, or a finer point like text copy, a photograph, or an infographic), see if you catch yourself saying, "I like this" or "I don't like that." Instead, say, "This works, because it directs the viewer's eye to content that is central to our college's #1 goal," or, "This triggers the wrong reactions. How can we make it inspire the feelings we want?"



Rule 5: Use the Right CMS

Both Drupal and WordPress:

Are proven platforms with significant install bases and large development communities.

Provide a strong foundation that can make your web budgets go further.

Have their own strengths and limitations, but can provide you with the essential core tools to build with.

OmniUpdate may not have the following that Drupal and WordPress do, but they have been almost exclusively focused on higher education since the 1990s. OmniUpdate has been voted the top CMS in the higher ed field for three consecutive years. Not only do they boast some of the best customer service in the business, but our graphic below only scratches the surface of the features, modules, and gadgets that OU Campus has to offer.

So which do you choose?

If someone on your team is passionate about one or the other, go for it!

If a critical mass of websites at your institution is already built on one of these platforms, stick with it.

Otherwise, follow the lead of your vendor.

TAKE ACTION! Use the contact form below to reach out to us and learn more about each platform, and which may be better suited for your needs.