Three higher ed navigation best practices

At KW2, we’ve conducted research with thousands of prospective and current students—from high schoolers figuring out what’s next to lifelong learners seeking professional development or personal enrichment. We’ve asked what makes them choose a school, decide to enroll in a course, what’s important to them, how they use higher ed sites, and what barriers they face. 

The number one barrier, no matter who we’re asking? The navigation.

It makes sense—higher ed websites can be incredibly complex, sprawling over hundreds (or thousands) of pages and helping many different types of users with varying levels of education and familiarity with your organization. When they’re searching for information quickly, they’re often frustrated. 

The good news is that you can take some simple steps to improve your navigation. By avoiding three common navigation pitfalls and using our higher ed navigation best practices, you’ll be able to decrease user frustration, improve the experience on your site and help prospects, students, faculty, administration and the community get the information they need, quickly.

Pitfall 1: Forcing users to identify themselves to find relevant content

With so many different audiences, it seems easiest to just give each type of person a link that contains everything they might need. That’s why so many sites use terms like Prospective Students and Current Students in their main navigation. Unfortunately, this audience-based navigation style can create problems when users are trying to locate content. Nielsen Norman Group reports that audience-based navigation can be a barrier for visitors because they:

  • Can have difficulty self-identifying because they fit in more than one group, or in none of the groups, or they just don’t know which group they fit into.
  • Don’t know whether the section will contain information for that group or about that group: “Does Faculty contain information about the school’s faculty, or is it information for faculty?”
  • Came to the website with a task in mind (like finding the tuition or learning more about a program) and making them stop and self-identify takes them out of their task-oriented mindset.
  • Wonder if they’re missing out on relevant content that’s available to other groups. 

Audience-based content can also become a maintenance nightmare because it can lead to duplicative content in multiple sections or leaving content out of a relevant section to avoid duplication. For example, much of your “Current Students” content might be relevant to prospects looking to better understand what a program or course might be like, but they might not think to click on Current Students to find it.

Higher ed navigation best practice:

  • Stick to task-based navigation like “Apply” or “Tuition and Financial Aid,” grouping your content under mutually exclusive categories. 
  • Only use audience-based navigation when the content really justifies it, and then, only as a secondary way to navigate the site.

Pitfall 2: Organizing your website solely by your internal structure

Most users, especially prospective students checking you out for the first time, may not know what programs or information belong with which unit or department, and may not think to look for content in the same place a faculty or staff member would. Before giving content a home, ask yourself: Before I worked here, would I have known this content or page goes with this department/unit/program/etc.? If the answer is no, is there another place you can put it that might make more sense to those important first-time visitors?

Higher ed navigation best practice: 

  • Do research and talk to users who don’t know you well. Research doesn’t have to be time-consuming or expensive and invariably leads to powerful insights that will improve your site. 
  • Put yourself in the shoes of a non-expert. Think about where a user might expect to find that content, not where content needs to go to reflect your organization’s internal categorization. 
  • Student Services or Admissions teams can be a huge asset: ask them what questions they often receive or what they’ve heard users have difficulty with.

Pitfall 3: Using jargon or other non-user-centric terminology in your navigation

Just like organizing your website around your internal structure, it can be easy to let jargon or organizational terms slip into your navigation label names or to use confusing acronyms that prospective students won’t understand.

Higher ed navigation best practice: 

  • Always use user-centric terminology and avoid jargon and acronyms.
  • If your website has site search, use it to determine what terms are confusing to visitors. This under-used data source can help you identify if your website visitors are searching for something that’s present in the navigation and identify what they’re calling it to inform a potential label change.  
  • Use Google Trends, a great source for determining what users are looking for. Just plug two (or more) terms that you’re considering into it and see which gets searched for most.

Want to discuss your higher ed navigational hurdles? Shoot us a note to learn more about improving your navigation and helping your users find what they need.