4 Best Practices for Iterative Website Redesigns

In the past year, The Lawlor Group has noted a shift away from large-scale, institutional website redesigns toward more iterative website updates. Facing fiscal restraints and organizational limitations, colleges are finding that a targeted “refresh” of a critical website landing page or section represents a more nimble way to keep up with rapidly-changing web standards and user expectations. While there will always be a need for ground-up website redesigns (we recently completed one for Thomas College), we believe the trend toward rapid, continuous improvement is here to stay.

The Lawlor Group is currently developing responsive, admissions-focused microsites for two prominent colleges, and we recently collaborated with a longstanding client–Concordia University Chicago–to redesign its institutional homepage. By focusing exclusively on the University’s most important web destination, we were able to guide the institution from strategy to launch in less than 90 days. The following considerations were important to the project’s success and are helpful for any iterative digital project in the constantly-evolving higher ed landscape.

1. Analytics-driven

At the outset of the project, before making any recommendations, The Lawlor Group conducted an in-depth analysis of Concordia’s website analytics. By focusing first on data, our team avoided making ill-informed assumptions or premature creative decisions. The data gathered during this preliminary phase provided fascinating—and in some cases, surprising–insights about the institution’s website visitors that we otherwise wouldn’t have known or accounted for. We discovered that only a small segment of homepage content was truly resonating with users, and that many prominent content elements were being largely ignored. We included key analytics findings in our strategic report so that university stakeholders and leadership would understand the data behind our strategic recommendations. Irrefutable data is ultimately more convincing than any design or strategy pitch, and it helped us make a solid case for an innovative approach to the project.

2. Audience-focused

The previous Concordia homepage was plagued by a scattered approach to its various audiences. Like many of its peers, Concordia University Chicago offers a broad mix of traditional undergraduate and graduate degrees, as well as programs for adult learners and online courses. In an effort to cater equally to all of these audiences (not to mention alumni, parents, and faculty), the homepage was confusing and cluttered. The Lawlor Group recommended a focused, hierarchical approach based on the website analytics: the new homepage caters to residential undergraduate prospects first, with prominent uncluttered pathways for secondary audiences as well. Freed from the burden of catering to every possible audience, the redesigned homepage provides an optimal experience for its most important visitors.

3. Boldly different

From the start, we approached the homepage from a fresh perspective, eager to toss out stale higher education website “rules” and abandon even our own time-tested assumptions. What resulted from our clean-slate strategy looks a lot different than most college homepages. We eliminated numerous sections of copy and links in favor of fewer, simpler content elements. The new homepage features large photos, minimal high-impact copy, infographics, and plenty of scrollable white space. Significantly, there is no traditional “new and events” section. Instead, prominent news and events items are featured in flexible story blocks only when appropriate for core audiences. The way that website visitors interact with web content is changing so rapidly that it’s actually detrimental to adhere too rigidly to yesterday’s web design “best practices.” Openness to new, innovative approaches can help us uncover solutions that might otherwise be overlooked.

4. Responsive

Like for all of our web projects, responsiveness was a key requirement for the Concordia homepage redesign. The homepage content blocks “stack” vertically on smaller screen sizes, ensuring that critical content is visible for all audiences and that the user experience is uncompromised for mobile visitors. With mobile Internet usage surpassing traditional computer consumption across many demographics, well-implemented responsive design is essential.

Concordia’s newly redesigned homepage represents a shift away from heavy, content-laden landing pages to leaner, faster-loading pages that provide a more cohesive and focused user experience for key website audiences. We expect this trend to spread across college and university websites in 2015 and beyond.