Improving School Websites with Usability Research Methods

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Improving School Websites with Usability Research Methods

Let’s face it. School websites miss the mark. Many district websites feature-poor planning, an abundance of scattered information, and a labyrinth of web navigation.

School websites try to do too much and end up doing nothing but confusing, frustrating, and overwhelming parents, students, and community stakeholders.

Sometimes it just feels like you can’t find what you need to when you need to.

Websites should be useful to people.

Rethinking School’s Website Development

I’m not here to point the blame at anyone. Many school districts direct their IT Departments to develop district websites, but due to budgetary restraints, many departments don’t include web developers on their teams.

I’m sure the IT department can make the website look nice. However, the functionality should trump looks. I’m also not disparaging IT professionals. They are unsung heroes of school districts, just not skilled in solving every digital solution.

Finalsite.com provides web development services for school districts.
Companies such as Finalsite.com provide web development services for schools and universities but come with a hefty price tag.

Many schools purchase expensive contracts with website template providers but still lack the planning and streamlining content for its users. A template can only go so far and can’t solve every usability problem.

How can schools improve the usability of their website? First, understand your website user.

Second, keep it simple!

Understanding Your User

It might seem strange to start a website by first examining your target audience. However, with this important step, school districts can develop a website that fully meets the needs of their users.

Identifying and understanding your audience saves time in the planning process, improves the website’s overall performance, and allows you to make decisions that directly address your audience’s needs.

Researching your target audience comes in many different methods, and the following five techniques will guide your research to success. I swear by these techniques and found that they work!

Personas and Scenarios

The first step to understanding your audience relies on generating fictional and realistic users who might need to use your website for specific reasons.

To develop a persona and scenario:

  • Create a visual representation of your possible user.
  • Include a photo, name and basic demographics.
  • Develop a specific quote your user would say when using your website.
  • Identify your users skills and weaknesses.
  • Generate the specific reason your user visits your site. What scenario would your user be accessing your site?
  • What goals does your user need to achieve?

Once you have a persona, revisit your website and determine if your design solves their problems. Can they easily access their goals? Can your fictional users find what is necessary for them easily? What improvements to your website will help your fictional users achieve their goals?

This sample persona illustrates the needs of a school website from a concerned parent.

One note about personas. While personas can be an important first step, confirmation bias might taint the overall process and marginalize a group of people who need to access your site. You could end up alienating an entire group of people based on biased personas.

User Survey and Interviews

Another method to better understand your audience requires you to get out of your office and talk to your potential audience. You can learn a ton of information from listening to people.

In your surveys, you can collect quantitative and qualitative data about your users’ behavior and essential needs when visiting your website.

This method is also the easiest to gather since technology such as Google Forms or Survey Monkey makes analyzing data incredibly easy.

Card Sort Study

This method helps improve the navigation of a website. Web developers often labor in grouping information together in places that make web interaction predictable. However, sometimes, we get it wrong, and users lose on our websites.

A card sort study asks users to arrange and group information found on a website. Once multiple people complete the survey, clear patterns emerge of how to group content on a website, including headings and page structure, allowing simpler web navigation for users.

Heuristic Evaluation

This comprehensive study breaks down accessibility and usability by evaluating user experience researcher Jakob Neilson’s 10 Usability Principles. The study analyzes critical issues impacting a user’s digital tool use and includes the following usability principles.

  • Visibility of System Status
  • Match between system and real world
  • User control and freedom
  • Consistency and Standards
  • Error Prevention
  • Recognition rather than Recall
  • Flexibility and efficiency of use
  • Aesthetic and minimalist design
  • Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors
  • Help and Documentation

The heuristic evaluation requires the most research investment and requires a team of people to analyze every page of a site seeking issues with the site.

However, a free Google Chrome App, UXCheck, helps streamline the process directly in your web browser. Simply install the add-on, and then fire up the add-on. The application provides you with the ten usability principles and allows you to a create log of usability issues. Once complete, you can generate a full report with screenshots.

UXCheck is a Google Chrome addon that allows users to log heuristic issues.
UXCheck allows users to create a working log of usability issues and generates a full report.

Usability Study

This is the most important method I suggest you use to improve your school’s website. In this study, recruited users attempt to complete a series of tasks related to your website.

By asking users to complete simple tasks, developers can see human behavior in real-time. This method assesses the web design and demonstrates any pain points users might encounter with the website.

With this data, developers can shore up issues, resolve user complaints, and improve web usability for users.

Case Study: Fairhaven High School Art Department

In 2015, my Fairhaven High School’s Art Department team developed fhsart.net. We wanted to develop a tool that communicates the department’s achievements and course offerings and provides students with a platform to display their artwork publicly.

With excitement, we quickly developed the site to update our program for the community. The team excitedly crafted the website, uploaded tons of photos and videos, and wrote many texts.

However, we encountered one major problem. We lacked the training and experience required to develop a website.

Our development efforts created a website that achieved our mandated school learning goals and created a website that ended up causing more problems for the user than providing valuable information. 

It became a train-wreck, and users stopped using the site altogether. Two years after the launch of fhsart.net, the team began to lose steam, and the website became defunct.

FHSArt Technical Issues

FHSArt.net relies heavily on a top drop-down menu as its main navigational aid. The links branch out to an overwhelming amount of options for users.

In a short amount of time, the website became severely challenging to navigate, disorganized, and overloaded with inconsistent information and content. We tried to do too much without concrete goals, lack of experience, and never developed an understanding of our users and why they would use the site.

Some of the issues of FHSArt.net include:

  • The website’s navigation relies on a horizontal drop-down menu that expands to other options. The drop-down menus contain an overabundant amount of links and provide too many options for users. 
  • The site lacks core pages that allow users to locate information effectively.
  • The site lacks organization.
  • FHSArt.net contains outdated information that is no longer relevant.
  • Important information appeared hidden and difficult to find.
  • The website does not practice standard readability techniques. The site contains few headers, subheadings and relies too much on text.
  • The homepage needs updating, as the page currently displays an abundance of text and does not invite or welcome users to explore the website. 
  • Information presented on the site is not scannable.
  • The text and graphics do not follow accessibility standards and can create conflicts with visual impairment.
  • The website contains no footer elements.
  • Pages across the website feature inconsistent structure and lack a unified design.
Issues plague FHSArt, including difficult navigation, disorganized content, dead links, and templates that have not been fully edited.

FHSArt.net requires a serious redesign. In 2022, our team set a department goal to revisit the website, address the current issues, and improve the site’s experience for future users.

If you’re wondering how we identified our website issues, we looked directly at the users we wanted to serve with our site. We performed the strategies outlined in this article and used our research to inform our web improvement.

Researching Our User Base

Our major issue with our website is that we did not plan how a user would access the site. Our team did not prioritize the user’s initial design. Instead, the site prioritized content.

Websites require content. However, if a user can’t access, navigate, or locate the content, the website fails to engage users. Designing a website starting with the user could eliminate design issues.

With renewed energy and an opportunity to prioritize users’ needs, FHSArt researchers used various comprehensive methods to research users’ behaviors to develop a better new website that meets their needs. The research included the following ways:

Competitive Analysis

A competitive analysis study examines the strengths and weaknesses of similar websites, including structure, navigation, content organization, visual aesthetics, and responsive design.

Personas and Scenarios

To better understand possible users of FHSArt.net, this method explores the creation of fictional users and identifies their skillsets, motivations, and potential goals of visiting a website. 

We developed many personas from different sections of our school community, including engaged and disengaged students, parents, teachers, and community stakeholders.

We created different reasons and scenarios for which users would want to use our site.

User Interviews

FHSArt developed this method to gather qualitative information and feedback by interviewing users of FHSArt.net.

User Surveys

Students, faculty members, and community stakeholders completed a digital survey that provided quantitative data from users regarding their experience with FHSArt.net.

Heuristic Evaluations

FHSart.net endured a heuristic evaluation, a comprehensive and wide-ranging study that focuses on the usability and accessibility of a digital system. The assessment explores and challenges issues that might hinder a user’s experience with a website. The study critically analyzes a website’s system status, the language used on the site, the consistency of various pages throughout the site, preventing errors, and aesthetic and minimal design.

Card Sorting Study

This method examines and explores the way users would group content on a website. The study provides a comprehensive look at how designers can best structure content in ways that a user might find it.

FHSArt developed 30 different pages that contain specific content and digitally created a card sort study through the website provenbyusers.com. Three participants volunteered to participate in the study and attempted to group cards where they thought they’d find relevant information. Participants then generated labels for the groups they created.

A recording of our team’s Card Sort Study.

Two of the three participants completed the assignment. One participant encountered technical issues and did not complete the study. Participants grouped similarly with minor differences. However, participants did not agree on two groupings, highlighting the need to recognize the challenge of structuring web pages.

Results also demonstrate that users are unique individuals who behave and think differently, and developers should design websites to accommodate most users.

A dendrogram illustrates the common groupings between card study participants.

Usability Study

A usability study recruits participants to access the current website and perform tasks while researchers observe. The performance results give critical insights into users’ actions and thought processes on a website.

The usability study garnered the most insight and feedback on FHSart.net’s issues and illustrated how users access a website, their decisions, and their thought processes. In this study, three participants attempted to complete five tasks.

Usability Tasks

  1. In this scenario, pretend you are a sophomore interested in taking an art class at Fairhaven High School. You heard a friend discuss a mosaic project made in her ceramics class. Please attempt to find the mosaic page for examples of student work.
  2. In this task, pretend you are a student’s parent at Fairhaven High School. Your student came home talking about a friend who received a National Student Production Award in their media class. Navigate FHSArt for a news story that includes this achievement.
  3. In this task, act as a parent who would like to find information about contacting an art teacher about getting your child involved in the FHS Art program.
  4. In this task, you’re a parent of an 8th grader who is looking for a comprehensive list featuring all art programs offered at Fairhaven High School.
  5. In this task, you receive an email from an art teacher about an update about your child’s digital photography bokeh project. The email contains a link to FHSArt.net but does not link to the project. Seek the Bokeh project page and locate your child Evan’s project.

A recording captured people’s actions during the investigation, and participants spoke their thoughts and actions aloud. Many participants could not complete the tasks, and many provided valuable feedback on the site’s experience.

In this recorded session, a user attempted to complete five tasks associated with FHSArt.net’s design and content.

The results of the study confirmed that FHSArt.net offers users a poor experience. Users reported difficulty navigating the site and difficulty reading and locating content. Users expressed frustration with disorganized content and lack of visual elements.

One user applauded the art department’s effort to display student work publicly but felt wholly frustrated with locating and navigating the website. Another user described FHSArt.net as the “worst website they’ve visited in a long time.”

Usability Solutions

  • The main page structure needs simplifying, and navigation requires improvement. The drop-down menus ineffectively assist users in locating content. The team should avoid drop-down menus at all costs.
  • Pages need to become the hub of specific content that can branch users into different pages. For example, Clicking on “Ceramics” should bring the user to a Ceramics page that includes all content related to Ceramics.
  • The team should also limit the number of choices for users. In the testing session, 100% of users reported feeling overwhelmed with the number of options listed under each class.
  • Important information appeared hidden and difficult to find. The team needs to identify important content and provide coherent paths for users to access documents. Two of three users could not locate a comprehensive list of all FHS Art programs.
  • Contact information needs inclusion on the website. Two of the Three users could not contact any art teachers for more information about the art program.
  • The website could benefit from updated graphics and text elements. Users reported that the website lacked many visual images for a visual arts page and included too much text.
  • Participants noticed difficulty identifying student work, and structuring text with headlines and sub-headlines will improve these sections. 
  • The homepage needs updating, as the page currently displays an abundance of text and does not invite or welcome users to explore the website. Users reported the homepage looked like an error message and the page’s text proved challenging to read.
  • Many users failed to read much of the website’s content. The team should simplify text to allow users to scan information on the website. 
The usability study highlighted the impractical structure of important pages, as the contact page remains buried under many links.

Next steps

Now that the team has concrete evidence of the target user, and usability of their website, the team can move forward to build a prototype website that corrects the issues identified in this study. Addressing the site’s structure, simplifying navigation, grouping content more effectively, and developing an improved aesthetic and design will improve FHSart.net.

Once a prototype exists, more user testing needs to take place. Constant testing will allow FHSArt.net to continually enhance and avoid costly errors and issues in the future.

The FHSArt department now prepares a goal to have a redesigned FHSArt.net in the summer of 2022

Read the Full Usability Report

Still Need Help?

Researching your audience and understanding the usability of your website can take time and often be challenging. I’m here to help. Please reach out, and I’d love to help you and your communication team find success.

About the Author
About the Author

Drew Furtado is an Emmy Award winning filmmaker, and leader of a nationally recognized high school media arts communication department .

He develops guides and strategies for nonprofit and educational organizations to improve and grow their social media presence, website development, and communication practices that best engages audiences.

New Bedford, Massachusetts

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