As a rule, providing an optimal digital experience with a strong emphasis on mobile views should be a top priority for every college and university.
That’s because visiting a higher ed website on a smartphone is likely to be the first — and often only — way that young audiences will experience a college’s brand before taking action on applying or simply moving on to consider other alternatives. Yes, it’s that important.
That was one of the driving motivations behind the completely reimagined digital experience we created for our clients at Delaware Valley University (DelVal), which garnered the prestigious W3 2020 Gold Award for General Websites - School/University.
Founded in 1896 in Bucks County, PA, DelVal was originally an agricultural college, but it has since grown into an academically rigorous interdisciplinary private university with three locations that serve more than 2,000 students. Today, it offers 27 undergraduate majors in the sciences, humanities, and business, eight master’s programs, a doctorate in education, and a variety of adult education courses — with an award-winning commitment to experiential learning for all.
DelVal administrators pride themselves on their close-knit campus with individualized attention afforded by small class sizes, faculty who provide mentorship to students they know by name, and a beautiful 1,100-acre campus that is home to a large population of cattle, horses, pigs, poultry, and sheep, with expansive horticultural spaces that serve as outdoor classrooms for several fields of study.
The university’s legacy website fell short of reflecting the University’s proud identity, shared values, and enrollment goals in a number of ways. When we first met with their team, they agreed that the existing site had a dated look and feel that didn’t reflect more recently updated brand standards, lacked a strategic marketing focus, and provided an inconsistent mobile experience. The architecture was not as intuitive as users expected it to be, and it did not follow current best practices in higher education website design and function. Finally, it contained extraneous content that offered very little in the way of interactivity and lacked a clear delineation between internal and external-facing messaging.
Our discovery process involved obtaining valuable detailed insights through interviews with key stakeholders and current and prospective students and parents. A series of workshops provided meaningful perspectives related to the sitemap creation, homepage content strategy, content mapping and component wires that bridge content strategy with the functionality of components, and brand updates that align with the university’s evolving brand voice. Finally, we conducted on-campus intercept interviews with current and prospective students and prospective parents to identify UX barriers on the legacy site, as well as criteria that they considered critical to their college evaluation process. Finally, we thoroughly investigated the site’s Google Analytics.
Combining these findings with our existing institutional knowledge gained by working with many other higher ed clients, we developed a set of user personas, journeys, and a student lifecycle map that provided clarity on the typical website path, objectives, and pain points of specific user types. We leveraged these personas in several workshops with the DelVal team throughout our research and discovery, content strategy, and information architecture processes.
In creating the new Drupal site, our motivation was to provide an experience that advances the University’s marketing and enrollment objectives while accurately reflecting their overall mission, values, and strategic goals. From a big-picture perspective, the project provided a valuable opportunity to help rethink and evolve how the visual brand is approached within both long-standing and newly updated standards — a digital-first strategy that will later be applied across the brand.
The bold new aesthetic and modern design we created maximizes readability and offers a welcoming user experience through enhanced navigation, a comprehensive search function, seamless integration with third-party platforms, and prominent and logically labeled “sticky” menus featuring calls to action for common goals like Visit, Apply, and Request Information.
With a responsive design that ensures a dynamic experience on any device, the new site surfaces a variety of content related to the holistic experience of students in each specific program — integrating content in a more visually engaging and content-rich format, displaying relevant clubs, sample curriculum, and more. It also features built-in applications for the university blog, RSS feeds, web forms, an event calendar, and a searchable A-Z directory of staff and faculty members listed by office/department. An undergrad major filter helps place the innovative E360 experiential learning program at the forefront of prospective students’ information discovery, and a custom Instagram component allows content managers to curate specific postings to align with specific audience/majors pages.
We worked collaboratively with the client team to create a detailed content inventory that identified new copy to be created and mapped the legacy content to the new sitemap to identify which pages would be migrated 1:1; which would need to be revised before uploading; and which would need to be deleted altogether due to outdated or redundant information. With the streamlined new content collection in place, campus editors can now access the CMS from a variety of browsers; collaborate to review, edit, and approve new content from different sources to ensure consistent brand voice and accuracy of information; and even non-technical users can publish content with minimal training. To assist with this process, we conducted an intensive two-part content training workshop that covered maintaining brand voice across a large content generation team; writing and web content strategy for higher education; and SEO/accessibility best practices for content creation. Finally, we provided detailed companion component, resource, and content strategy training guides that will ensure future revisions made by the DelVal team will align with the newly established standards.
By implementing updated SEO practices, we improved site visibility — which is further enhanced by content that is more easily shared through social channels. Analytics capabilities are also incorporated for all pages, with data now pushed to the University on a regular basis so their team may monitor the performance of key performance indicators and address any issues that arise in a timely manner.
This site now serves as an effective communication and recruitment tool, actively attracting prospective undergrad and graduate students and guiding them on an information path that begins with an introduction to the school and its noteworthy accomplishments, leads them through to the application form, and ends with a look at success after DelVal — mirroring the real-world student journey. What’s more, secondary viewer groups, which include current students, alumni and trustees, donors, faculty and staff, prospective employees, and members of the media and local community, have their own intuitive path through the site that smartly addresses their needs on an ongoing basis.