Your school’s or school district’s website is the number one communications tool that you have available. Designing an effective website is paramount so that your public will receive the message you are trying to communicate. Maintaining and updating your website is even more important in projecting the image of your school or district. In my job, I have the privilege (some would call it “the chore”) of visiting school and district websites from all over the nation. Unfortunately, most of those sites do not come close to meeting the standards necessary for communicating with your public. One reason this is so is because the Technology (not the Communications) department is responsible for the maintenance of the website (but that’s another story for another day.) This post will give you some tips so that you can create a site that will communicate a consistent, clear and concise message to your public.
(Parts of the information below is excerpted from the 2006 American Association of School Administrators Article: Twelve essentials of a school district website: if your site is your calling card, what impressions are you giving parents and the public? written by Jennifer Wohlleb who was the publications coordinator for the Kentucky School Boards Association)
An up-to-date, attractive and user-friendly school district website is like having an extra public information officer on staff–only one whom you don’t have to pay every week or provide with health care benefits.
If you can’t recall the last time your school system redesigned or upgraded its website, it may be time to move this frequently neglected area to the top of the to-do list for your communications or technology staff.
Twelve Helpful Tips for Improving Your School Website
- Your website is your calling card– A clean and attractive home page will help attract more visitors and will help entice those visitors to want to return. What first impression is your school district making with its home page? Is your site professional and even more importantly – useful? Are parents, students, employees and community members able to quickly find the information they are looking for? Are the photos that you are using photos of your students and staff actively engaged in your district’s mission?
- Don’t play hide and seek – I used to enjoy playing hide and seek as a child and still do, although I am much too large to fit in the best hiding places now. A school or district website is no place for such games. Make sure that the most often sought-after piece of information – the contact info – is visible on every page. This can easily be accomplished in the footer section without distracting from the design.
- Is your mission to promote the mission? – Placing the school or district mission statement on your home page especially at the top of the home page is a big no-no. This is the most static piece of information about your school or district. When it comes to designing a website, think about how you use the Internet. What information do you generally seek? What do you look for first? What is most important to you? Mission statements are never at the top of that list, and if you don’t believe that, ask yourself when was the last time you read Amazon.com’s mission statement?
- Skip the apple – Graphics of apples, rulers, mortar boards , school bells and other typical symbols of education are generic and ubiquitous. They do little to promote the individual personality and accomplishments of schools and districts and have nothing to do with education in the 21st century. Instead use photos of your folks and programs that highlight your activities and accomplishments in your district. If you are rebranding, develop a logo that speaks to the student and their learning. Also avoid the omnipresent photo of the school building as the primary photo on the page. Also avoid clipart!
- Keep it simple – Any website should never be complex. Otherwise your visitors will become frustrated and will not want to return. Then guess what? They will start calling your phone number asking for information that you know is on the website. This is a great way to gauge how effective your website is – how many phone calls are you getting about that information. Bells and whistles are nice when buying a new vehicle. On a website, they are confusing, diminish the impact of the information and often bring the downloading of the page to a snail’s pace, which is especially critical to those users still using a dial-up Internet connection (yes there are still some of those). Also avoid flash as much as possible. Make sure that your site will function on a variety of browsers.
- Be up to date – Nothing screams unprofessional more than visiting a website that was last updated in 2009 – especially one of a school or school district. Certainly something has happened since then! Make sure all information is consistently updated and monitored. Provide a way for your visitors to know when the page was last updated.
- Keep your fonts businesslike – Yes some fonts are just cooler than others, but on a professional website, you just need a couple of easy to read (sans serif) fonts like arial or helvetica. There is no need for a variety of color in your fonts or for fonts that dance or sparkle (see # 5 above.) And please, please, please, do not let the elementary folks talk you into using Comic Sans. Do take advantage of bold and italic however.
- Avoid busy websites – A busy classroom is fantastic, but a busy website is not. Avoid textured or multi-colored backgrounds. Use your logo one time on each page. Make sure that the text on your page is easy to read. Make sure that the navigation system is easy to use. Limit the amount of photos on a page to one or two. Make sure that all of your design elements complement each other. Finally avoid putting everything or a lot of information on one page.
- Avoid construction zones – When I travel down a road and there is construction ahead, I am disappointed because I know that I can not reach my destination using this path and must take a detour causing me to lose valuable time. On your website, nothing will drive people away more than being promised information from a link but instead seeing “Under construction or “coming soon” or a picture indicating such. If the page is not ready, do not provide a link to it or display it.
- Fix missing links – This one is basically a no-brainer, again because we want to avoid frustration and look professional. However I have seen several sites that have not kept their links updated. Please check and monitor all links both internal and external to make sure that they still go where they were intended.
- Forget the special introductory offers– This approach may entice people to sign up for a credit card, but you may lose visitors with a lengthy animated introduction. Get to the point. The first page people should see on your website is your main page, not an artsy introduction.However, if your webmaster insists on demonstrating his or her HTML skills, request that the introduction include an option to skip it. This is what most commercial sites do so returning visitors do not have to repeatedly sit through the same presentation. Consider this good customer service.
- Test, test and retest your site – So you have a site now. Does it work? Sure it shows up in a web browser, but does it work? Can folks get to the information that they need easily? Have a group of people both inside and outside your organization test it. Then test again. Try scenarios and see if folks can get to where they need to go. Again make sure that your site works well in all browsers and mobile devices.
I hope these tips will help you as you work to create or modify your school or district site. Let me know if you think your district or school site meets the 12 goals above. Here is another article that is worth a read too on the subject – Top 7 Web Design Mistakes Small Businesses Make – Forbes.