The HE Website

From focusing on the user experience to video and content, Keri Beckingham finds out how today’s institutions are making their websites stand out to prospective students

As a result of the increasingly competitive HE landscape, it’s never been more important for today’s universities to engage with prospective students in the ever-changing digital world. But how can they ensure that their website stands out from the crowd and what does the future hold?

Ian Ireland, account director at award-winning digital marketing agency Fat Media

Developments over the last 12 months

Ian Ireland is account director at award-winning digital marketing agency Fat Media. In his experience, he has found that as university websites have evolved, they are now being used to house a wealth of categorised information such as ‘resource hubs’, and that institutions are becoming more aware of the importance of user experience (UX), SEO and content prioritisation.

Ireland comments: “We often get well-rounded briefs containing comprehensive site maps or a UX report that has been carried out well before the website project commences.

“Brand development and enhancement is also proving to be very popular at the moment, with departments keen to develop their own brand identity while staying within HE brand guidelines when necessary, of course!”

Robert Fowles, digital marketing manager at The University of Derby, says that over the last 12 months the team has been hearing about more and more major web transformation projects being started across the sector, which he believes is as a result of staff at a senior level realising that websites are critical for student recruitment and reputation building.

Discussing his recent work at Derby and the developments that he has seen across the board, he says: “We’ve had really positive results with our new website (, which is largely down to making it easier to navigate and carrying out regular user testing to make sure our main audiences steer our development projects.

“Many institutions have moved away from the once-popular approach of hosting their website on premises, towards cloud hosting and the use of Content Delivery Networks (CDN). With the current drive to grow international recruitment, CDNs can really help to improve the user experience for prospective students on the other side of the world.”

Diagnostic tools

The Open University (OU) has developed a number of diagnostic tools to help prospective students ensure they’re ready for study. As Richard Hargreaves, SEO manager at The OU, explains: “The vast majority of OU students will work while they are studying and our Time Planner allows the user to enter their working pattern, social and family commitments into a calendar, along with their intended course or degree.

“We’ve also developed a ‘Readiness Tool’ that can help to identify if there are any pre-requisites for their chosen study path and identifies the relevant access course where appropriate.”

UX is incredibly important in this day and age, and any major changes to a website should be backed by research and data – Ian Ireland, account director, Fat Media

Meeting students’ needs

At The University of Derby, the digital marketing team understands that its prospective students are looking for authentic and transparent content as part of their website experience. Across the board, Fowles also believes that personalisation platforms are being used more commonly in order to make an impression with users and make each experience as relevant to their needs as possible.

He added: “Professionally filmed and edited video has its place, but raw video content offers personal insights through student-led video content and blogs which tells stories that connect with and inspire with our future students.”

At the OU, 75% of students consume their study material, or access the module websites, from a desktop PC or laptop.

For Hargreaves, he thinks that the evolution of technology has started to impact the way that website visitors behave, especially when it comes to the device that they are using. He comments: “Looking at the device data, more people use a mobile phone to choose their courses than to study. I expect the mobile share increase to continue for both the pre-study and study-related websites we manage.”

A blended approach to learning is used within the OU’s virtual learning environment, which includes a combination of video, webinar, virtual laboratory spaces, virtual reality (VR) technology and the written word. This enables students not only to go on virtual field trips but also conduct experiments and, as Hargreaves explains, this helps the provider to meet the different needs and preferences of each learner. He says: “Some students take more from the written word; others gain more from listening to audio narrated transcripts. Some of our students use ebook readers to access their study materials and others will translate these into audio files.”

What does the future hold?

In Ireland’s experience, universities are starting to realise the importance of updating their websites regularly with new content, and are putting a lot of consideration into what is needed to engage users. Fat Media recently worked with the particle research department of a leading Russell Group university on UX, which helped to overhaul the entire structure of the site – even down to a single page.

Commenting on why UX should be a key consideration for all university websites, Ireland says: “UX is incredibly important in this day and age, and any major changes to a website should be backed by research and data – they should also be tested for a period of time after to ensure they’re successful. Who knew the colour of a button could be so crucial!”

For Fowles, he expects to see the integration of vertical video into website journeys for the growing mobile user-basis becoming more prominent, as well as more universities addressing the significant volumes of content that are currently inaccessible to some of their users. He says: “The success of the vertical video format on social media gives us an opportunity to replicate this within web user experiences to offer more immersive and engaging video consumption.

“It’s very difficult to manage the sheer quantity of content additions and changes which are being published, which is particularly challenging in the context of the new UK Accessibility Regulations 2018.”

A widespread increase in the use of VR technology is something that Hargreaves foresees for the classrooms of the future, as he thinks that the possibilities of applying this readily available technology to give an immersive teaching experience could be highly beneficial to certain subjects. He adds: “For example, this year some of our law students have been sent VR headsets, to allow them to present information better face-to-face when delivering pro bono law advice.”

Professionally filmed and edited video has its place, but raw video content offers personal insights through student-led video content  – Robert Fowles

What about chatbots?

With the use of instant messaging platforms among the Gen Z population continuing to rocket, so has the use of these platforms to communicate with brands. In the future, chatbots which can use artificial intelligence and natural language processing could interpret user questions, return the right information and continuously learn about the quality of the answer they need to provide to each user.

Discussing the potential use of chatbot technology on university websites, Fowles says: “Our users should be able to switch easily between conversing with a human or a chatbot. What makes our institutions great are the people within them and we should be making time for meaningful conversations when that’s what our users want.”

Hargreaves says that although chatbots certainly have a purpose in some digital environments, they will only be considered at the OU if there is deemed to be a benefit to users. He added:

“The OU currently uses live chat, but is there scope to move to an ‘Amazon-like’ chatbot introduction in the future? If we determine that it will improve our user experience for our students and website visitors, then it will be considered.”

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