University websites 101

University websites can be overwhelming, with large volumes of information that can confuse rather than communicate effectively. 


What university will you be graduating from?

Does its website provide you with relevant information?

Organisation focus vs user focus

I recently came across this great XKCD ( comic. It shows how organisation-focused content is often prioritised over user-focused content on the home pages of university websites.

A venn diagram showing the difference between the information visitors need from a university website (eg, practical information like a campus map and contact details) and what they often get (eg, promos and news)

New Zealand university websites review

This made me wonder how user friendly New Zealand university websites are, so I set out to review and compare them (yes, I'm a nerd!).

As I browsed through the sites I got overwhelmed with the volume of information available. So I went back to basics and defined some 'key tasks'.

Key tasks 

Key tasks are what visitors want to do on your website eg, find contact (and location) details, purchase goods and/or services or learn more about what your organisation does.

The role of a university website is primarily to:

  • promote what they offer to prospective students and staff

  • provide access to online tools, services and resources for current students and staff.

With this in mind, my key tasks for university websites are:

  • find information on the academic offerings eg, courses and research

  • learn more about the non-academic offerings eg, the culture, activities, facilities and location

  • find information on fees

  • find out how to apply

  • find contact and location information

  • access online tools and resources.

Home page and design trends

All of the New Zealand university websites had attractive designs, or design elements, with good use of imagery and video content to add colour and life.

All the sites are mobile friendly. Mobile friendly, or 'responsive', websites adapt to small screens by stripping down to just the key content on a page. This makes content on large sites easier to digest because simplifying the design enables people to focus on the written content and not get distracted by design elements and long navigation lists.

Navigation trends and ideas

Many sites used a combination of audience and topic-based navigation and 'mega menus' to reveal content quickly.

Audience-based navigation can cause confusion because some people may identify with multiple groups, and some content may be relevant for multiple groups. However, both audience and topic-based navigation can be used together if content cross over can be avoided.

Most websites used breadcrumb navigation which provides orientation and useful links for people viewing the site on a small screen (where navigation menus are often reduced to a 'hamburger' icon).

The amount of main (or top-level) navigation items ranged from 6 to 15! Having less (eg, 5 - 7) navigation options at the top level of a website makes it quick and easy for people to comprehend what information is available. A large number of items at the top level can be overwhelming. 

Could it be possible to reduce the main navigation list for a large and complex university website into five (easy to digest) items? Here's an example:

  • What we offer

  • Why study with us?

  • Apply

  • Tools and services (eg, library and student portal)

  • Contact us

Highlight boxes can be used to surface more specific and popular content on the Home page eg,

  • Course and department lists

  • Research centre

  • Library

  • Campus calendar and map

  • Information for International students

  • Information for Alumni

Written content trends

When confronted with a large and content-rich website, visitors need to be able to 'scan' pages quickly to find the information they're looking for. Many of the university websites used headings, summaries and bulleted lists well to enable scanning.

Auckland, take a bow!

The highest usability ranking (IMHO) goes to Auckland University and AUT, closely followed by Lincoln University. Well done!

Managing a university website is a HUGE challenge. I applaud those who work on them as they have a massive job collating large amounts of content and coordinating (including quality assurance) many content contributors ... in a content management system that may or may not be easy to use.

View the site-by-site analysis - New Zealand university website review (PDF, 85 kb)

Resource links

Audience-based navigation: 5 reasons to avoid it -

Writing for the Web -