photo credit: Jeremy Wilburn via photopin cc
photo credit: Jeremy Wilburn via photopin cc

When it comes to user research – particularly that of gathering user feedback directly and personally – who you talk to is just as important as knowing who is using your public website everyday.

At colleges and universities, which are highly political organizations in and of themselves, it is most important to talk to a college website’s primary audience – prospective students. I’ve sat in many a meeting where the student’s weren’t initially going to be part of the discussion – believe it or not.  Knowing your market, particularly your student age populations, is of utmost importance. Sure, we can talk to administrators, the VP of Marketing or the Director of Admissions, but no one is more affected by the functionality of your website than higher-education-seeking, prospective students.

And no one is going to be more disturbed by a poorly organized website with internal higher education “speak” used for the site’s primary navigation. Are you using terms that students don’t understand or relate to? For example, “Prospective students” is not a term that high school students understand at all, after all, they are “Current students” technically. Did your organization do a large marketing campaign on a system and use terms that do not explain it? Fail. Time to test with primary audience users.

That is why it is imperative that prospective students be included in your user research for any website redesign. Finding high school students, if that is your primary enrollment population, is tough, but college admission counselors, local high school guidance counselors, and parents who are college staff can also provide possible users to test and/or gather usability feedback. If your students are older, consider getting contacts through college staff, professional organizations connected with the college, or a major employer who has used your retraining services, to find your audience.
Offering a thank you gift makes the experience all the more enjoyable and palatable to any person participating. It doesn’t have to be big – a $25 gift card for 35 minutes of feedback is most welcome. Or if you’re doing them in person, some sweet treats are always appreciated. Anyone under 18, you will need to get parental approval – this can be tricky so planning ahead of time and recruiting weeks in advance of your user feedback sessions will be most important.
If primary students are not available, consider first year students – they are newest to the institution and are more likely to still stumble upon terminology, completing tasks and understanding different elements on your pages.

So start with talking to your student audience for a better website and enhanced outcomes for student engagement!