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Best Practices Guidebook for Higher Ed Websites

Best Practices Guidebook for Higher Ed Websites

Author: Team 5P56

The structure of this guidebook will be through the lens of the life-cycle of a student, from the Prospective Student stage, through the stages of a Current Undergraduate Student, Graduate Student, and finally as an Alumni.

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Prospective Domestic Students

Questions the students will have in this phase of the life-cycle:

  • What programs to do you offer?
  • What kind of dining services do you offer?
  • How can I get involved in the university life, including orientation week activities?
  • How can I meet other new students?
  • Where can I live? What are the residency options?
  • What is your acceptance rate? How competitive are admissions?
  • What do you look at on a High School Transcript?
  • Are there part-time student employment opportunities?

Exemplar website:

Why this website was chosen:

This website is suitable for prospective domestic students, because it is organized in a very clear and accessible way. This website stands out for many reasons, one being that it is easy to access, as anyone who is a prospective student can type in the unique URL and get to the site directly, without having to follow a lot of links from the home page. The prospective students page, has tabs which cover all the "big questions" a prospective student might have, from campus life events, to residency, to admissions and programs. It has its' own search bar on the page to filter what you are looking for, which is very appealing to potential students who need quick and accessible information when conducting extensive research on prospective universities. This website offers a virtual tour, so students can easily get a feel for the university before attending a fall tour day, or orientation, which may help interest them in the campus. This site has quick statistics on U of Alberta, again to give students instant information without having to do a lot of filtering.

While this website covers all prospective students' questions, the reason it was selected for potential domestic students in particular, was because of the links and information on Career Opportunities, at the University of Alberta, and following graduation. The career links are best suited for Domestic students, as sometime with international students there are limitations on visa's and at times international students are interested in the experience of studying abroad, and not necessarily starting roots in the country.

What this website is missing:

This website is very practical, and user-friendly, but in exploring many other university websites, I think one "next step" for the U of A website would be work on design. The visuals, and design of the website was not as visually appealing as some of the other websites, and did not have as many large promotional pictures as other websites seen, which can make a difference in immediate first impressions of a prospective student.

The International Experience

Questions the students will have in this phase of the life-cycle:

  • Can you help me with my study permit and work permit questions?
  • What is it like to study in Canada and specifically at your school?
  • What supports do you have to help me to be successful?
  • How do I apply?

Exemplar website:

Why this website was chosen:

This website was chosen for its excellent navigation. The hierarchal drop down menu with sub menus allows students to very easily find the topic they want answered and access the material. The second picture shows what will display once a selection is made. On the new page listed within the section titled “What is on this page” the student will be able to easily access key information from the hyperlinks provided. They will also be able to quickly determine whether this portion of the site will answer their questions. All of the hyperlink content appears below the hyperlinks so the student has the option to scroll down the page versus clicking each hyperlink. The content is written in a very accessible way. In the box to the right that says “In this section” the student is able to see where they are within the drop down hierarchy to better understand the layout of the site and help reduce confusion

What this website is missing:

While this site is very helpful and efficient it is lacking in tone and visual appeal. There are pictures as you move through different pages but many information pages are not inviting and look like a library listing.

Money Matters

Questions the students will have in this phase of the life-cycle:

  • What are tuition costs for the academic year?
  • How much will Residence or Housing cost?
  • How much is the meal plan?
  • What are some other/ancillary fees I can expect to pay?
  • Where can I apply for financial assistance?
  • Where can I apply for part-time work on campus?
  • How do I make my payments?
  • What scholarships/bursaries can I apply for?

Exemplar website:

Why this website was chosen:

This page is broken down into 3 sections: 1) Cost Estimator; 2) Funding your Education; and 3) Paying your Fees. It's very clear and concise and seems to address all the pressing questions a student might ask about finance. The Cost Estimator is an easy-to-use tool that lets the prospective student select options from drop-down lists to help them understand how costs can vary depending on their choices. It also takes into account scholarships, residence options, meal plan options and other personal expenses. It stands out above other websites because of it's simple language and dynamic ability to filter down to the scenario that best suits the prospective student.

What this website is missing:

Unfortunately, the Cost Estimator does not include Supplementary Non-Tuition Related Fees (ie. student organization fees, bus-pass fees, campus recreation fees, health services fees, etc.) which can could possibly add another $1000 to the Total Costs for the Academic Year. A PDF of supplementary fees can be accessed on the Cost Estimator page, but this is easy to miss.

Money Matters: Scholarships and Awards

Questions the students will have in this phase of the life-cycle:

  • What is available for me?
  • What do I need to do to be able to be qualified?
  • Do I need to pay it back?
  • What do I have to submit and when?

Exemplar website:
Texas A&M University

Why this website was chosen:

The Texas A&M website for scholarships and financial aid was chosen as an exemplar because of its ease and direct approach with information. Clicking on the link to Scholarships and Financial Aid, leads the viewer to a page where, right front and center of the screen are some of the key pieces of information that a prospective student would look for; how to apply, important dates, important forms, and help for searches for more scholarships and financial aid that is available outside of the institutions. Clicking on the Apply link takes you to a page that offers many choices to better narrow down options and find a scholarship that best fits the student's status. A prospective student interested in continuing education can click on the Continuing Education link and see details on what applications are available in this category, and who to contact if you have any inquiries about applying. The site allows further drill-down to see what scholarships are available for that category, what are the requirements, what's the dead line, and any other documentation that needs to be submitted. The website is very straight forward and user friendly. It doesn't bog viewers down with information about all scholarships but rather focuses on the key pieces of information needed for scholarships the viewer is interested in. Another neat feature is the ability for the viewer to exit the application process and return to it later. Upon returning, an indicator of complete or in progress will display, giving the viewer the ability to keep track of the ones applied for and the ones that haven't been started.

What this website is missing:

It appears that a valid login is required to start the application process. Having not been able to login, it is not clear what is done once the application is submitted. Furthermore, it seemed to appear different when accessed on a laptop versus a tablet. The headings changed when viewed on on a tablet and it was harder to navigate because of the use of acronynms.

Residence and Housing

Questions the students will have in this phase of the life-cycle:

  • What will residence be like? What do the rooms/apartments look like?
  • Will I be guaranteed residence in my first year? What about after that?
  • How much does it cost? How does the price compare to other housing in the area?
  • What kind of support is available for students living in residence? (Dons/RAs, study help, counselling, residence activities)

Exemplar website:

Why this website was chosen:

  • Landing page is within two clicks of homepage
  • Links to all relevant information in one spot - housing, dining, rooms, and the process and costs involved
  • Drill-down to individual residence halls - each offering an immersive user experience, high-quality video and photos, providing a good feel for each of the residences, also offering images of and quotes from students to enrich the content for the prospective student

What this website is missing:

  • Because this is such a large university with a complex residence and housing system, there is a lot of information for the user to sort through - this could be overwhelming

Current UG Students: Course Information

Questions the students will have in this phase of the life-cycle:

  • Where can I find information on program requirements and available courses for my program? Where is the course calendar?
  • Where can I register for courses?
  • Where can I access my course timetable?
  • Where can I pay for my courses?

* key content request - linking course offerings to registration

Exemplar websites:

Why these websites were chosen:

Harvard was chosen because when a student opens the catalog, the days and times of the course are right there, as well as a full course description, what text books are required and whether or not the course can be transferred to other areas.

The University of Chicago was chosen because the viewer is able to link from the course catalog to registration, when logged on as a student which is one of the downfalls of the current Brock site.

The University of Illinois was chosen because the quick links and academic links content represents what students wish to know.

Graduate Studies

Questions the students will have in this phase of the life-cycle:

  • Where can I find important dates? (ie: start of semester, end of semester, fee due dates, graduation dates, intent to graduate form & submission date, other forms)
  • Where can I view the current course calendar?
  • Where do I complete course registration?

Exemplar website:
University of Guelph:

Navigation: Academics > graduate studies > current students (3 clicks!)

Why this website was chosen:

The usability of the website was assessed based on the 5 factors from the Website Analysis and Measurement Inventory: attractiveness, controllability, efficiency, helpfulness, and learnability (see further section for a description of each characteristic). It was very easy to navigate and find the information a current graduate student would want. The drop down menu has everything required in one place. In terms of ease of use and accessibility, it only took 3 clicks to get to the relevant information sought to answer the questions a current graduate student might have. The 3 click navigation consisted of: Academics > graduate studies > current students. The 3 clicks or less is important when visiting a website because of the bounce-rate factor, visitors want to find information quickly or they will move on and leave the website. The registration page has large buttons along the right hand side with noticeable useful links to the graduate calendar, important dates and deadlines, and forms & documents. Its nice to see that these links to important information and documents were available all in one place on the registration page. There is no need to go searching for dates, graduate calendar or forms when attempting to register for courses. It is intuitive that these pieces of information be available on the registration page.

Career Services

Questions the students will have in this phase of the life-cycle:

  • What can I do with my degree?
  • Where can I look for jobs? Can you help me find a job?
  • Can you help me with my resume?
  • Can you help me with post-graduate program options?

Exemplar Websites:

University of Virginia


Why these websites were chosen:

University of Virginia

This website was selected because of how it addresses some of the key content areas that students are looking for across the top menu, and how it provides direct links to specific career communities.Students are often looking for customized resources and this directs them to faculty specific career and industry resources for their major.Another interesting feature of the homepage is the “Plan your next step” for students at different levels.Students can self-identify based on year of study and find content beyond those pages provides access to resources and action steps that help with their career development.

This site was organized and easy to navigate.The image blocks and check lists that accompany the content in each section (i.e. resume) make it easy to follow and find information.Having a search menu at the top (blue box) allows students to find what they are looking for without having to scroll down large amounts of content found further down the page.

What is missing?

Missing from this site was resources for graduate students.After further exploration, it would appear there are other affiliate career services units on campus, so this is likely intentional.The site does, however, include resources for preparing for graduate school.

The social media links in the bottom footer feel lost on the page.Having a stronger social media presence would be advisable.

The banner image takes up a lot of space on the pages which may prevent visitors from viewing the upcoming events list at the bottom.I also find the font to be small as you continue to the content pages.Not all of the menu headings at the top and middle link to the same content.There seems to be two different pages for Majors& Careers and Explore Degrees and Careers.


This site was selected because of how clear the tabs read at the top of the page, speaking to the main topics student search for.Each tab includes drop down menus that quickly link students to key information in each section.The social media and contact links on the side are colourful and identifiable.The banner does not overwhelm the page, and you can access ‘quick links’, events, and announcements easily.

The site also provides a separate small menu in the top right corner for all other resources, services and events that may be of interest to students.These are important to include, but are not necessarily the first thing students look for when visiting a Career Services site.

This site is easy to navigate, as are the content pages that follow each section. Information inside each tab is well organized and easy to find (larger headings make information stand out). The use of multimedia resources built into the content pages make the pages more interactive that just simple text. The amount of information on each page is also contained and doesn’t require the student to continuously scroll down a large volume of content before finding the information they want.

Alumni Relations

Questions the students will have in this phase of the life-cycle:

  • How can I continue to support my school via financial donations after I have graduated?
  • How can I stay in touch with my classmates after graduation?
  • How can I partake in volunteer opportunities with undergraduate students?
  • How can I stay up-to-date on Alumni events that are taking place at the school?
  • How will the school assist me with career services and employment opportunities after I have graduated?

These questions are based off of:

Crisp, A., Brown, L., & Hardcastle, S. (2012). Alumni matters 2012: What alumni want: An international report on what alumni want and expect from the relationship with their business school. CarringtonCrisp.

Exemplar website:

Why this website was chosen:

The Carleton University Alumni page was chosen as an exemplar based off of its easy navigation, straightforward design and its ability to answer the questions established based on alumni needs. The page is not only attractive in appearance it is also easy to navigate with respect to the many questions alumni want answered. First, alumni seeking to donate financially back to their school have the option to along the top panel that has the donate tap easily accessible. Second, alumni who would like to stay in touch with classmates and teachers after graduation have the opportunities to do so via the numerous social media connections that the page offers direct links to. Twitter and Facebook links are located along the top panel, and more detailed descriptions of Carleton Alumni social media connections are listed at the bottom of the alumni homepage. Third, alumni who are looking to volunteer with their schools can easily find the “get involved” section which provides a list of opportunities such as mentorships, convocation, and co-op programs. The alumni calendar located on the alumni home page provide alumni with information on events and activities going on at the university. The alumni page also include a search bar for simple searches which is directly linked to the alumni pages. Finally, not only does the services section include career assistantship but also includes benefits, travel programs, transcripts, library access through a new alumni ID and email account. Overall, this website was chosen as an exemplar because it lays out the answers to common questions that alumni have in an effective, easy to navigate manner.

Best Practices Guideline & Deck

A PPT on Best Practices, with examples from the for-profit, as well as educational worlds. Also included is Multivariate testing, Google analytics, etc.



Website Analysis and Measurement Inventory (WAMMI)

Website Analysis and Measurement Inventory (WAMMI) developed by Human Factors Research Group in 1999. It is a questionnaire (20 questions) completed by visitors to a website to assess how easy and useful it is to use the website. 5 factors to assess the usability of websites: attractiveness, controllability, efficiency, helpfulness, and learnability

Mentes, S. A., & Turan, A. H. (2012). Assessing the usability of university websites: An empirical study on Namik Kemal University. The Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology, 11(3), 61-69.




  • Attractive to user through colour and graphic design

  • Appeal the interest of the user


  • Whether or not users feel they are in control

  • Degree of which the user feels they can navigate the site with ease and do the things they want to do


  • User can make a quick visit to the site and achieve goals without putting forth much effort

  • Degree of which user can quickly locate what they are looking for


  • Site corresponds with the users expectations about content and structure

  • Degree to which the site enables the user to solve their problems with information


  • The degree of ease in learning and mastering the features of the site to achieve goals

  • How easy is it to learn the system?

Project Assessment Rubric - Feel free to give us your feedback on this tutorial!