Higher Education Websites Shouldn’t Be Like a Library Without a Catalog

No organization, public or private, has more responsibility for content management than an institution of higher education. The entire mission of colleges and universities is comprised of producing and sharing content – the products of research, teaching and learning. As these institutions come to depend more on websites as the vehicle for collecting and disseminating material, the bar for site performance and user experience is raised ever higher. Providing students with excellent user experience is a unique challenge for institutions of higher education. The massive quantity of content that can make it very difficult to successfully navigate through all of the available information. Fortunately two very useful tools for attaining good user experience are relatively accessible and easy to implement: search and filtering. Search There’s a whole industry in web design around search, it is a big and complex subject. But at the heart of it, a well-designed on-site search tool can make or break the ability of a site to satisfy user’s needs. This is particularly relevant for universities and departments that house a lot of information on their site. A good search tool will provide options to:
  • Sort results based on how relevant the content is to the search term, not just a pile of recommendations that happen to contain the search term
  • Match partial or incomplete search terms
  • Allow boolean search
  • Feature search terms on pages when the user visits a recommended search result
  • Allow for categories in search results such as “Courses” “Articles” “Events”
Filtering Almost anyone who has shopped online is familiar with filtering – the functionality that allows a user to use selection criteria to help wade through complex decision making. While related to search, filtering contains a user’s search terms and helps direct them to the best or most appropriate options. This is an invaluable tool for course catalogs. A good filter is useful at any scale, whether a department is listing twenty courses for a major or a university sharing its full catalog online. A good filtering system will allow site administrators to:
  • Select the filter type that best matches the searchable data (ie checkboxes, sliders, date range, etc.)
  • Easily choose categories from which to source the data (pages, labels, custom fields, etc.)
  • Let’s users influence how results will be displayed (sort by, include/exclude)
  • Allows users to bookmark or save search results
Search and filtering are just two of the many tools that higher ed website managers have to provide a good user experience to site visitors. Vince and Erin discuss these and other ways that universities can improve site management and user experience in this video conversation about managing content bloat on higher ed websites.