Before we began organizing our architecture into a visual wireframe, we did a bit more due diligence. We looked at several other higher ed sites (peers, aspirational, and those who’ve won awards for site design). We discovered that there’s a great deal of commonality across higher ed sites with regard to visual structure (and underlying architecture).
What does this tell us? A few things–primarily, that higher ed sites, for better or worse, are starting to have an identifiable “look” (or structure), which means that user expectations are likewise adjusting. While we don’t want to look like everyone else, we feel it’s wise to pay attention to this trend. Our visitors, especially prospective students (as well as prospective faculty and staff), will likely be interacting with other higher ed sites as well as ours, and it won’t serve us to deviate too far from the stylistic norm. Our users want information–they want to learn about our institution (prospectives) and they want to find the tools they need (community folks). Our design should not–must not–stand in the way of this!
It also tells us that higher ed sites tend to be similar because the information they’re presenting is similar–not very earth-shattering as observations go, but maybe something we don’t think about every day. We all want prospective students to apply to our institutions, we want to share news and events with our internal and external communities, and we want to provide access to academic colleges and programs and libraries and portals. This means we can learn from our “competitors”–from their successes and failures. And if they’re all doing something, well, maybe we should pay attention. Perhaps we can do it better. Or perhaps we can choose an approach that works, adopt it, and incorporate it in our design.
With all of this in mind, we generated a layered image “map” of common structural elements across higher ed sites–things like navigation, search features, news feeds, header info, etc. Sure enough, it confirmed our earlier discovery regarding commonalities: