by Laurissa Gulich
In the rowing world, they say it takes 1,000 repetitions of the same motion before it can be engrained in your muscle memory, learning something new and enforcing old bits of information with each stroke. Repetition is, in essence, the mother of skill. The same could be said in the realm of mobile marketing. How many different mobile sites must you visit before you can be considered an expert in a certain field? I’ve just visited and navigated through thirty. Does that make me an expert? We’ll see.
(Note: while we are VERY proud of our customers in the higher education space, we purposely chose not to focus on their sites in this blog post. We encourage you to visit our Mobile Showcase for examples of college and university mobile websites that use the Bluetrain Mobile platform to excel at delivering mobile web experiences to their visitors!)
As a recent college graduate from Michigan State University, I have a decent grasp on what most students want to see out of a college website. However, at the beginning of this project I didn’t have a clue as to what alumni, parents, sports, and faculty would be looking for. Truthfully, I hadn’t really even considered those audiences. I had only dipped my toes in the sea of mobile and was ready to learn more.
Surprisingly enough, I’d say a good 60% of the schools I searched for didn’t even have a mobile site. And considering that most of the sites I visited were larger universities, I’m sure the percentage of smaller, private schools without mobile sites would be even higher. When 1 out of every 8 internet requests are mobile, I can’t help but wonder why people have not jumped on this train yet?
The journey began.
I started at the beginning of the alphabet, going state by state, focusing on both larger state universities and small private schools. Maybe there was a better method, but this worked for me. Alabama through Arizona gave me a decent idea of the basic mobile sites that were out there. A plain list of tabs, easy to navigate, nothing special. The first problem I ran into occurred when I began searching for each school’s academic programs.
I see this as a very important feature when it comes to designing a mobile site for a college or university. If I’m browsing a school’s website, I should have absolutely no problem finding an academics section. You are an institution providing state of the art academics, right? So show me!
Finding the University of Alabama’s academics information was unexpectedly difficult. Unintuitive for sure. As I later discovered, the University of Mississippi has no academics tab, section, or icon. Nothing. Really, what is the motivation behind this?
It’s oddly difficult to find an Academics section on a large number of university mobile websites.
It wasn’t until I landed on Hendrix College that I really started to notice some other major flaws. Or rather, some inconveniences. Some things that, frankly, flat out irritated me. You don’t want a prospective student to be irritated.
Where to begin… Overall, Hendrix College’s mobile site looks simple. Nice colors, happy picture, decent feel. How about functionality? Hendrix uses responsive design to accomodate for both desktop and mobile, however there are still some issues that arise. I liked that there’s a search bar, but why is it so huge? An why do I have to scroll for 3 years within the “Go to…” dropdown menu to find what I want? Some of the pages are useful, but they’re really meant to be experienced on a desktop site. For example, the font size is too small to read on some pages and I left grandma’s bifocals at home. This was not going well. The “quick links” at the bottom of most pages are not so quick to get to because the pages are so long. There are click-to-call phone numbers, but I don’t want to do any calling anymore. I was just frustrated with how difficult this site is to navigate, so I closed the door on my way out.
It is possible for a mobile site to appear simple, yet be enormously difficult to use.
I then moved on to the University of Southern California and was pleasantly surprised. The look of their homepage is different than any of the sites I had seen so far. There are convenient tools and services at the top, popular links, and easy navigation. I liked all the resources provided for me on the homepage, yet I was comforted knowing that an in-depth, easy-to-navigate menu is available in case I needed it. In my opinion the site does have some issues with complexity, in that there are a few resources you can access in multiple, unnecessary ways.
But this site is unique. It feels welcoming and has so many features that I wanted to explore, including: News, Gallery, Video, Statistics, Research, and their social media links. Never had I ever thought that a bus schedule would be something you could include in a mobile site. How functional! It painted a decent picture of the university for me, and if I were a prospective student, I’d be booking a visit.
Including features and useful tools specific to the mobile audience improves the functionality of a mobile site and fosters a positive image.
I traveled from Colorado to Michigan, Pennsylvania to Maine, learning something more from each site I visited. From the very beginning I was impressed by simple sites with a picture or two and academic information for prospective students. But throughout my search, I began to realize there is so much more needed on a mobile site. It isn’t just prospective and current students visiting these sites. It’s faculty, sports fans, parents, alumni, businesses, etc. The site has to appeal to them, too. A potential faculty member isn’t going to want to land on your homepage and be inundated with a screen full of resources for current students.
My opinions were changing. I didn’t like overly simple anymore. I didn’t like the list of tabs. Yes, it was easy to navigate through, but I needed videos, pictures, and stories. I wanted news articles. I wanted a picture of this university to be painted for me without having to read an “About Us” page.
George Fox University. Another example of a mobile site making me feel welcome. Their homepage gives you the option to navigate to a part of their site that is catered to your specific needs. You can do this in one of two ways: 1) Choose “Prospective Students” or click on “GFU Community”, giving you the option to classify yourself as a current student, alumnus, parent, or faculty, or 2) Once in the main menu, select resources, and you are presented with the option of exploring resources for current students, prospective students, current faculty, current employees, alumni, churches, donors, journalists, and parents. Too many options? Maybe. But how pumped would you be if you were a journalist and there was a specific area with resources for you? Talk about catering to your audience.
In contrast, the College of New Jersey provided the exact opposite experience. Their homepage consists mainly of obscure links that only current students may recognize, such as SOCS, PAWS, YESS, etc. Those things mean nothing to me. They probably mean nothing to an alumnus who graduated 20 years ago, a news reporter, a sports fan, or a parent, as well. Maybe these shouldn’t be the first things everyone sees when they come to the site.
A mobile site with an abundance of information and tools isn’t necessarily good. It needs to be organized well. A site should have the capability to cater to different audiences.
I’m calling these “surprises” not because I expected the opposite, but rather because they are concepts that I didn’t even consider when I began my search. By the end, I was able to narrow down the best and the worst. The beautiful and the ugly.
A site seems to work well if it’s simple and intuitive, easy to navigate, well-organized, and has key features such as:
- Resources for multiple audiences
- Academics information
- Social media links
- Pictures and video
- Academic calendar
- Click to call contact numbers and emails
- News and events
Things to avoid in creating a mobile site for a university would include:
- Confusing or Obscure Navigational Links
- Excessively long pages with too much content
- Links at the bottom of a long page
- Features or text that’s too small and difficult to select
- Weather tool
After not having a clue what I was getting myself into at the beginning of my search, in the end I was pleasantly surprised to find some really interesting and unique mobile sites for universities. None of the schools’ mobile sites I visited were perfect, but each one taught me more about designing a site for a college or university. I learned what kind of site intrigued me, what made me want to learn more, and what persuaded me to even consider packing up and booking a visit.
It seems quite elementary. Provide me with a simple site, tell me a little bit about your academics, and help me easily navigate from page to page. Paint me a picture, tell me a story, happily send me on my way, and I’ll probably check you out later. Maybe I’ll even recommend you to a friend. However, accomplishing these steps takes research. You can’t learn all there is to learn about building your school’s mobile site from me or from visiting only a few other sites. See what’s out there.
Here’s the complete list of college mobile websites I visited:
- University of Alabama
- University of Alaska
- Arizona State University
- Hendrix College
- University of Southern California
- University of Colorado, Denver
- Wilmington University
- University of Florida
- Argosy University
- North Idaho College
- Iowa State University
- University of Illinois at Chicago
- University of Chicago
- Bethel College
- University of Kentucky
- University of Maine
- University of Maryland
- Boston University
- Harvard University
- Michigan State University
- University of Mississippi
- University of Nebraska, Lincoln
- University of Nevada, Las Vegas
- The College of New Jersey
- The City University of New York
- Rochester Institute of Technology
- University of Mary Washington
- University of Pennsylvania
- George Fox University, Oregon
- College of William and Mary
How does your college or university’s mobile site compare? Go ahead, flaunt what you’ve got in the comments section.