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monitor with Go, Bulldogs to represent school website

Six steps to a professional school website

There’s a young family moving into your part of the state. While choosing which neighborhood to settle into, they research one of the most important factors in their decision: the school district. How will they conduct their research? A primary way will be visiting school websites.

With the options afforded by school choice, your district must consider how it is positioning itself as an educational leader. You have an important service to offer. If you want parents to choose your school, you must evaluate the effectiveness of your image and message, including your online presence. Your website is the core of your school marketing.

Many schools are unprepared for this culture of choice. Simply having a website is not enough—sites that look outdated or haphazard don’t inspire confidence. If a parent visiting your site doesn’t get the impression that you value excellence and are current in technology, they may wonder if you can meet the needs of today’s students. If your message doesn’t resonate, they have the option of sending their children elsewhere.

Since we are educators, consider this article a crash course in web design. Your first assignment: take a benchmark assessment. Check your current website against the rubric below. Then take the course—and do your homework!


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Lesson 1: Determine your rhetorical situation

Every type of communication has a rhetorical situation: audience, purpose, and context. Good design is built on a thorough analysis of these fundamentals.


Who visits your site? Your list might include parents, grandparents, community members, students, staff, organization leaders, potential new student families.


Purpose is closely related to audience. Your purpose may include conveying information (e.g., lunch menu), connecting people with other people and programs (staff email addresses), and appealing to potential new student families (list of Advanced Placement classes).


How will users connect with your website? Will the majority be on PCs or smartphones? Knowing the answer will affect your layout and design choices.[/ezcol_3quarter_end]

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Lesson 2: Determine your content.

Once you’ve analyzed your rhetorical situation, plan the content for your site. Determine what information the different groups are seeking. For example:

  • Parents: School calendar, lunch menu, staff contact information, etc.
  • Community members: How to request space in the facility, how to connect with the parent/teacher organization, why we are going to referendum.
  • What do potential new student families want to know? What does the staff need from the site? Students?

When gathering this information, don’t merely guess or assume. Talk to your audience. Know what they come to your website for and how frequently.[/ezcol_3quarter_end]

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Lesson 3: Organize your content.

School websites have massive amounts of content. The structure of your site should lead the different segments of your audience on a pleasant, logical (to them) journey.

A practical way to lay the foundation for site navigation is card sorting: Write content topics on index cards and ask various users to organize them in a way that makes sense. Working with actual site users will make the final product more user-friendly—and you will be enlightened by the differences in logic you observe. Accommodating these differences demonstrates you practice what you preach regarding differentiation.

Create a visual representation of your information architecture (a site map). This is a great tool for collaboration. It also enables you to see how many clicks it takes to get to any information on your site. To create this structure, you can use free online wireframe software, a large whiteboard with plenty of colored markers, or index cards and an empty wall or floor.

When creating the navigation for your site, consider these tips for better user experience:

  • Limit the categories in your navigation bar to seven or fewer. More than that is overwhelming.
  • Organize content so users do not have to click more than four times to get the information they need.
  • Create a quick-links section for information that is sought most frequently.[/ezcol_3quarter_end]

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Lesson 4: Design your site.

Finally, we are getting to the actual design in this web design class!

First impressions matter—website users make snap judgments on whether your site is worth their time or not (you’ve made those kinds of decisions yourself). You don’t want to irritate or frustrate your users. This is why the home page design is core to your site’s effectiveness. Colors, typography, images, white space, and content must all work together to create a page that’s appealing, welcoming, and informative.

Decide the color palette, layout, typography, and images for the entire site. Create a style guide that has all this information. Include the specific site colors; the typography styles for headings, subheadings, paragraphs, and links; and specific logo and mascot images to use and how to access them. Many schools have different people in charge of various sections of the website. A style guide ensures that the team maintains consistency across the site—an important aspect in looking professional and building trust with your visitors.

Design cannot work effectively apart from content. Keep readability and usability in mind when making decisions. For example, if you have a lot of content on a page, break it up with subheadings, lists, and white space so users can scan for the information they’re seeking. Keep PDFs to a minimum—or make them accessible for all users. Left justify large amounts of text —centered text is hard to read (don’t frustrate your visitors).

Consider the context of your website—how users will interact with it. Let’s say a mother is going school supply shopping. Is she able to find the supply list without navigating a series of dropdown menus on her smartphone? Can she access the supply list online without having to download it? Is your site mobile friendly, or does she have to enlarge the screen and swipe to see the entire list?

See the rubric for more details on the finer points of website design.[/ezcol_3quarter_end]

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Lesson 5: Test your site.

Make sure your site displays correctly on all browsers and on all screen sizes. Test all the links.

Check your site for readability, accessibility, and color contrast. See the Resources sidebar for more information.

Conduct an informal usability study. Select members of your audience groups and give them tasks, such as, “Find out when the next school board meeting is scheduled.” Then take note of the process they go through to find that information. Have them speak what they’re thinking—you will gather valuable information on how users navigate your site.[/ezcol_3quarter_end]

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Lesson 6: Maintain your site.

Congratulations on your website makeover! But the work is not finished—the site needs to be maintained and updated.

If you are dividing these responsibilities among team members, invariably something will be forgotten (and you know what they say about too many cooks). Designate one person to be in charge of the website. The site go-to person can manage all the details, maintain the style guide, and do behind-the-scenes maintenance. This leader can also provide training and support for other website editors, such as teachers who want to update their classroom pages and administrative staff responsible for various sections.

Now take another assessment of your site and be proud of the improvements you’ve made. Who doesn’t love a good makeover?!

Keeping your website effective, functional and accessible is an ongoing process. While the work continues, keep that young family in mind—you want them to visit your site and be confident that yours is the school district for their children.[/ezcol_3quarter_end]



gingerbread men

Your website could benefit from a good cookie analogy

“I don’t want a cookie-cutter website!” said my customer. I understand his desire to stand out, but I disagree with the belief that his site needs to be mind-blowing to attract customers. The fact is, being too edgy can turn off the very people you are trying to attract.

It’s similar to physical shopping. You know what to expect when you go into a clothing store: Apparel on racks and tables, arranged according to size, color, function. Does this consistent organization make all clothing retailers boring? Or all look the same? Far from it! There is plenty of room within the organizational framework for originality. In fact, creativity thrives within boundaries.

Just look at the coloring book craze. Would you rather be given a blank sketchbook and told to start drawing, or be handed a coloring book? Are coloring books killing people’s creativity or giving them an outlet for it, providing those boundaries within which people can go creatively crazy?

The same is true for websites. It’s great to look good (and effective websites should be appealing), but if you’re not connecting with customers and meeting their needs, you won’t make a sale.

Tip #1: Scale back your ego.

Your website is not about you. Yes, it’s a reflection of you, but the primary purpose of your site is to serve your audience, not glorify yourself. You may be proud of your unique site, and it may proclaim the wonders of your business, but if it’s not answering clients’ questions or serving their needs, it’s a fail.

Tip #2: Embrace the cookie-cutter.

Your visitors have already been to thousands of websites, and they come to yours with certain expectations. For example, they expect to find:

  • your logo at the top left.
  • main navigation at the top.
  • a clear value proposition (what you do and how you can help them) high up on the page.
  • social media icons (often found in the footer).
  • a way to contact you.

You don’t want your visitors to feel confused, annoyed, or embarrassed that they can’t figure out how to navigate your site. You want them to come in, check out what brought them there and maybe explore a little more.

When you embrace the basics, the creativity can begin. Just like literal cookies. A gingerbread man has got all the expected conventions–head, torso, limbs. Do you reject it because it’s not unique? Or do you take colored frosting and sprinkles and candies to customize it? I challenge you to make your website one amazing gingerbread man.




screenshot of engineering company website

The way of avocado appliances

Every internet visit provides you an opportunity to analyze websites so you can improve your own. There is no shortage of material out there! Let’s take a look at an engineering company website I came across.

Web-sins of this site include:

  • Opening animation: First, only its name trickles in a letter at a time; then it explodes and resets itself (a letter at a time) in the upper left corner of the home page. Many visitors will not wait that long, and there goes a relationship opportunity and potential customer.
  • Poor readability: White text on black background is hard to read in large amounts. You don’t want to annoy your visitors so much that they don’t stay to read the text.
  • Also, the font is very small. You don’t want to strain your visitor’s eyesight—that does not recommend you.

Here are some ways this business could improve its website.

  • Tell the audience what you do. “Serving clients by developing efficient and creative solutions” does not say anything. Solutions for what? Sure, they’re an engineering firm, but what do they actually do? Can they help me? If a visitor does not feel you understand their problem, they won’t go to you for answers.
  • Don’t use opening animation. It has gone the way of avocado appliances. It makes you look old and out-of-touch.
  • Improve readability by using a larger font and use black text on a white background.  Would you want to work with a company that annoyed you?
  • Make sure all your links lead to valuable content. Check for dead ends. The potential customer may be thinking: If they don’t pay attention to details on their website, can they manage my multimillion dollar project?

Lesson of the Week:

Don’t remind them of Grandma’s kitchen—and don’t make it hard for Grandma to read your website.

movie theater home page

What is the #1 question?

What is the purpose of your website? To impress visitors? To tell the world how great you are? To sell products/services? These may be valid reasons, but are they the BEST reason?

The most important purpose of a website is to answer your visitors’ questions. That means you need to know who your audience is and what they want to know (not just what you think they need to know). The #1 question you need to answer when creating a website is:

What do people who visit my website want to know?

My website analysis of the week focuses on a movie theater site. What is the top reason people visit this website? To see shows and showtimes. But that’s not what you see first when you visit this site. Instead, this website focuses on ticket prices. You have to scroll to see what shows are playing. Sure, this theater provides good value, but is that the most important part of the movie-going experience? I doubt it, since plenty of people pay $10 or more to see films at other theaters.

Here are some action tips to make this site more effective by providing a better user experience:

  • Put the films that are now showing near the top so visitors don’t have to scroll.
  • Replace or remove the gold center. The design is distracting, and it’s unclear how it’s related to movie-going.
  • Change the font to one that’s easier to read.
  • Organize the links in a way that’s easier to navigate and more intuitive. There are too many to wade through, and the arrangement is awkward. You don’t want to annoy your visitors by making it difficult to find what they want.

Web design is about more than “pop.” Be sure to address the needs of your audience—they will thank (and reward) you for it.


SBA website infographic

Does your small business really need a website?

There’s a lot of hype about websites these days. Does your small business really need one? After all, as of the end of 2014, only 51% of small businesses had a website (see infographic right, from SCORE-Infographic-Customer-Friendly-Websites.) And they’re doing fine. Right?

Use the following checklist to determine your website needs.

You do not need a website if…

  • You don’t want your company to grow
  • You don’t want to boost sales or increase your market share
  • You prefer answering the same questions over and over again via time-consuming phone calls
  • You don’t mind being judged as unprofessional or lacking credibility
  • You prefer spending money on advertising such as newspaper and magazine ads, billboards, radio & TV spots
  • You want potential customers to get their questions answered only during working hours

So, do you need a website after all? If the answer is yes, we’d love to help you design your online presence. Feel free to contact us. And best wishes for success!