One Size Fits None: Remaking a College Site for a Content Hungry Generation

Christopher Jones, Direcor of Web Communications at North Central College has partnered with Ardis Kadiu from Spark451 to discuss how these two organizations have maneuvered through a redesign in UAD4.

Content is a design problem. Good web design starts with content.

Today’s prospective students: expectations and behavior

The generational gaps are becoming shorter, meaning expectations are changing at a more rapid pace. For marketers, then, the pressure is on to meet those needs. Based on a Spark451 survey, 99% of stuents use their smartphone, 62% use their laptop computer, 17% tablet/iPad, and 12% desktop computer. In the same survey, 50% said they utilized Facebook throughout their college selection process, 46% preferred Instagram, and less preferred YouTube and Snapchat. We’re talking about Generation Z – our under-20 year olds – who are managing many channels and screens at the same time. They are future focused and realists, and prefer to communicate with images over text.

What is happening in the Marketplace?

There has been a noticeable shift of institutions using digital channels toward student engagement, and when it comes to design, setting itself apart with engaging design and aligned as a marketing piece. Many will abandon their viewbooks, even, for a digital version. Keeping up with this trend is incredibly important.

First, Christopher laid out his challenges: pushing to create a new, creative, and innovative design, better aligning the website with the North Central College brand, and also aligning the experience with what prospective students expect and need. Finally, Christopher considered the obstacles ahead – can this website scale for future developments?

Discover, Define, Design, Develop

After a series of surveys in the “Discover” phase, it was clear that the architecture was confusing to users. Spark451 also asked what the number one thing prospective students look for in an institution’s website. The answer is unsurprising – academic majors and minors. Second was financial aid and scholarships, and third was campus location. All of this was considered as North Central College and Spark451 dove in to the redesign process.

Drawing inspiration from websites outside of higher education that prospective students interact with – Spotify, Netflix, and Amazon – North Central College committed to a design that emulated an eCommerce model. When it comes to scaling the content for the future, Christopher explained that North Central College is separating content from the structure of the site. The ultimate solution was creating stacks.

Central Solution: Stacks

A stack is a cohesive collection of content cards. They can be the same type of content (like news) or related topics, for example: campus news with education (article, study abroad story, internship, event, profile), or fastest growing, such as programs available.

North Central College has over two dozen types of cards that are used throughout their site. They opted to make types of stacks before the design began: Group stacks, List Stacks, Profile Stacks, Program Stacks. Each have their own unique structure and features, and can be easily changed and adapted to each site. These stacks are literally what they say they are: stacks of images that users can interact with and move through. The stacks are not set within a template, allowing the team at North Central College to shift quickly with trends and the needs for the user at the time. The key to a successful stack is engaging images and rich content, with the end user in mind.