Most school websites are redesigned every three to six years. While there’s some upkeep that occurs in-between, we typically attempt to squeeze the bulk of the redesign work into a six-month period. After fifteen years of working on hundreds of school websites, I’ve come to the following conclusion: We can do better. This belief led me to write the recent Blackbaud K–12 eBook, How to Design the Best Private School Website.
The issue at hand is that simply creating a beautiful website design is no longer good enough. Today’s school website must have a streamlined navigation structure and rock-solid content to have a lasting admissions impact—otherwise, the site will lose visitors faster than it can attract them. And if the site isn’t search engine optimized (SEO), it may not attract the right visitors in the first place.
The futility of trying to properly conduct design exploration, navigation testing, content creation, and SEO in a six-month window is a lesson we’ve learned the hard way. As a result, we’ve collectively created workarounds such as transferring existing content from the current site, which has enabled us to launch the website without delaying the production schedule but has also watered-down the final product. Unfortunately, these stop-gap solutions have become “best practices” over time.
We can do better.
What’s the solution? While I’m tempted to say, “Read the eBook,” the answer is too simple to hide: Planning. Instead of cramming everything into a six-month sprint, plan for a marathon by reworking the various facets of the website one at a time, ideally in the summer. For example:
- Multimedia — It’s best to compile photography and feature videos before the design process begins. By spending a year gathering professional-quality photos of the school’s various programs and hiding them from everyone, the new website will have a fresh look that wows.
- SEO — SEO often gets attached to redesigns because that’s when we’re thinking about website improvement, but the initial optimization can occur at any time, so why wait? The sooner the site is optimized, the sooner the benefits will be realized. Plus, a thorough SEO evaluation will inform navigation, content, and even design changes.
- Navigation — Whether you seek professional navigation consultation, or conduct usability testing internally, overhauling the navigation before the redesign process begins will save project time and enable the designer to conceptualize the overall layout properly.
- Content Development — Hands down, content is the number one cause of redesign project delays. Avoid the mess altogether by planning to rework a handful of priority pages during the project, and then put the rest of the site on an editorial schedule, tackling a section or two each summer.
- Design Research — Create a focus group to evaluate what’s working on the current website, what’s not meeting expectations, and the desired functionality for the new site. Complete this research at least six months before the redesign, and in addition to saving time during the project, it can also serve as a blueprint for sales discussions.
- Sales Negotiations — The sales process can vary depending on whether your school is evaluating a new content management system and design agency. To ensure the sales process doesn’t push back your desired production schedule, plan to begin discussions at least three months in advance.
For a more thorough breakdown, please do read the eBook. By rethinking the entire process, we can consolidate the actual redesign project to focus on the design, putting the rest of the site on a schedule of continual improvement. This new approach will ensure that the school is putting its best website foot forward each admissions season.