The Challenge of Creating Websites
Our college teaches, performs research and disseminates information to the public. Effective communication is vital to each of these functions, regardless of technologies and delivery methods.
Why Should You Care?
Many of our sites were created out of a desire to get something online, before the college could develop an overriding, cohesive purpose or strategy. Without a strategy, sites quickly can become a disorganized collection of information attempting to equally represent all internal stakeholders. This lack of strategy prevents our sites from effectively providing information to target audiences in the ways they can best utilize it.
All websites sell either products or themselves. As a college, we need to clearly identify what we wish visitors to know about our programs and help them understand our unique strengths and value as an organization. Our content should enable visitors to discern what distinguishes us from other similar organizations. With the vast amount of information on the Web, presenting content that is unique and relevant is essential.
Without a clear purpose, we cannot effectively communicate with our customers. Understanding why and for whom you are creating your website is critical. Clearly defining your website's purpose BEFORE its creation will guide your decisions during development. This helps you to identify your target audience, the necessary content, and the message you wish to convey.
Examples of website purpose:
- Strengthen undergraduate enrollment
- Provide community education
- Provide better customer service
Focusing on the Target Audience
The user-centered design process focuses on the characteristics and informational needs of the end user. Because website visitors can be quite diverse, it is important to identify a primary audience -- one that is closely aligned with our mission and purpose. We refer to this group as our target audience, and our content specifically focuses on their needs. This is a break from traditional efforts where websites reflect the departmental organization.
Our content is the most important part of our website. But it must be content that our target audience finds useful.
Examples of target audiences:
- Prospective students seeking to learn how our academic programs can help them achieve their career goals.
- Industry leaders and executives investigating new product offerings and/or looking for a research partner.
- Homeowners looking for solutions to garden or insect issues.
The more thoroughly we understand our target audience, the more likely it is that our content will be relevant and the more successfully we will achieve our goals and purpose.
But we no longer rely on our own interpretations of needed content. We now use more reliable tools to guide our content development.
- Google Analytics. This is a service that generates detailed statistics about who is visiting your site and what kinds of information they are looking for. Regular GA analysis can help determine the relevance of your content and can help reveal user behavior. You might be surprised as to what is NOT being looked at.
- Surveys and Interviews. We cannot really know our target audiences without gathering information about them. This can be done in a variety of ways: analyzing phone calls and email requests, conducting surveys and interviews. Ultimately, we must ask them clear questions, and listen to what they tell us.
- Usability Testing. This is a technique for evaluating a website by testing it on users. These tests often yield surprising results, and reveal inherent stumbling blocks and weaknesses that were previously hidden.
- Industry Standard Best Practices. There has been tremendous research in the area of information science that examines the technical, social, and psychological behaviors of online users and provides great insight into the intricacies of online communication. These best practices are what we refer to as usability standards. Incorporating them into our content development provides a more satisfying user experience.
The vast amount of information on and the interactive nature of the Web dictates that we engage our users on many levels. This requires a continuous supply of fresh content and involvement. Long textual documents can often be replaced by video, webinars, podcasts, and blogs. These technologies have become a part of our communications arsenal, and when used appropriately, can enhance our message with interactive engagement.
Producing a relevant, informative website is an excellent investment of your time and energy. You'll provide a valuable service to your audience, and a content-rich, user-centered website is the most effective tool for explaining your program or research to a wide audience.
The college's communications unit is positioned to assist you in your Web development efforts.
Our Products and Services
- Plone / Weblion. The WebLion partnership, centered on the Plone CMS, offers cutting-edge expertise, providing add-on products, consulting, and training to facilitate the Web development process.
- Experts. Our communications staff has Web specialists, designers, marketing specialists, photographers, writers, and editors that will work with you to produce efficient, attractive, usable sites.
- Penn State Standards. Our sites meet and exceed Penn State's AD-54 Web page standards.
- Web Standards. Many usability practices can streamline the presentation of content and enhance the user experience. We offer advice and training on best practices and appropriate technologies.
- Visual Standards. The latest in Web technology will only get you partially to your communication goals. Photography, colors, and aesthetics make the experience of consuming web content a pleasant experience. When the visuals work well on a website they should complement the content, not be distracting, and should give a professional impression. Why do retail stores, restaurants, companies focus so much on their front door? Because, first impressions do matter. If you have a good first impression (good visuals), and visitors find what you wanted (good content), the visitor's overall impression should be positive.
- Technical Innovations. We are primed to accommodate the ever-evolving nature of the Web. We can answer questions and offer assistance in choosing optimal technologies for communications.
- Social Web. Provides methods to allow site content to be easily shared and discussed on social networks.
- Additional Services:
- Writing/Editing. Our writers and editors are trained in techniques for enhancing online communications.
- Photography. We provide professional photography services to bring visual aesthetics to your Web communications.
- News releases and podcasts.
By developing a clear purpose for your site, identifying and understanding the needs of your site visitors, and incorporating usability standards in your overall design, you are much more likely to create a successful, effective, and engaging Web presence. We are here to help you succeed!