UX Design for Universities: 5 Tips for Every Mobile-First Strategy

Today's generation of college and university students is the first to have spent more of their lives with smart devices than without. Besides reminding us how transformative smartphones and tablets have been over the past decade, the ubiquity of this technology forms a compelling argument for smart user experience (UX) design for universities. Institutions that don't strive to support the devices their prospective students have grown up with can expect to lag behind those that do in terms of enrollment, student satisfaction, and other success-defining metrics.

UX design for universities can help attract eager students
These five UX design for universities tips can help create strong mobile-first strategies, improving campus communications on the whole.

In other words, any college or university that has yet to fully embrace the smartphone revolution should strongly consider adopting a mobile-first design strategy. If a university is looking for information on how to go mobile-first, these five tips can help:

UX Design for Universities Tip 1: Go Adaptive or Go Home

Non-designers may struggle to understand the differences between responsive and adaptive website strategies, but the main details of each are fairly easy to grasp. A responsive website adjusts to fit any screen size, while an adaptive design uses multiple similar designs to fit different, specific screen sizes, making desktop browsers look quite a bit different than mobile displays.

The debate over which philosophy is "best" rages on, but most agree that there is no single superior choice. Institutions struggling to adapt their web properties to the smart device era would be well-advised to ask their design specialists or an outside consultant which would work best based on a number of factors, including current site design, student opinion, and the amount of effort or cost needed to make the transition. If an organization is looking at either a responsive or adaptive strategy, they're probably on the right path to better UX design for universities.

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Tip 2: Make Page Speed a Top Priority

Having the prettiest and most functional design won't matter if students can write an entrance essay between typing the URL and fully loading the site. Prospective students and their parents might not notice if the site loads in a snap, but they'll definitely pay attention if it takes forever to pull up.

Current design staff or outside consultants can tell the institution how to make page speed a priority within their mobile-first strategy. Image optimization and caching techniques, for instance, may be all it takes to bring page loads to acceptable speeds. Whatever method they choose, however, all types of universities must place load speed at the top of their to-do list.

Tip 3: Make Communication Options Clear, Present, and Available

Prospective students have a lot of questions — many more than any website could ever hope to preempt. So do their parents, who, in many cases, will ultimately be footing the student's bill. Thus, emphasizing click-to-call features and related communication-boosting enhancements, such as social media contact, is UX design for universities 101: The more ways potential incoming freshmen and their parents have to contact the institution, the happier they're likely to be with the site (and the institution).

Instead of adding yet another identity access point to their digital footprints, smart UX design for universities dictates an easier experience, and SSO provides just that.

Tip 4: SMS Communication? Yes, Please!

SMS communication is one of the key benefits of going mobile-first. Many students have made SMS and chat primary methods of communication, making alerts and other SMS-based communication a key part of any viable student engagement strategy.

What does this mean in practice? On the administrative side, colleges and universities should strive to send important schoolwide and individual communications through SMS-based platforms. In the classroom, educators should have the ability to communicate directly with students in an anonymized environment. Either way, application programming interfaces (APIs) that ease SMS communication can be a boon here, making them a primary point of entry for institutions looking to upgrade their communicative capability.

Tip 5: Bring SSO into the Fold

Single sign-on (SSO) starts the moment students create a profile and matters all the way into their alumni days. Because their public- and student-facing web properties are often built on an ad-hoc basis, universities can struggle to provide consistent identity and access management across the breadth of their footprint; this, in turn, can force prospective students to maintain an unwieldy number of passwords and log-ins to manage even basic tasks.

Retroactively adding features like SSO may seem like a big task, but the result is worth the labor and cost. Students gain a single, branded point of access for all the institution's web properties, from registration to financial aid application and beyond, while institution IT personnel spend way less time on password requests and similar rote tasks. Instead of adding yet another identity access point to their digital footprints, smart UX design for universities dictates an easier experience, and SSO provides just that.

Integrating these five tips will put any institution of higher learning a cut above the competition, ensuring that the next generation of students feels right at home — after all, home is where the mobile devices are.

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