Still keeping it simple

Ozarks Technical Community College in Missouri has kept a simple, student-centered website since 2012.

Higher education homepages have had a history of being cluttered. With every department vying for homepage placement, visitors were often left to fend for themselves. “Click here” was the mantra, often leading a visitor to the sea of “nowhere to be found.”

In 2012, Ozarks Technical Community College (OTC) in Missouri launched the “Keep it Simple” project. The goal was to simplify the homepage as a student-centered doorway to the college.

With analytical data providing the foundation, we removed everything from the homepage with exception of our wordmark and search box. The clutter was gone. This simple change allowed us to create an agile environment of web design and development encouraging rapid change without much planning or community discussion. A culture of web decisions based on analytical data centered on students became the norm, and opinions and preferences became so yesterday.

Our second iteration in 2015 created the virtual feeling of being on campus with full-motion video behind the search bar and a design based on the “mobile first” platform. Again, we stuck to student-centeredness and agile development. We based every decision on analytics.

This year, we will launch our third iteration, where the focus is still on simplicity while providing students a clear path to their aspirational dreams. “You have a dream, we have a plan,” provides prospective students a clear path to enroll, plan and complete their dreams.

Tips to revamp your site

Here are five guidelines we use to build student-centered websites that are simple and relevant:

Leadership-established swim lanes. I began working at OTC in February 2008. I soon learned a great lesson in leadership. I watched as our chancellor, Hal Higdon, brought together the leaders of each department to discuss the website and its direction. He laid out the direction, the swim lanes, and then passed the baton to me.

This article comes from the current issue of AACC’s Community College Journal.

Because of that simple act of leadership transfer, we now have more than 150 editors and more than 100 live-chat operators. Higdon’s influence and leadership established the proper swim lanes, and continues to benefit the college’s online presence nearly a decade later.

Clear web guidelines. Our web guidelines provide the framework to enable the college to give the same user experience to each visitor. While there is the occasional wonky page, in most cases, the website creates the same feeling whether you are on the technical education page or the chancellor’s website.

Consistency = Simplicity. From processes for updating, training, content layout and global website changes, everything follows a consistent path. You may get sick of our blue boxes or search platform, but at least you understand how to find the information you are seeking.

After nearly 20 years, Google and Craigslist are still wildly popular based on their simplistic approach to providing information visitors want. It has been a good formula for the college, too.

Content is still king, but make it readable. Visitors are coming to the website for information. While photos are great, the content is the most important part of the website. From proper style, to a simplistic approach to writing, the content should be the centerpiece.

When developing content, we evaluate all writing based on the Flesch Reading Ease test to make sure that the college’s information is accessible to all readers. We also “chunk” our content, which means we leave more white space and give preferential treatment to the mobile-first platform. Content chunking is the strategy of breaking up content into shorter, more manageable pieces.

Community, community, community. Over the last decade, I have had the opportunity to create and lead the web services department at OTC. A former CEO of a web-hosting company, I left the C-suite for the aspirational environment of higher education, but had little experience in the education vertical. I found great partners in the HighEdWeb Association community and higher education partners. Colleagues from across the country have been valuable resources and have answered those tough questions.

The web is a moving target. It changes daily. At OTC, we strive to keep it simple and agile. With clear paths and guidelines, consistency, a focus on easy-to-read content and a connection to a community of talented web people, we continue to move forward in our efforts to connect with our website visitors in a manner that is student-centered and data-driven.

Editor’s note: This fall the American Association of Community Colleges will launch its own redesigned website. Stay tuned!

About the Author

George Lamelza
is the college director of web services at Ozarks Technical Community College in Missouri.