Xavier University & “Search”… Creation of a Distinctive Home Page (Part 1)

Xavier University’s
“Search” Home Page: A Clear Path to Top Task Completion 

Higher education marketers often discuss how a college or university can differentiate itself in a crowded marketplace. That differentiation almost never takes place on the first contact many potential students have with a school: the home page. 

Last year when searching about for a Link of the Week
selection I decided to visit Jesuit university home pages in alpha order to see
if I could find anything special among them. After visiting more than 20, I
opened the Xavier University home
… and was amazed. Imposed over an image of a campus photo was the
largest search box I had ever seen on a higher education website.

Visitors were urged to “See where Xavier will take
you” and to “Find programs, activities, and more….” No attempt
to guide people to where the university felt they should go first. Just a clear path to complete the top task that brought them to the site.

Genius. A home page that immediately set Xavier University apart from all others. It became the July 24 Link of the Week selection.

IMG_0913.PNG4 Questions: a Tale of Web Management

And so I sent off four questions about the website to Doug
Ruschman, AVP for Marketing and Communications. And Doug sent my questions to
Rob Liesland, Director for Web Services in the Marketing and Communications
Office, Rob, said Doug, had the original idea and guided much of the work to
bring the idea to reality. 

Today you’ll find answers to my first two questions. Next
week I’ll add the other two answers. If you ever despair that true innovation
in higher education website design is not possible, reread the tale that Rob
tells here.

Giving such prominence to the “Search” feature on your home
page is unusual in higher education. Why did you decide to do that? What do
you expect to gain from it?

When planning for the updated site we knew we were looking
for something different. We looked at many sites within Higher Ed and saw a lot
of the same designs that schools have been using for the past few years.  We also looked at trends outside of Higher Ed
and it was obvious that search was becoming a more prominent navigation tool
(Google, Amazon, Facebook).

We had already decided that our primary audience was going
to be prospective students, but even with our audience narrowly defined there
were still quite a few resources that we wanted them to have quick access to.
The search box was a natural fit for this goal. It would allow us to give them
instant access to the part of the site they are interested in, without all of
the clutter and clicks. To be clear, we also knew that many users were familiar
with industry standards and included the necessary navigation items in the
header and content in the body of the page.

The search box also had the added benefit of allowing us to
include other audiences’ destinations without negatively impacting the
prospective student experience, so items that had previously been on the
homepage could also be included as suggestions.

Who was involved in the decision to make “search” so
prominent? How long did it take and what questions were raised about the change?  

The decision to make search so prominent was decided upon
within our planning committee, which consisted of members of the Office of
Marketing and Communications. We probably spent 2-3 months planning and
discussing this particular feature as the new information architecture for the
site was coming together. Certainly the whole time was not spent on this item,
but it was included in the big-picture planning.

Once this direction was chosen we had multiple meetings
with key figures on campus to discuss the idea. During these meetings we would
often discuss the transition that Amazon has gone through over the years, from
a department-based website where one would click to narrow the results, to a
search-based website, where one would search specifically for their
destination. I think this really resonated with folks.

There were no questions raised about the change and there
has been no internal or external backlash, that we have seen. This has been a
sign to us that we have gone in the right direction and that people are ready
for the change.

Questions for next week:

What did you do to ensure that your “search” function
worked well enough to make this change?

How will you measure success going forward? Who is
responsible for monitoring results?

That’s all for now.

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