Website Design

Know Your Audience

The first step in designing a useful, great website is to know your audience. The identification of your target audience will help you determine what content should be on your website and how to arrange it, especially when considering the main homepage.

For our university websites, here are some things to consider.

Example 1: An Academic or Donation Website?

What is the main mission? As an academic department it should be to attract and educate students. If you boldly ask for donations at the top of the homepage, that would indicate a mission of collecting money. Obviously, attracting donors, connecting with alumni, and securing sponsored research is important. However, if a 17 year old high school student looks at the program information and is asked about donating as their first interaction with the department, do you think they will come to Michigan Tech?

Example 2: Internet or Intranet?

While an academic website can have helpful links for faculty and staff, Michigan Tech has more than 7,000 students and less than 500 faculty. Prospective students make up a far larger portion of our 20 million yearly web visitors than internal faculty and staff. If a 23-year-old prospective graduate student interested in 3D printing finds internal forms and a staff handbook on the department's homepage, do you think they will keep digging or leave the website?

Moral of the Story

Your website is your most important marketing tool. It is meant to serve external users and cater to your most important one or two audiences before the others. A prospective student's tolerance for trying to find information will be low. A donor with ties to the university will have a bit more tolerance. A faculty member who needs to update their advising information will have more tolerance yet. And a staff member who has to download a form as a part of their job will have the most tolerance. Don't hide internal information completely. But, it doesn’t necessarily need to be one click off the homepage either. Remember Hick’s Law.

Can you still put a giving button on your homepage? Sure! Can you still have a link somewhere to your staff handbook or departmental tools and forms? Yes. There may be a need for that. But these things should not be the focal point of your homepage or even your navigation. A prospective student will not tolerate a terrible user experience. A staff member may grumble about one extra click to find their form, but they will at least be motivated to follow through. A donor who is committed to supporting your department will still give even if there isn’t a donation billboard flashing at them the second they load your website.

User Intent

Once you know your audience, the next step is to understand them a little more and figure out what they want and need. User intent is an important concept when designing and building webpages to help increase both search rankings and the value of your pages to your audience. This should be the cornerstone of building and editing your webpages.

According to Wikipedia, user intent, also known as query intent or search intent, is what a user intended or wanted to find when they did their search. These intentions are often categorized into three goals:

  • Navigation: getting to a specific site (Go)
  • Information: getting more information about a particular topic (Know)
  • Transaction: performing an action, such as purchasing or applying (Do)

Knowing the user intent when they get to your webpage is important in determining how you structure your page and what links or buttons you may add. Often our pages cover all of these intentions, but certain pages may be more geared to one category than another.

There are a few ways you can find the search terms people are using to get to your pages, or even search impressions where the user searched and your page was listed but not clicked on:

  • Within Google Search Console, go to Performance > Search Results
  • Use Moz or another tool.
  • You can also see what things people are searching for once they are actually on your site. Within our Google Analytics Dashboard, go to Search Terms > Within This can help you see what people are searching for and may not be able to find at all.

Looking at the search terms, you should identify what type of results they intended to find (Go, Know, or Do). From there you can evaluate your pages that show up in those results to determine if you are providing the information or actions that the user is looking for. Or, with the information from that last bullet point, you can see what things the user looked for and didn’t find that maybe you need to add to your site.

This can help you create pages that users want at their particular point in time and help funnel them towards your end goal, whether that be applying to the University and becoming a student, attending your events, or understanding a particular topic.

There is so much information available about user intent! Here are some additional resources for you to check out:

User Experience

Once you know your audience and figure out what they need and when, you need to create the content on your website in a meaningful way. According to,

User experience (UX) focuses on having a deep understanding of users, what they need, what they value, their abilities, and also their limitations.  It also takes into account the business goals and objectives of the group managing the project. UX best practices promote improving the quality of the user’s interaction with and perceptions of your product and any related services.

In order to achieve the University’s goal of attracting the best students and your department’s specific goals, the information you provide on your website must be useful (original and fulfilling a need), usable (easy to use), desirable (design elements are used to evoke emotion and appreciation), findable (navigable and locatable), accessible (to people with disabilities), and credible (believable).

Here are some tips to help provide the best user experience (from Crazy Egg’s “What is User Experience (UX)?).

  • Incorporate Consistent Branding: This is why we use a content management system for a lot of our websites. The overall branding, including the banner with the logo at the top, footer, colors, styling, etc. can be centrally maintained to provide that consistency across the University. Users will always know they are visiting a Michigan Tech website.
  • User Clear Calls to Action: What do you want the site visitors to do after visiting a particular page? Request information? Apply? Attend your event? Consider adding a button with action words to the page—give them that clear link to request the information, apply, or add the event to their calendar.
  • Create Content for Consumers: Provide the information that your audience is looking for at that point in time. Talk to and get information from prospective or current students or other audience members when they visit you in person and look at analytics from your site.

When it comes to measuring how well your pages are performing and whether you’ve provided a good user experience, it all comes back to the analytics. Within Google Analytics, we can look at a variety of key performance indicators (KPI) to support decisions and indicate success. 
These KPI analytics include 

  • Views: How many people are looking at the page 
  • Engaged Sessions: How many times are users spending quality time and interacting with the page
  • Average engagement time: How long are people staying on and interacting with the page
  • New users: Is the page generating new leads
  • Scroll depth tracking: Are users seeing all of the content
  • Unique conversion button clicks: Are the users completing the call to action

By getting to know your audience, figuring out what they need and when, providing the right content, and measuring its effectiveness, your website can become a valuable tool in helping your department meet its goals.