Thinking about your higher ed marketing career

man in suit looks into distance

Each month I host the webcast and podcast Marketing Live on the Higher Ed Live network. It’s a great opportunity to meet colleagues from throughout higher ed and have interesting discussions on a variety of topics.

I recently interviewed the CMOs from the University of Arizona and Ohio State University about advancing one’s marketing career. With performance review time approaching (and the occasion it provides to reflect on your—and your team members’—growth and development), I wanted to share a few thought-provoking questions and relevant takeaways from that conversation.

Are you a generalist or a specialist?

  • Instead of either/or, think of it as “generalist plus superpower.” In addition to the foundational skills in marketing, branding, communications, and leadership that we should all have, what is your superpower? What are you really good at that differentiates you, and how are you leveraging that part of your portfolio in service to your school or unit?
  • Look for ways to round yourself out, so that you’re not just doing more of what you’re already doing. For example, do you have one year of experience 10 times, or do you really have 10 years of experience? Think of your career and your professional experiences as a narrative.

Can you identify ways to grow in your current role?

  • Your ability to grow will help your organization do the same. Is there crucial work or a wicked problem within your school or unit that is not getting the needed time and attention because it’s risky or difficult? Look for those opportunities and put yourself out there.
  • Do you have a colleague who is willing to tell you things that you don’t want to hear? Having someone you respect who will hold you accountable is invaluable and will deepen your sense of self-awareness.

What is your employer brand?

  • How are you developing and positioning your school or unit—and your particular office—as a great place to work? What does it mean to work for your team, and how does that stack up against other opportunities in our community or across our field?
  • Are you creating a culture where you have a team of staff members who are good enough to go elsewhere but choose to stay? We are all part of the IU community, believing in the transformative power of higher education on the lives of students. Do the IU HR brand promises come to life for members of your team: Something bigger than yourself, A community where you belong, and Careers for dreamers, doers, and leaders?

With summer around the corner, many staff are making professional development plans. There are marketing and communications colleagues on campus scheduled to participate in the following conferences over the coming months.

Please let me know if you have plans to attend a conference this summer. We would welcome the opportunity to have you take a few minutes to share some key takeaways from your conference during one of our monthly marketers’ meetings. Or, better yet, if you’re giving a conference presentation, we would love to have you share that as well.

How information architecture supports your brand

Multi colored arrows move around on a white background

This is the seventh post in a series that takes a look at information architecture (IA) best practices in higher education. Each post will focus on a specific best practice. In this post we’ll discuss how information architecture can support your brand.

For those new to information architecture, it is the practice of organizing information, in this case websites and the content found within them, to make it understandable and findable. Information can be messy and IA tries to make sense of it.

Actions speak louder than words

Let’s say your website is a store. The structure of your website is like the customer service of your store. The store may be beautiful and full of amazing things to buy, but if customer service can’t help you find anything or make a purchase, it’s all for naught.

If your website is poorly organized and full of unhelpful, incomplete, and inaccurate information, no amount of branding will help it. Visitors will leave your website unsatisfied and with a lesser opinion of your brand.

An intuitive website structure communicates to your audience that you care.

When you take the time to structure your website around your audience’s needs, they will notice. Actually, they probably won’t notice anything about the navigation or site structure—but that’s a good thing.

Good navigation isn’t memorable, it’s useable.

They will notice that they were able to find the information they needed, and that the site was helpful—and that’s good for your brand.

Four ways to create a structure that supports your brand

Here are some things you can do to make ensure you’re creating a site structure that supports your brand.

1. Talk to your audience to understand what they want

As I’ve written before, the best way to create an intuitive website is to talk to your audience. What information are they looking for? Why do they need that information? At what point in their journey are they using your website? You can only provide useful information if you understand what they are looking for.

You can also look at analytics—especially site search data—to find this information. Site search allows you to see what people are searching for while on your website. It shows the phrases they are using to search and when they are searching. It can be a powerful tool to understand your audience and how they use your site.

2. Pare down your content, get rid of the fluffy and superfluous

We often have the desire to communicate the brand by adding extra content to a website. To successfully bring your brand to the web you’ve got to balance branding focused content with content your visitors actually need and want.

Focus on delivering the content your users need and want first and then find ways in which brand-focused content can support and supplement it. Think of branding content as “discoverable” content—content that interested users will discover as they spend time exploring the website. Discoverable content does not get in the way of required content.

3. Make your content easy to read. Content written in academic-ease does not support your brand.

Our websites are used by very smart people, both students and faculty. And we want to make sure people know we are a top-notch educational institution. But that doesn’t mean our content should be written like an academic paper.

In fact, our brand guidelines explicitly recommend against highly academic language. I strongly recommend reviewing IU’s voice and tone guidelines before writing any content for the web.

4. Don’t sacrifice clarity of site structure at the altar of branding

The structure of your website and the labels in your navigation should be intuitive and understandable. It’s tempting to use branding phrases or words in your navigation. We almost always recommend against this. Basic but understandable labels will always be better than clever and confusing labels.

In the end, the best way to ensure the structure of your website supports your brand is to check it with your users. If they can find what they need you’ll be in good shape.

Data, data everywhere…but not an insight to be seen

Cartoona bout insight

As an institution, it’s no secret that we are data rich. From the moment we make contact with our audience we seek to track and understand their experience journey through data. We look at multiple touch points and sources whether it’s social media stats, website analytics, email open rates, ad clickthroughs, survey responses, etc.

And while we have great data…rarely do we have great insight.

What is ‘Insight’?

Right now, it’s an overused buzzword that every person in marketing is throwing around in an effort to wrap their head around what to do with all this data we have available.

Ok, maybe not, but there’s some truth to that. It doesn’t have to be just a word. It can be a real experience.

You first have to know what insight is not:

  • Data
  • Idea
  • Tidbit of info
  • Finding
  • A singular observation
  • Customer wish

Insight should feel brand new and lead to a deep understanding of something you didn’t know before. 

Gary Klein in Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights outlines a better definition of insight: “an unexpected shift in the way we understand things”.

Insights can also transform how we act, feel, see the world, and even our original goals or strategy. There’s even a formula to get the process started:

Formula is performance improvement = errors and uncertainty + insights

Super simple right? Just work on decreasing errors and increasing insights by looking for contradictions, connections, etc.

It’s unfortunately not that simple. Why? Because as humans we get in our way when it comes to developing insights. We have preconceived biases we sometimes can’t shake, we like the predictable, and we have a hard time admitting when we may be wrong about something.

It’s not a criticism, it’s human nature.

Get comfortable with discomfort

We often don’t like to get uncomfortable or do what may be considered ‘bold’ or ‘risky’ because we hide behind the mountain of data that tells us what we have been doing for so long is ‘working’.

We continue to get in our own way by not giving ourselves enough time to really step back and think about what the data means.

We spend too much time picking out the data points that support our original story because when we hear data or findings that matches what we already believe to be true, it actually makes us happy.

Stop. Doing. That.

What if you instead tried to understand the contradictions in the data? The things you don’t really believe to be true and explored those more? What if you instead decided to seek out connections in the higher education market with other markets outside higher-ed? What if you instead looked at brands that were once on the verge of being counted out completely and learned more about how they came back to life?

Without someone seeking connections, we wouldn’t have Charles Darwin’s natural selection theory. Without someone looking for contradictions, we wouldn’t have Albert Einstein’s work on the space-time continuum. And without acts of creative desperation, we wouldn’t have a technique trapped firefighters use where they ‘fight fire with fire’ to create an escape route.

The good news is: you don’t have to be a firefighter, Einstein, or Darwin to develop insight. Insight is not based on intelligence. It’s based on your willingness to get out of your way so you can seek to understand the reasons behind the great data you have. What makes insight different from knowledge is that insight should unlock an opportunity for your brand.

For insight to truly unlock an opportunity, you have to act on it

Getting to insight is hard work. However, the payoff of insight can do wonders for your brand, your marketing team, and your audience.

The question is: are you willing to get out of your own way to get to insight?

A picture’s worth 100 characters: image alt text and web accessibility

A person in a blue shirt enters code into a Mac computer

Excerpted from guidelines written by Molly Brush

This is the first in a series of posts on creating web content that meets accessibility standards. Warning: this post makes reference to gerunds.

Presidential directive

In his September 2016 Memo to IU Staff Regarding Accessibility on the Web Regulations and IU Responsibility, IU President Michael McRobbie announced that, in keeping with IU’s commitment to “maintaining an inclusive and accessible environment across all of its campuses,” all Indiana University websites launched after November 1, 2016, must meet Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 AA standards.

IU Communications guidelines

Here are the current alt text guidelines followed by IU Communications content specialists. Some are specific to the requirements of the IU web framework, but many are best practices suited to all web development.

To ensure that IU websites comply with accessibility standards, IU Communications must provide a short text alternative (“alt text”) for non-text content—in other words, we must include alt text for any content that is not text, including images, charts, graphs, and diagrams.

Alt text requirements

Every image must have an alt attribute, whether that is alt text or an empty alt attribute (alt=””).

All images on IU framework websites should have alt text, except profile headshots, which should have empty alt attributes.

Best practices

In general, the image should dictate the length and structure of the alt text. Use the idea of describing the image over the phone as a guiding principle, and keep in mind these recommendations.


Alt text should be a phrase or a short sentence. Five to 15 words is ideal, but it must not exceed 100 characters, including spaces and punctuation.

  • An aerial view of University Tower, one of IUPUI’s residence halls
  • A magnified fruit fly
  • Two students cheer on the IUPUI Jaguars at an athletic event.
  • A student sits and reads on a limestone ledge outside the Chemistry Building.


Both phrases and complete sentences are acceptable in alt text, depending on the image. (Complete sentences should use periods; phrases should not.) However, phrases composed of a subject followed by a gerund should be avoided.

  • Acceptable: IUPUI Chancellor Nasser Paydar sits at a table with a group of students.
  • Avoid: IUPUI Chancellor Nasser Paydar sitting at a table with a group of students.

Special characters

Alt text cannot include double quotes. Single quotes are OK.

Avoid the use of ampersands in alt text. If there is a compelling reason to use an ampersand, use HTML code for it: &


Alt text should not use the phrases “image of . . .” or “graphic of . . .” to describe the image. If the fact that an image is an illustration, etc., is important contextual information, it may be useful to include this in the alt text.

Even if there is a caption for an image, be sure to include alt text for that image. The IU framework automatically ignores alt text if there is a caption present, but if that caption is ever removed, the alt text will appear.

If an image (or chart, diagram, etc.) contains text, the text should be included in the alt attribute. It’s OK to exceed the 100-character limit IF the alt text repeats verbatim the text in the image. If you summarize or otherwise change the text in the image, you must keep it to 100 characters or fewer.

Linked images

Whenever an image is within a link, the function of the image must be presented in alt text that is also within the link. The alt text must convey the purpose or destination of the link (i.e., the alt text should be whatever the link text would have been if the link contained only text instead of an image).

Image file placement and naming

Make sure that image files are placed in the correct folders in the WCMS.

Use the appropriate format for image file names.

  • Hyphens, not underscores
  • All lowercase
  • No spaces

Make sure that image file names are accurate and descriptive, with correct spelling.

  • indy-night-skyline.jpg
  • iub-commencement-mcrobbie-speech.jpg
  • student-plays-violin.jpg
  • richard-dimarchi-lab.jpg

Quality control

IU Communications recommends using the Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool (WAVE) to ensure that images have alt text that does not exceed 100 characters. If you use Chrome as your web browser, you can add a WAVE extension to your toolbar. If you use a different web browser, you can visit and enter the URL of the page you wish to check.

Learn more

Creating accessible alt text is just one component in the development of websites that conform to WCAG 2.0 AA standards, but it’s one that is often overlooked. Future posts will cover accessible pdfs, video transcription, heading hierarchy, and link labeling, among other elements.

To learn more about creating accessible websites at Indiana University, review

You talking to me?

RObert DeNiro saying "You Talking to Me?"

When I sit down with a client for the first time, whether it’s for a brand strategy session or post card project, I start with one simple question: who is your audience?

This seems straight forward, but in the higher education marketing space it’s frequently not. With competing priorities of student recruitment, alumni relations, fundraising, and faculty recruitment, it’s easy to get lost in the myriad of priority messaging.

So often I’ve worked with groups who are hesitant to define a single target—concerned that by addressing one audience fully they will exclude others.

The reality of the situation couldn’t be further from that assumption.

By singling out the bullseye, you can fully address who you’re speaking to and your message will ring true—a must in a consumer market that demands authenticity. This authenticity builds trust and credibility regardless of whether you’re the target.

Need more convincing? Here are some key discoveries I have made along the way that help me stay focused.

Don’t try to be all the things to all the people

This is one of the most common mistakes I encounter.

Putting together a strategic marketing plan will help you determine who you’re talking to and how to best communicate with them.

The strategic process will also give you the opportunity to exercise through how your message, developed specifically for your target, can be successfully translated for secondary (or tertiary) audiences. It’s tough to do, but trust the process.

Don’t expect one marketing piece to do everything

Slicing and dicing your marketing materials may be necessary.

It certainly takes more effort but at the end of the day it is better to have three or four streamlined, highly-effective pieces than one massive brochure that tries to address everything.

It feels good to be recognized

Your audience wants to connect with you and see themselves in your messaging.

Think about the benefits your brand can bring to their life and clearly articulate those benefits in a way that will resonate and make them think, “hey, you get me.” That’s when you know you’ve hit the messaging sweet spot.

And when in doubt, put yourself in the shoes of your audience and channel your best Robert DeNiro impression from Taxi Driver and ask yourself, “are you talking to me?”

IU Comm went to the Addys—and won!

While we all know that IU Communications does great work, there’s nothing quite like a shiny trophy to prove it.

This year, IU Comm won three awards at the Indianapolis Addys—one gold and two silver. We are proud of all the hard work that went into these entries—and of the amazing work our team does all year round.

Little 500 Pride and Glory wins gold

Filmed at the 2016 Little 500, this beautiful video speaks for itself.

The team consisted of Tim Keller, Chris Meyer, Eric Rudd, Jon Stante, and Cara Reed.

Graduation day photo wins silver

This gorgeous photo by James Brosher won a silver award for photography.

IUPUI T-shirt wins silver

IU Communication was tasked with designing a T-shirt as part of the #Admitted2IUPUI campaign. The resulting shirt won a silver award for Specialty Advertising/Apparel.

The team consisted of Tim Keller, Heather Barber, Ashley Tylek,  Molly Brush, and Emily Elmore.

How to use experience maps to capture complex processes

Two sets of hands hover over a map

If you want to know how someone gets from one place to another, you find a map. If a map doesn’t exist, you make one yourself.

That’s what we do when a client asks us for help gaining a better understanding of a complex series of interactions with constituents in order to build a better website or more effective ad campaign. We look at the experience as a journey, determining the stages of the trip and all the important stops along the way.

All of the details that go into the map come out of a structured workshop with client stakeholders. Then we build a two-page document that captures the experience graphically.

We call the whole process experience mapping.

The idea

We borrowed the idea from Adaptive Path, a user experience and design consulting firm in San Francisco. We have their blessing, as long as we credit them when we do it. Thanks, Adaptive Path. Check!

We have mapped three experiences at Indiana University: the admissions experience at IU Bloomington, the research experience at IU Bloomington and IUPUI, and the admissions experience at IUPUI.

In the case of both admissions maps, we were preparing to redesign websites, but the clients also wanted the maps to guide their other interactions with their constituents, from campus visits to email communications.

The research experience mapping grew out of the Office of Research Administration’s desire to overhaul and simplify their web environment to make the research process easier to understand and manage, from searching for grants to reporting results.

The research

Before the workshop happens, there are some decisions to make, and those are best supported by research that we do or that the client shares with us. For example, for the IU Bloomington admissions map, we interviewed students and counselors at several high schools in Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Chicago. We also talked with parents of prospective students.

Based on the research, we establish the focus, or lens of the experience. Who are the constituents? What is the nature of the experience? This is crucial to making sure the map is useful.

If the focus is too broad, there won’t be enough detail. Too narrow, and the map won’t cover enough of the experience.

We talked to parents and counselors, for example, but the focus for the admissions map for IU Bloomington was prospective students.

We further narrowed focus by asking the Office of Admissions what was most important for prospective students and their influencers. They told us the top four drivers of college choice are career preparation, core academics, academic environment, and affordability, so we concentrated on those aspects of the journey as we worked.

The final pre-workshop decision is determining the stages of the journey.

These stay fluid, and can change over the course of the workshop, but we need a place to start. For the Bloomington admissions map they were explore, narrow, apply, wait, decide, and enroll.

The workshop

Experience map workshop post its

The workshop consists of an introduction to the process, a review of relevant research, and two exercises. Both exercises involve participants writing on Post-its and placing them on flip charts representing each stage of the journey.

Exercise 1: participants share key moments and touch points (interactions between client and constituent) for each stage, writing brief descriptions for three facets of the experience on color-coded Post-its: what are constituents doing, thinking, and feeling at a given point? For example, during the explore stage of the IU Bloomington admissions journey, prospective students visit college websites and feel excitement at the idea of leaving home and embarking on a new educational adventure.

Exercise 2: participants focus more on the emotional aspect of the journey, generating high points and paints points for each stage, as well as opportunities for refining and improving the journey. For example, in the IU Bloomington admissions journey workshop, the waiting period after application emerged as a time of anxiety.

We ended up adding “waiting” as another stage, and participants decided that there was an opportunity to add points of contact after application so that applicants had a better sense of where they were in the process.

We facilitate the exercise, consolidate answers and remove redundancies once participants have placed their Post-its on the flip charts, and lead a discussion after each exercise to make sure the stages we started with are sufficient to represent the journey accurately.

Workshops take about four hours and we usually schedule them to include a lunch break. Workshops are most successful with between 10 and 20 participants on the client side, representing a range of stakeholders. For the research map we included representatives from administrative units, researchers, and support staff, for example.

The map

Steps three through five of the IU Bloomington Admissions experience map.

After the workshop, we photograph the flip chart sheets, roll them up, take them back to the office, and get started on building the map. There are two views of the map: the first captures the touch points and doing, thinking, feeling information from workshop exercise 1; the second also includes the touch points, but instead of doing, thinking, feeling, it details the high points, pain points, and opportunities gleaned during exercise 2.

In addition to fitting in all the details, we decide how best to represent progress on the journey. Sometimes the path is straight through a stage; at other times it zig-zags or even moves in a circle.

Rendering the map can be challenging. It’s best if you have a graphic designer for the task; it’s crucial to make it easy to digest the information. If not, though, you can make do. We’ve included an excerpt from one of our maps, and you can find lots of examples for inspiration online.

Please contact IU Communications if you are interested in learning more about experience mapping.

Safe travels!

How to wrangle an idea out of nothing

A woman chews a pen while sitting at a desk

When you’re a creative person, there’s one sentence that strikes more fear in your heart than any other: “What’s the big idea?”

Not because someone is accusing you of doing something wrong (that would almost be a relief). In this context, that sentence means, “what’s the concept behind the ad/video/website/miscellaneous marketing material you’re creating right now? What makes it interesting? Why will anyone care?”

And it’s terrifying because you don’t always know. Especially if the deadline isn’t yet close enough to be inspiring. Worse, you’re afraid you’ll never know. You worry inspiration will never strike, your muse will never appear, and you’ll never have a good idea ever again.

Luckily, there are strategies you can use to get your brain moving in the right direction.

Strategy #1: uncover the real truth

Whether you’re marketing an academic program, university service, or, well, laundry detergent, there’s something that is inherently true about it. Something that won’t be in your creative brief. Something that people just know on a gut-deep level.

Need some examples?

There’s a copywriting book I love called Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. In it, Luke Sullivan talks about the central truth behind Crocs. The client insisted it was that their shoes were crazy comfy. But the creative team couldn’t crack the problem until they realized that the real truth about Crocs is that they’re crazy ugly.

With that insight, they were able to create an incredible campaign.

a little boy with braces smiles over the headline "ugly can be beautiful. A green croc can be seen.

When I asked my copywriting class what the central human truth is about sunscreen, they came up with a couple of good ones: It’s annoying to have to put it on again and again and again. It keeps you pale. And it protects your skin.

We’d all agree those things are true, right? Even better, we could come up with a concept that supports those truths.

What’s the one thing everyone would agree is true about the thing you’re marketing?

Strategy #2: find the emotion

The question you’re asking yourself here is, “what do I want my audience to feel about the thing I’m marketing?” What’s the emotion at the center of this product?

For instance, what do you think about when I say diamond?  Love and commitment, right?

College degrees signify pride and accomplishment. Vacuum cleaners bring to mind relief and satisfaction. Everything has an emotional connection if you look hard enough.

So get in touch with your feelings and you’ll be off to a good start.

Strategy #3: identify the bad guy

Everyone, every product, every thing has a nemesis. An enemy. Figure out who or what is the villain in your story and use that as a starting point.

MoneySmarts is a great example of how we use this tactic within the university.

MoneySmarts is, of course, the financial literacy program here at IU. They want students to live happy, healthy, financially smart lives. As such, they have a natural enemy—debt.

Knowing that, we created the Debt Monster. This evil dude chases our MoneySmarts pig—and the pig fights back. We’ve been using him for a couple of years now—and we’re still not out of ideas.

The debt monster chases the pig

Who’s the enemy you’re fighting?

Strategy #4: when all else fails, walk away

That might sound counterintuitive, but sometimes the best thing you can do is nothing at all.

If you give your subconscious a chance to work on the problem, you might be surprised at how soon you come up with a brilliant solution.

So put your feet up. Check out some more cat videos. Go hang out in the IMU. Think about something, anything else (and try not to feel guilty about it). And be ready for inspiration to strike.

One last thing…

Remember, not every idea you have is going to be good. In fact, most of them are going to be terrible. And that’s okay.

Go ahead and share them with another creative person if you can. Listen to their terrible ideas.Talk about what else you can do with them. When you do, those terrible awful no good ideas have a habit of morphing into something amazing.

Answering the ROI question

close up of buttons on a calculator

We recently rolled out the Marketing Budget Deliverables process for FY 2018. Marketing budget projections are among these deliverables, because as marketers we cannot determine ROI without first knowing the “I.”

Marketing expenditures are growing across higher education, particularly in the area of digital marketing. In our highly competitive industry, institutions are on average increasing their advertising spend—in some cases substantially—to tell their story and try to stand out from the crowd.

Marketing should be a strategic investment, and the onus is on all of us to demonstrate how it advances the top priorities of our respective campuses, schools, and units. Marketing and communications professionals often have broad portfolios—you do a ton of stuff for IU!—but we must remember to keep the ROI discussion focused on impact rather than activity.

For Indiana University’s central marketing efforts, we have four primary methods to measure success.

1. Competitive Enrollment Results

We have many audiences to serve, and the Fulfilling the Promise brand strategy is intended to provide flexibility to do so.

We especially want to connect with students in every phase of their IU journey—prospective, current, and alumni. Prospective students are at the heart of our brand strategy, and marketing is integral to attracting bright and diverse students to all of our campuses.

We ultimately want to affect enrollment, and therefore we closely monitor how the university’s enrollment figures stack up against national, regional, state, and competitive set trends.

2. Digital Marketing Return on Investment

We can most accurately determine ROI in the digital space, which represents the institution’s largest marketing investment.

IU is completing the second year of its comprehensive digital advertising campaign. This year’s campaign has generated more than 5,000 leads—those who have provided their name and email and expressed interest in learning more.

Working with admissions partners on the campuses, we track these leads through the funnel so that we can eventually determine cost-per-application and most importantly cost-per-enroll (in addition to cost-per-lead).

3. Brand Tracking Research

The Fulfilling the Promise campaign, deployed across digital and all other media vehicles, is also designed to elevate the IU brand. Optimizing the IU brand promise is one of our strategic priorities, as the university must continue strengthening its brand position through the Bicentennial and beyond.

To track performance, we utilize custom online surveys with prospective students in Indiana, neighboring states, and key export states. Measures include awareness, consideration, and brand attribute scores for IU Bloomington and IUPUI versus competitor institutions. Surveying began in January 2015 and is ongoing each month.

With two years of data, we can identify trends. For instance, awareness of IU is trending up in Indiana and neighboring states, and consideration of IU is trending up across all geographies.

4. Traditional Media Measures

Measuring total media impressions over a specific period of time is the most traditional way to measure effectiveness and efficiency of these channels but is also the softest. (With television advertising, for example, we measure reach and frequency. This medium targets parents and also serves to “mobilize the base” of IU alumni and friends.)

However, don’t underestimate the contribution to ROI that traditional media can make.

The power is in evaluating its influence on other channels. IU South Bend’s TV buy provides a direct assist to its digital marketing, resulting in better digital campaign performance.

Thank you for the work that you do across our university to drive strong marketing ROI.

Making the most of wireframes

This is the sixth post in a series that takes a look at information architecture (IA) best practices in higher education. Each post focuses on a specific best practice. In this post we’ll discuss usability testing.

For those new to information architecture, it is the practice of organizing information, in this case websites and the content found within them, to make it understandable and findable. Information can be messy and IA tries to make sense of it.

What is a wireframe?

A wireframe is the skeleton of your website—the underlying foundation on which content and design are applied. A wireframe includes:

  • All the pages on your site with rationales for why they are there
  • Labels for those pages
  • How pages connect with one another
  • Notes about content required on each page as well as source content notes

They also include information about any custom interactions that may be on the website. These would be special pieces that require additional programming. For example, a degree list, a timeline, a gallery, etc.

Why are wireframes important?

The wireframe helps everyone visualize the website and get a sense of scope. It’s much easier to understand what pages need to be written and designed when you can actually see them.

It also helps everyone visualize how people will move through your website. Because a wireframe has some basic functionality people can navigate and interact with it.

And that interactivity allows for usability testing of the wireframe. We recommend usability testing to see if people are moving through the website in the ways you imagined. Testing is important because you can check your work before you go too far in any one direction. You can read my post on usability testing for more details.

Tips for reviewing wireframes

As an IA I love looking at wireframes, but I’ve come to realize that isn’t the case for most people. Instead of treating a wireframe review as a tedious chore, use these tips to change your perspective and get the most out of it.

Navigate the site as your audience would

Use the wireframe to try to find the information they would be looking for. What is your experience like? Do the labels make sense? What about the content notes?

Read the content notes as though you were the main audience

Does the topic of the page makes sense with the page label? Are the notes missing anything a user would expect to find on a page? Do the notes mention content that isn’t relevant to your users?

Don’t forget about source content

Notes about source content are easy to overlook. As the owner of website’s content, make sure you review them. This is where you’ll see which pages are being combined and how the new site compares to the old site. It’s also a good time to take a look at the source content itself to make sure it is correct.

A great time for discussion

This is the time to dig in, review the site from your audience’s perspective, and ask questions. If you put the effort into evaluating the structure of the website at the wireframe stage you’ll encounter fewer surprises and changes later in the project.