How User Experience Design Can Increase Conversion in Online Higher Education

Written By Jason VanLue
Posted on

The University of Central Florida is one of the largest universities in the United States, and its online programs are consistently ranked as some of the most innovative in higher education. Despite this, UCF’s online programs weren’t converting leads at the level they desired. In this post I’ll share 5 ways we helped UCF increase lead conversion by focusing on user experience design, and how to optimize UX for conversion in online higher education.

1. Get Data

Prior to engaging Zaengle, UCF conducted a 30-day test, collecting data through Crazy Egg, Google Analytics, and Wevo. While not an exhaustive test, this data provided a solid foundation for one specific reason: we didn’t have to guess. I’ve been doing this UX thing for a while, and while I can make pretty good educated guesses about user behavior, I’m no psychic. Too often we engage with universities who barely even have Google Analytics set up, which makes identifying negative (or positive) aspects of their user flow difficult.

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If there’s one piece of advice I could give to higher education institutions it would be to setup a 30-day or 60-day data collection period — use tools like Crazy Egg or Full Story, set up Google Analytics properly, or even elicit active user feedback. Data-driven design is always infinitely better than guessing.

A tired or frustrated user is going to be less likely to convert

2. Design a Design System

If compiling data is the first piece of advice I’d give an education institution, creating a consistent design system would be the second. UCF was already ahead of the game with their Athena design framework, which we helped optimize further. There are many benefits of a design system, but the greatest benefit is consistency. We encounter a number of education websites that have varying styles, from buttons to forms to layouts to imagery. The best conversion flows feel natural and familiar. Like a good way finding system in a city or a park, a digital design system can help your users reach their desired destination without a lot of fatigue. And let’s face it, a tired or frustrated user is going to be less likely to convert.

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3. Build Funnels

No, not those buzzwordy growth-hacking funnels — I’m talking about understanding user goals and ensuring that your UX flows match. Each user comes to the site with a particular goal, which means your website is successful to the extent it can drive the user to that goal with the least amount of friction. In UCF’s case, the data indicated that search inputs, program categories, and popular / suggested program links performed the best. Conversely, users were hesitant to engage with a noisy CTA upfront, or had negative comments related to large graphic or static content areas.

We recommended a design that was intuitive for a user to select the appropriate flow that drove them to their destination — which, more often than not, was the program or degree detail page. Here are things that help achieve this:

  • Use questions like “who are you?” or “where do you want to go?”
  • Design intuitive action blocks like “Bachelor’s Degrees” or “Current Students”
  • Create a flow that begins with “I am a ____”
  • These could be supported with valuable, oft-requested information like "Average Cost," "Tuition Info," etc along with targeted copy that reflects the credibility of the school.

Don’t just put a CTA on a page and expect it to convert. Build content flows that help a user get from the start to where they want to go.

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4.Create Contextual CTA's

While a generic CTA pattern can exist site wide, it’s more effective to contextualize the CTA based on the page content, especially in deeper pages. In UCF’s case, we recommended changing the homepage CTA to one that is more user-assistance related (i.e. “Need Help Finding?” or “Get Connected”) that can lead to a direct user information ask. The priority on the homepage is driving the user to a vertical or program page, so the CTA on the homepage should be secondary.

In contrast, typically a CTA on a vertical or program page performs better since we have a much more specific context. In these cases the CTA should be more story-driven, related to the page content, and offers value. In order for the user to feel comfortable handing over their contact information, they need to receive something of value, or fear that they'll be missing out on a valuable opportunity.

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There is a lot of opportunity to get very granular with CTA’s especially on deeper pages, and I usually recommend this. The deeper the user goes into your website the more interested they are, but the more value they expect. You need to convince them to take the conversion step by presenting a valuable, contextual CTA that they would be disappointed to miss out on.

5. Optimize Content Hierarchy

Most of the educational institutions we work with fall into two categories: either your content needs to be re-written, or your content is predominantly the right content, it just needs to be re-organized. Regardless, it’s essential to optimize not just the content, but the hierarchical order of the content. In our experience, too often the content universities want to write is not the content users want to read, so the first goal is understanding the goals of both the page and the user.

What is the purpose of goal of this page? Is it to tell a story, or convert a user? What are the user’s goals? To get general information, find something specific, or submit information? By understanding goals you can identify the right actions, and once you’ve identified the right actions you can craft content that encourages that action.

Typically for online higher ed programs, we should optimize action-oriented content at the top of the page, and make suggestions as much as possible at the top of the program funnels to better guide the user. As the user progresses to vertical or program pages, we can incorporate more contextual content (like stories, faculty info, etc). More generic content like “About Us” or news items should be placed beneath actionable content — if that’s what the user is looking for, they’ll scroll to it. But if they have to weed through content they don’t care about to find the action, usually they’ll just bail.

By understanding goals you can identify the right actions, and once you’ve identified the right actions you can craft content that encourages that action.

The Numbers Don't Lie

By implementing these and other UX best practices, we helped UCF realize a 47% increase in new users, 37% increase in YoY leads, and almost a 50% increase in overall traffic. It's not experience for experience sake, a robust UX strategy can and should make a direct positive impact to your bottom line. If your university or education institution is concerned about lead generation and conversion through your website, it’s not enough to put some content and a form on a page. You must think about user behavior, their goals and desires, an intuitive flow through your content, and offering value. If you’re struggling to maintain conversions through your website it might be time to look at your website’s user experience.

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