User research is one of the pillars of our web design process, and I recently had the opportunity to join a focus group with ten prospective undergraduate students at the CASE Annual Conference for Publications Professionals in New Orleans.
While we didn’t organize the focus group, the format was similar to those we typically conduct. The high school students were provided print and digital admissions marketing materials, and they were asked to provide their feedback using the Think Aloud methodology.
Lead with School and Admissions Statistics
From listening to the students, it became clear that they all wanted quick access to key admissions and outcomes statistics such as:
“I like the huge stat page. I hope to hit that page first.”
The students discovered these in many of the viewbooks and search pieces that they were reviewing, but they weren’t always immediately accessible. They all wanted to see these “right upfront” or on the back cover. If they have not heard of the school before, the students were using these statistics to “screen” the schools and decide if they would spend the time to explore further.
“I won't read all the text. I will look at stats at back.”
Top-level statistics also allow prospective students to determine if a particular school aligns with their own preconceived notions about the school they’d ultimately like to attend.
“Does it match up with the things that I am already wanting in a school: size, location, cost, class size.”
Make Sure to Include a List of Majors and Minors
The participants wanted to know if a college or university offers their desired major or program. The focus group participants were frustrated by schools that did not have a clear list of of majors in their brochures. Again, this list is used as screening content. If a prospect has not heard of a college or university, he wants to know if the school has the desired areas of study.
Where Is Your School?
Many students had a hard time finding the geographic location of the school. In many of the materials reviewed, the state and city were not put front and center. The location is another screening item. While the location of the college in relation to the student is somewhat important to prospects, our own research shows that students are more concerned with first understanding the general location – such as rural or urban.
Design Considerations for Admissions Marketing Materials
When it came to the cover, this group responded very positively to exterior campus photographs. From the images they were shown, they were most drawn to:
Photos that displayed the atmosphere of campus – students were responding positively to "beauty shots" of campus and seeing students engaged in outdoor activities
The campus environment, particularly the quad or other spaces where students congregate
Unique campus architecture
Once the group started flipping through the viewbooks, they listed off a number of design elements that helped them engage:
Bulleted lists for important information
Cohesive page layouts with each page dedicated to a single topic
Short blurbs instead of extensive blocks of copy
Compelling photography that exemplifies student life
“From pictures, I get a sense of community.”
“The students look like they are into what I am into.”
Students frequently commented on the amount of text in the books – and that they do not read it. From a user perspective, the brochure is “read” by flipping through the brochure. Students needed to be convinced that the school was of some interest before they would read deeper.
Put Admission Requirements at the End
Students expected to find admissions requirements, tuition, and financial aid information grouped together and near the back of the viewbooks. They also responded positively to having the scholarship information grouped in with the financial aid.
How to Make Your Admissions Materials Stand Out?
All of the students responded very well to interactive elements such as stickers that they could put on computers or use to flag pages of interest. They also suggested mini pins or lanyards. The group was generally more energized when discussing having something that they could interact or play with.