Designing with Student Well-Being in Mind
Cathy Donovan [00:00:00]
Hello and welcome to the Innovating Enrollment Success podcast, where we make space to talk through the issues impacting effective higher ed marketing today. Not only are institutions facing demographic changes and growing skepticism of the value of a college degree, but they also need to engage and retain students during a time of rising mental health concerns for teens in the U.S.
I’m Cathy Donovan, Agency Marketing Director at Paskill, a higher education enrollment marketing firm, working with a range of colleges and universities across the country across a range of services, including designing with students well-being in mind.
Today, I’m very pleased to be joined in person by two marketing professionals with extensive experience in higher ed marketing, as well as deep understanding of the cognitive needs of website users.
We’re going to unpack in about a half hour or so some strategies and insights impacting accessibility and user pathways, as well as how content can be both effective and compassionate. Bri Piccari is senior art director, visual and UX design, and leads Paskill’s digital design practice. She has taught computer software engineering at Thaddeus Stevens College. And his president emeritus of AIGA, central Pennsylvania. She also recently completed and earned a certificate from Creative Mega Machine.
Now a senior digital content writer, Sean Fitzpatrick recently worked at Drexel University. She has a master’s degree in English literature and a graduate certificate in UX and human computer interaction. She also helps teens succeed as a volunteer with the Hugh O’Brien youth leadership program. Welcome Bri and Shaun.
But before we dig into our topic of designing with well-being in mind, I wanted to learn a little from each of you why this topic resonates for you personally and professionally. Why do you think it’s important to consider a user’s well-being in the work that you do? Bri?
Bri Piccari: When it comes to higher education websites, if a site isn’t accessible, it’s not inclusive. And then it’s not going to meet those goals that are really the site’s redesign and kind of re-architecting, like, where everything lives on that site. And within higher education, there’s a lot of user experience patterns that users begin to expect across websites, so that way they’re not having to search nearly as hard as if something’s not easy to find.
Shaun Fitzpatrick: Yeah, I think for me, because I come from a background, I was working in house in higher education at Drexel. And then I have for over a decade volunteered with high school students. I think I have always had the benefit of interacting directly with the type of students and the type of users that were going to be interacting with these sites. So I do feel a deep connection with them. And frankly, I feel a responsibility for ensuring that I am helping them every step of the way and everything that I, I write everything that I think about in terms of design and user journey is really from the perspective of how can I make sure that they’re being successful when they’re interacting with these pieces of content that I’m creating.
Cathy Donovan: And I think for a student to be successful, they have to feel like they’re in a good place. You know, so for us, understanding what kinds of learning environments students and parents today are seeking out is just important in the work that we do. You know, costs and quality are always important, but safety, both physical and mental, are becoming bigger factors in the decision of where to attend college.
You know, will my child be happy there? In your experience, how can institutions demonstrate that they provide these safe spaces for students to learn, starting with their websites and marketing? Bri, did you want to add to that?
Bri Piccari: Sure. I mean, I think one of the most like fundamental ways is the imagery that’s used when we look at, you know, content around higher education. Like we really want to make sure we’re being authentic, but then also really considering like what. Does the population of the school look like, you know, how are folks like interacting in the real world versus like the aspirational way that we want them to? And then also just kind of looking at the structure of our pages and considering if we have this intended goal in mind for the user and we’re helping them achieve something like is the layout of this page allowing for that? Or is it creating more cognitive load than we really need?
Shaun Fitzpatrick: Yeah, when it comes to, I actually love this, um, this idea of decision makers and parents and students coming to a website, uh, not just saying, is this college going to be, make my student academically successful, but like, are they going to be safe and happy?
Cathy Donovan: Right.
Shaun Fitzpatrick: And you know, for a lot of people that the school’s website is really going to be their first interaction with an institution. So that website needs to answer those questions. And we recently had, just today, actually, we were able to watch a colleague give a presentation that she had done on the behavioral patterns of first-generation students interacting with websites. And something she said that really stuck with me was, user experience is not a convenience, it’s a signal of who belongs on campus. So when you’re on a website, if that website isn’t accessible, if it’s not inclusive. If, you know, these important mental health and community services aren’t readily available, users are going to assume that your campus isn’t accessible, that it isn’t inclusive.
They’re going to say, hey, you’re not going to be able to deliver on that happy and safe promise that I’m looking for. So because the website is really for a lot of users, the entranceway into this school, it has got to be answering those questions every step of the way, like Bri said, and that gets baked into the very design of it itself.
Cathy Donovan: So accessibility obviously is pivotal to higher ed websites. Can you talk a little bit about how accessibility contributes to mental health and well-being?
Bri Piccari: One of the most fundamental ways is if the website isn’t accessible, students can’t find what they’re looking for. And similar to what Shaun had said, like if the website’s not accessible, it creates the assumption that the campus is not accessible. So right there, we’re creating like a barrier for access and we’re creating a barrier of how it’s going to be perceived. And so like a really common one we talk about is like color contrast. So if we have images and there’s text over the images, is there enough contrast between that image and the text so that anybody can see it?
Another really common one is color blindness is actually very common. So when we’re designing, not relying on just color for cues, but instead relying on like interactions, visual elements, things like that. And then that also helps from like a cognitive needs perspective. So rather than relying on folks to have to remember things step through step through step, how do we help them and kind of provide like tips and suggestions. And then that creates almost like a warmer sentiment towards the school itself cause it helps embody how that institution is going to then help the students through their career as well.
Shaun Fitzpatrick: Yeah. I also think of these kinds of things that maybe we think of as being. Really technical or even afterthoughts, but things like are you including like alt text for your images? Are you making sure that all the PDFs that are on your site are they accessible so that users using screen readers are able to access all of that information? Regardless of what a student’s needs are they need to be able to get the information they need from your website. You know regardless of whatever additional help that they need.
Cathy Donovan: Right. So belonging is a topic that comes up in higher ed a lot because, you know, everyone wants to find their groups and feel connected and grow and become the professionals that they want to become. But sometimes that’s hard to create. Can we talk a little bit about how inclusivity might be factored in when you’re building content and design?
Bri Piccari: I mean, oftentimes the website is the first step in the process of deciding where somebody wants to go to continue to, you know, continue their education. So if they’re looking through different pages of the site and just like not really seeing themselves there, they’re less likely to then want to continue through and request information or learn more or whatever that next step would be.
And that also goes along with you know, how we talk about the student population. There’s a website that I was looking at earlier today, and I really appreciated that they used the word “we” a lot. They talked about, we all read this book to help create like a common understanding around, I think it was like racial injustice. And then like, we pair together to do this thing. And just hearing we instead of like that, The typical, like, third person was really impactful because, like, it created this idea of compassion between the institution and the students. I felt like I belong there and, like, I’m not trying to go back to school and, just, just seeing, like, it really created, like, a positive sentiment around, like, the school’s personality and, what somebody would expect when they go there.
Shaun Fitzpatrick: Yeah, I think inclusivity really needs to be incorporated holistically. It can’t be an afterthought and it can’t be relegated to just one portion of your website. So Bri, you had mentioned, you know, being able to see yourself and the kind of images that we use. And I think about the kind of dreaded, like the diverse group of students on the front of our brochure. The images that you need, you use need to be actually reflective of what your campus population is. And yeah, absolutely. Someone from any background or walk of life really should be able to picture themselves on your campus. From a kind of written content standpoint, Bri, I agree. I love when I see sites using we, um, I love when we’re using gender neutral or gender inclusive language. I always kind of cringe when I see sites still using, you know. he or she, instead of just using they from both, uh, it’s so much easier to write they, and it just feels automatically more inclusive. But I also think about it in terms of reading level and that kind of accessibility.
So I recently attended a UX writing training course where it was really recommended that all of your pages read at about an eighth to 10th grade reading level with a reading ease score of like 50 or more.
And, you know, I could see a lot of College is saying like, well, you know, our students could read at a higher level than that, right? That’s what we’re, we’re aiming for. But we have to remember that there’s all matter of users coming to your website. Maybe it is the student, maybe it is a parent or a decision maker who might be reading at that eight to 10 level.
Maybe it’s someone who just is looking for information in a way that’s really clear and easy to follow, especially if you’re talking about, you know, task-driven content, like financial aid and like applications and student registration coming across a page that uses like freely, overly elevated language or a bunch of jargon. It’s just not, it’s not easy. That isn’t accessible. And that’s such an easy thing to fix.
Cathy Donovan: So if we’re talking about our users and accessibility and inclusivity are part of it, let’s talk a little bit about user experience. Can we give some examples or talk me through if you’re trying to elevate well-being through your web design, what kind of user experience strategies should you consider?
Bri Piccari: A really important part of promoting well-being through user experience is considering various cognitive needs. So that can be anything from, you know, relying on the user to remember something page to page. It could also be something like having a timer in the top right corner can create a lot of anxiety for students. I mean, anybody, really, because it creates this, you know, this urgency, and it’s often used as like a marketing tactic. So people, like, you know, speed up and do the thing. But when we’re looking at like higher education, like we don’t want that happening. It’s also kind of breaking down terms and not assuming that most people are going to understand something.
Instead, it’s really taking the time to kind of like slow down and step back and say, okay. What can we add here to further support the student or the parent or the user? How can we kind of reflect the in-real-life experience that they’ll, that they’ll have on the website? Can we also talk to students and like test the website and be open to doing things differently or new or uniquely. But something that I really try to focus on is just trying to meet various cognitive needs and just really being mindful of when we move page to page to page, does the flow feel intuitive? Does the page change too much? Are users going to be able to start to pick up on those like design patterns that start to be common over time?
Shaun Fitzpatrick: Yeah, something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is how easy it is for students to access let’s say like mental health resources or community resources. I was working with a different client, that works in the staffing and workforce solution space. And I was writing an article for them on the topic of how to attract Gen Z workers. And in my research, I found that 55% of 18- to 24-year-olds reported getting a diagnosis and or treatment for mental illness.
For this client, the takeaway from that is that companies need it to be offering competitive mental health benefits in order to attract these workers. And I think colleges can learn a really similar lesson to that. We’re talking about the same age range and we’re talking about the same needs. So not only do they need to make sure that they’re offering robust mental health resources, but they need to be making them easy to find on their website.
If we go back to, is my student going to be safe? Are they going to be happy? Those resources are something that’s going to support that goal, but it can’t be buried. It’s nothing if you offer them, but no one can find them or they don’t know how to access them. I think about this very similarly with like safety, like public safety information.
We had a recent client, Lehigh Carbon Community College, who had a public safety section on their website. And like students could find everything they needed there. They could find emergency numbers and all of that information was hosted under the student experience section of the website, so it’s really easy to find. It wasn’t buried under an about us or a footer or something that like a student, it would not necessarily pop up on their normal interaction with the website. So it’s offering these services and also making them really, really accessible to the students who need it.
Cathy Donovan: You’re giving some examples of higher ed sites that are integrating a student well-being into their website designs. Now, can you give examples of schools that are doing this well or maybe some examples that you’ve seen that you would offer some suggestions of how to make that better?
Bri Piccari: So one site that I have been just really inspired by, would be Kenyon University in Ohio. They’re the ones that I was looking at today and were using we to talk about, you know, different initiatives on campus and, and how they help their students succeed.
But the thing that like really kind of like caught my eye is that when you come to the homepage, you know, they have like the typical hero, but as you scroll, this quote comes up from the bottom and just talks about like somebody’s first time on campus and like how welcome they felt and just reading the quote, just like, I don’t know, you could just like tell it was authentic and like real and like didn’t feel like overly like marketing speak. Instead, it was like really in somebody’s words. And then like, as you move down the site, like the type is large, the imagery was just like really eye catching, but also just felt real.
Um, and, and I think like as you’re, as you’re looking at different higher ed sites, like you can kind of start to see like the authenticity and the images and which ones are really leaning into that versus not. And I think users are very aware of that. There’s also McGill up in Quebec. When you come to their site, like you can immediately tell that like they’re trying to change the world in there. They’re fostering these positive experiences. I think at the very top, like it highlights like three different ways that like students, how their research was benefiting the community or how programs were kind of showing up in the world, especially like at the time that we’re at. Another one that I’ve looked at quite a few times as like John Hopkins, they have like some really clear sections, which I think is really important.
Oftentimes websites can get very cluttered very quickly when we’re asking users to do way too many things. I really appreciated that. Like each section just had like a headline, copy a button, headline, copy a button, and like there were variations in the layout. There were changes in the design, but it was really obvious like what you were supposed to do in each one of those sections. And I thought that that was just really impactful.
Cathy Donovan: Good examples.
Shaun Fitpatrick: I was looking at Florida State University has an amazing counseling and psychological services site, includes a ton of resources, including what to expect when you’re interacting with the school’s counseling services. So when I look at this site and I see how much effort has been put into building it out, it makes me think.
While the services themselves are probably really robust, it makes me think that, you know, this is a school that takes mental health really seriously. And if I were a student there, I would absolutely be able to access the care that I need.
We’re also working currently with a higher ed client that is really passionate about students knowing the various like aid and community resources that they offer. So much so that like they have made it a point to really call this out to us while working on the website. We know that this is a huge priority for them and that we should be, you know, linking to it often, making sure it’s really easy to find. I think for them to say, hey, not only is this like, this is such an internal priority for us that, you know, we’re going to tell you the people building our website, we’re going to try to explain how important that is to you so that you get that sense. And so it’s being incorporated right into the design and the content as it’s being built. It’s not an afterthought. It’s not a link added in later. It’s something that’s very much the building blocks of what they’re trying to do.
Cathy Donovan: Right. And I think that’s the strength of a good partnership is that when you’re doing the work of caring for students, it’s, you’re passionate and you’re dedicated, but you might not see the strategy of how to present that information to people that are coming to your site for the first time.
So let’s talk about some predictions for technology, obviously with AI and all the things that we have access to, you know, how might that change or impact websites focus on well-being and accessibility?
Bri Piccari: I think it’s going to continue to be more necessary than ever. AI folks are starting to anticipate and desire more custom experiences, more custom support. Earlier this year, I had done a research project with one of our clients, kind of exploring inclusivity and accessibility and how we talk about those things online and how we create content around that.
And throughout that process, I got to talk to different folks in the community. Some were like physical therapists, some were teachers, all of them to some degree or another worked with kids with disabilities. And through that experience, I learned a lot just about how much like mainstream culture doesn’t think about those things and doesn’t necessarily include these like other situations that are happening at the same time.
And so when we look at like higher education sites and think about like well-being and accessibility, you know, we’re able to kind of recognize that that is not just wanted and desired more, but it’s like totally necessary to not just set yourself apart, but to actually like really support the users and the students and create something that’s going to help them like move to where they want to go in their life.
Shaun Fitzpatrick: Yeah, Bri, I completely agree. I mean, you know, we’re only getting more and more online. There is no nice to have anymore. It’s your website needs to be able to do this inclusivity, especially accessibility. That that is not just like a, an added benefit. Everyone needs to be able to use your website or frankly, like your website is not working properly.
Cathy Donovan: Just to close our innovating enrollment success is obviously the name of this podcast and Paskill’s new tagline. I know I’d love to hear from both of you, what that might mean to you, especially in everyday support of college and university partners.
Bri Piccari: When I think about innovating enrollment success, I really think about evolution. How do we build upon where we’ve been with what we know and then bring in new perspectives to the work.
My workload, I would say is like half higher education, half like consumer focused. And so I’m able to bring insights from the consumer focused work that I do into the higher education work and vice versa, but that helps kind of build off of things and bring new ideas forward to help clients kind of approach things differently and approach things in a new way to really help them stand out. But then again, also help support their users and potential students.
Shaun Fitzpatrick: I think it also comes down to changing the idea of what enrollment success might mean. So it’s not just, hey, let’s get a bunch of students, any, you know, any student we can get. It’s making sure that you’re getting the right students and then knowing how to retain them. You’re making sure that you’re offering what that student population really wants and needs.
It’s not as much of a one size fits all. approach anymore. It’s really, really tailoring what you’re doing and what you’re offering to what your actual target audience is.
Cathy Donovan: Right, so the, the more your website reflects who you are as an institution, the more likely you could attract the students to you.
Shaun Fitzpatrick: Exactly.
Cathy Donovan: That’s great. Well, thank you so much for joining me today. I hope that by talking about this, these issues, our listeners feel a little bit more motivated to take steps to improve these experiences for their audiences. For more about Bri and Shaun, please see our show notes or find them on social.
Or if you’d like, just reach out to us at Paskill. We’re always open to conversations about ways to innovate enrollment success, especially when success means everyone reaching out to improve their lives can find their supportive pathways forward. Thank you so much.