Your Campus Website: Why Responsive Design May Be Your Next Step

Recent projections by technology researchers confirm that mobile devices and tablets are seeing rapid adoption -- and that more prospective students and alumni are first viewing your institution's website from a mobile device.

For example, market research firm IDC reported last year that by 2015 in the US, more people will access online content through mobile devices than through wired Internet connections. And Brett Pollak, director of the campus web office for the University of California, San Diego, reports that in past months, UCSD has seen an average increase of 0.5% each month in the number of website views from mobile devices. Now, nearly 20% of their web traffic is from a mobile device or tablet.

Yet an informal May 2012 Academic Impressions survey of marketing professionals in higher education found that less than half have their website optimized or enabled for viewing on mobile devices.

Reviewing the Options

Not optimizing your site for viewing on mobile devices is no longer an option; as more students research your institution from a mobile device, it's going to become increasingly critical that they are able to view and access needed information quickly and conveniently, that they are able to complete tasks (such as requesting additional information about admission) with ease, and that your site offers a positive first impression of your institution.

You can reach out to mobile users by:

  • Creating a mobile version of your site,
  • Creating a mobile app that they can download to their devices, or
  • Using responsive design to ensure your site can be read easily on any device.

While some institutions are considering a mobile app for the admissions site, doing an app well can be costly -- and may not be needed in every case. John Devoy, director of web strategy and analytics at Arizona State University Online, advises, "The amount of time, money, and technical ability involved in creating a mobile app requires thorough attention to the use cases involved -- to make sure you have the right tool for the right job. Mobile apps work well for websites that users need to access repeatedly and for which the content has been curated for the mobile experience."

For example, several institutions have deployed successful mobile apps to provide mobile access to a student portal, allowing students to check course information, grades, announcements, or online course activity "on the go." But for an admissions website -- where you want prospective students to complete a particular task ideally on their first visit -- an app may not be necessary.

But Devoy adds that a separate mobile landing site may no longer be necessary either; a responsive design approach allows you to create one set of code for your site; it uses CSS or javascript to automatically detect the browser width and adjust the view automatically to smaller-resolution screen sizes. This saves you the time of building separate mobile sites or the cost of a mobile app. A visitor to your website can view the site elegantly, whether they are visiting on an iPad, an iPhone, or a droid; "responsive design eliminates horizontal scrolling and the need for a lot of zooming," Brett Pollak notes. "It creates a more elegant experience for the user -- and ensures that your website can make the best first impression."

Early Measures of Success

Devoy conducted a before-and-after study when ASU Online implemented responsive design, to document the impact of this redesign. Among his findings:

  • Requests for information increased nearly 57 percent after the redesign.
  • The average time on site for visitors who submitted a request for information decreased by 1 minute post-redesign.
  • 85 percent of visitors who submitted a request for information did so on their first visit, post-redesign -- 6 percent more than did pre-redesign (strongly suggesting, Devoy comments, "that visitors were compelled to take action more quickly than they were pre-redesign").
  • Converting visitors viewed 20 percent fewer pages before converting, post-redesign.

Devoy was able to show that the mobile-enabled site using responsive design increased conversion in this case of prospective students requesting more information about applying to the school.

Even if you have a small staff or budget and a variety of departmental websites, you can begin to create an adaptable and mobile-friendly design framework for your institution's website using responsive design.