Need to Know

  • Empathetic website design can help higher education institutions connect with tech-savvy prospective students
  • Understanding the emotional state of your primary users is crucial for designing an intuitive and engaging website experience
  • Content placement can significantly influence students’ perceptions of an institution and should be carefully considered, especially for elements such as testimonials and donation buttons


Gone are the days when first impressions were made with ivy-covered buildings and enthusiastic tour guides.

For today’s tech-savvy prospective students, your institution’s website will often be their first point of contact. Poor navigation, incohesive design, or content that seems overly idealized can be perceived as inauthentic and put your institution at risk of being passed over.

Empathetic website design is an approach that seeks to build an experience that is both intuitive and engaging for your chosen audience. Understanding what students are looking for and what their emotional state is when searching for a post-secondary institution is critical to designing a website that they can connect with.

Read on to discover three keys of empathetic design that can help your institution stand out for prospective students.

1. Understand your primary audience’s emotional state

The process of deciding and applying for post-secondary education is daunting. There are many factors to consider and a huge amount of information prospective students need to sift through to make this life-changing decision.

As a result, your users will most likely be in a heightened emotional state. Knowing this can help you shape your website and its navigation experience to help make it easier for them to achieve their end goals.

For example, anxiety can cause even the most self-assured person to have difficulty deciphering language, especially if it's overly verbose or sophisticated. In speaking with students, many have expressed that while going through the steps of application and registration, they are often concerned about making mistakes.

Using plain language that is organized and easy to understand can help alleviate some of their uneasiness. For example, rather than explaining where a button will lead to, then titling the button itself with a vague CTA like “Click here,” use descriptive language that tells users where the button will take them, like “Speak to a representative.” This approach will simplify navigation for all incoming students, especially those for whom English might be a second language.  

Tools aimed at helping students with the application and registration process are another way to help them feel more self-assured, and ease their concerns about missing a step. For example, we developed a “digital checklist” for one of our higher ed clients which allowed prospective students to check off application tasks one by one.

2. Lead with authenticity

When imagery is used, it should also reflect real student experiences. We’ve received feedback that prospective students don’t connect to pictures that seem posed, like for example, the classic brochure photo of students laughing on an institution’s courtyard lawn. They know this isn’t a true representation of how current students spend their time, nor does it give them an idea of what their day-to-day life will look like. Instead, prospective students would rather see imagery of students in a classroom, lab, or out in the field pursuing their chosen major. They want to see not only themselves reflected in the images, but also examples of what they will be doing.

Videos are an even better way to reflect authenticity than a static image because users can detect the subtle cues that indicate truthfulness. We recommend that our higher ed clients build their sites with a focus on video and optimize our designs to work with video for this reason.

Similarly, specific and up-to-date testimonials can make a powerful impression. Students don’t connect with generalized statements like “this school is the best ever!” They want to hear from actual students about their life on campus. Real-world accounts from current or recently graduated students are an authentic way to highlight the proof points you want prospective students to know about in a much more impactful way. If you choose to include testimonials on your site, it’s important to ensure they are recent — otherwise, it could indicate to students that your website information overall is outdated. While your Supreme Court Justice alumnus may be impressive, if that person went to school 50 years ago, their experience simply is not relevant to what a student will experience today.

3. Pay attention to placement

Just like a well-designed campus, the placement of elements on an institutional website can vastly influence students’ feelings about the institution as a whole.

Our research shows that thoughtfully placed content can positively influence students’ perceptions of your brand. Conversely, if the exact same content is placed awkwardly or too early in a user’s journey, it can negatively affect their perceived trustworthiness of your brand.

Putting prominent calls to action in locations that don't align with user behaviour is not only ineffective but can also be counterproductive. For example, a testimonial can have either a positive or negative effect on trust. If placed on a homepage, testimonials can come across to students as too sales-forward and seem inauthentic or even completely irrelevant if the person or program referenced doesn’t align with the user. However, putting the same testimonial on a specific program page that is related to the testimonial’s content has been shown to increase trust and positive perception.

Another example of the importance of placement is the donation button. Prominent "Donate Now" CTAs on higher education websites generate very little traffic and even fewer donations. Students are already being asked to commit a significant amount of money without a guarantee of a return, and asking for even more money as the most prominent CTA can leave them with a negative impression. Understanding how users interact with content, where they go, and targeting messaging appropriately is a better way to promote success.

On the point of financial investment, when it comes to costs, students want transparency. Though it might be tempting to bury costs to prevent the potential dismay associated with an unexpectedly high price, (also known as “sticker shock”) if fees and prices are hard to locate on your website, it can give users the impression that they have intentionally been hidden, and decrease trust. Creating an easy-to-find page with tuition amounts and fees (even if these are just ballpark numbers) can give students a more positive impression and increase trust. One of the most important pieces of information that students — and their parents, in some cases — are looking for is the total cost. Make it easy to find.

Ready to make a great first impression?

Our Northern in-house experts are here to help you craft an engaging and intuitive user experience for prospective students that puts your institution in the lead.

Tell us about your project to learn more about how we can help you build trust through web design.