School websites - designed to keep parents out

We look at why many school websites are so awful and suggest ways to make the home/school digital relationship a richer, more rewarding experience.


If you have children of school age chances are you will have had reason to visit the school's website. Once you get there, the chances are you'll find the gate pretty firmly locked.

What parents have told us

Incredibly frustrating. Impossible to use. Full of marketing mumbo jumbo and nothing that I actually need.

These are just some of the comments we've gathered from frustrated parents whose digital needs are not being met by schools.

Why are we still getting so many pieces of paper sent home when it's easier to reach me on my mobile?

Why indeed.

Parent's use of mobile

Like it or not, most of the parents at the school gate are women (consistently over 80% in our own research). They do most of the ferrying and nearly all of the liaison. And (again according to our research) 9 out 10 mums have a smartphone. So they are always on, always connected, and easy to reach. Why then are schools not using this simple, cheap and highly effective means of keeping them informed?

Teachers have it hard enough and it's not for us to make things worse. Their expertise is focused on teaching and they should not be expected t be digital experts too. However, an opportunity to make life better for all involved lay waiting, if only they had the time to think it through.

Beware the vendor selling 'school websites'

During research we conducted for one recent school web design project we looked at dozens of school and college websites. It became clear that the sector is serviced (sold to) by a dominant set of vendors who 'specialise' in school and college websites. By some measures this approach offers what seem to be efficiencies and cost savings - re-skinning the same product with different school brands is quick and cheap. But factor in human measures of quality of experience, usability and usefulness, and the apparent savings turn into costs - mostly paid for by the frustration of parents.

An 'off the shelf' the shelf product is, by nature, a product configured for the lowest common denominator. They generally evolve, over time, to include more and more features to the point where (adhering to Pareto's Principle) 80% of those go unused. The real problem lies in not being able to listen to or understand what users really want or need. And as any decent designer will tell you, that's where real value lies.

Image by Jeff Smith

Simple utility makes parents happy

The value of software is generated not by the developers that create it, but by the people that use it. If this were not true Pareto's Principle would not be so consistent, and most people would use most features most of the time. If only. Features and functionality that respond to user needs, on the other hand, offer those users real value.

Really useful features such as a simple calendar that parents can synch to to keep up on key dates. Or a documents that are published as web pages rather than pdf or (even worse) Word attachments. Simple, cheap to do, easy to use, highly valuable. And no need for paper notes stuffed into bags or lost on the journey home.

Aim for shared value

These are basic example of the simple, elegant utility that teachers and parents can define together so that both benefit form the shared value created. Other examples include optimising the design for use on mobiles (remember those 9 out of ten mums). Or making a clear distinction between content aimed at prospective parents and that tailored specifically for existing ones.

Schools and colleges, parents and students have much to gain from smarter use of digital. But they must stand up to the software vendors and speak to parents about what they really need.

So how do you go about creating a school or college website that provides real value for parents, teachers and students?

1. Do some simple testing

Visit your website on a smartphone, a tablet, and a laptop. How do these compare? Doe it work well on mobile? Can you do everything you want to? Do you have to pinch to zoom or is it hard to navigate?

2. Talk to parents and staff

Gather together some colleagues and a few parents. Get them to visit your site on the same range of devices and talk about their experience. Capture their comments and ideas - most importantly, capture the things they most wish they could do on your site.

3. Call in the experts

Finding a decent design agency to help you is easy. If in doubt, visit their site on your mobile. A decent agency will be able to take you through a rigorous but sensible process of defining your strategy, researching your audience needs, business requirements and content plan, all before showing you what the finished product will look like.