COVID-19 has struck at the heart of every aspect of public life. Educational institutions represent a cross section of the many ways this pandemic has fundamentally changed the way we exist. They provide meals, housing, paychecks, and pensions. They are more than just centers of education; they’re often one of the largest employers in a community.

Four Kitchens partners with many higher education institutions so we see the remarkable work they do on a daily basis. Recently, we’ve seen teams quickly launch emergency response websites and have assisted on improving the user experience for a few. The following guidelines represent best practices and lessons learned from the first wave of responses.

Providing an Accurate, Useful Resource Is the Top Priority

In the early stages of an emergency response, the key goals are speed and accuracy. Often this means using systems already in place, such as social media channels, email and, crucially, the university’s website.

Information changes rapidly in a crisis. At the most basic level, the site’s homepage should ensure the most recent, emergency-applicable posts are displayed first. Users should clearly recognize the most important information on the page and should be reassured that it’s up to date. If an important decision hasn’t yet been made, create a news item explaining that it’s under consideration so visitors aren’t left to wonder.

From a design perspective, this isn’t a time to overthink layout decisions. Utilizing existing components can both expedite publishing and ensure updates remain easy to find.

Focus on the Vital Questions During an Emergency

In times of uncertainty, people are most concerned about things that are fundamental to their well-being and survival. Addressing changes surrounding food, shelter, safety and security should be a university’s primary focus.

If an important decision hasn’t yet been made, create a news item explaining that it’s under consideration so visitors aren’t left to wonder.

For campus closures, this would include details about meal service, the impact to those living on campus, and details about tuition, potential refunds, and other repercussions. Faculty, staff, and student workers will also need updates about the status of their paychecks, benefits, and any potential furloughs or staffing changes.

Additionally, communications teams should build and maintain a database of resources to offer those impacted during or after a crisis.

Satisfy Core Needs, Then Consider the User Experience

After the most pressing concerns have been addressed, the university can begin to consider the user experience at a deeper level. During times of stress, our ability to process information is even more strained than usual, so it’s important to ensure the information you present is scannable and easy to understand.

As the situation allows, evaluate the way information is displayed to determine its readability and relevance. For example, news updates should be date stamped and, if applicable, indicate when a revision was made. Evergreen content should be separated from periodic status updates since what’s important isn’t always what’s most recent.

Designing for users with anxiety poster from the UK Home Office. A list of dos and don'ts.
UK Home Office “Design for Accessibility” poster series.

Universities should continue to be mindful of accessibility during an emergency response. Video content should at minimum include captions and ideally be accompanied by full transcripts. Critical updates should be translated to the major languages spoken by international students. The depth of these needs may vary depending on a given university population, but remember that families of your international student population may be looking at your website from their home countries.

In addition to providing clarity and focusing on efficiency, a well-considered user experience can also provide reassurance in a stressful period. When everyday tasks feel difficult in an emergency, an intuitive, informative website provides a sense of institutional support.

Keep vital information well organized, searchable, and human-focused. Eliminate overwhelm wherever possible and reinforce feelings of support by including relevant contact information throughout.

Prepare for the Next Emergency Before It Happens

Underpinning all communication is an infrastructure of tools and processes. While marketing and communication teams ensure that an organization-wide structure is in place to streamline the publishing process, the technology that manages and displays content must also be flexible and extensible.

When everyday tasks feel difficult in an emergency, an intuitive, informative website provides a sense of institutional support.

Similar to the way publications have pre-written obituaries for celebrities, having a “dark” (unpublished) site designed and ready to deploy when needed can save valuable time by requiring only minor adjustments to fit the particulars of the circumstance. A comprehensive design system like Emulsify allows universities to develop and deploy new sites that are both effective and easy to navigate in an emergency.

A website is an essential tool, and serves as the reliable center of information, but it is passive; your audiences must come to it. A website becomes more effective when you deploy outreach through your most popular communication channels. These often include email, social media, text messages, and mobile apps. Through these channels, communication becomes more active and the website can do what it does best, act as a central hub for information.

While no organization can be fully prepared for every emergency, planning ahead and creating a strategy during calmer times will make addressing the emergency in real-time less panicked and more effective. Here are some key steps to keep in mind:

  1. Deliver the facts, then manage their presentation. At the outset of a crisis, focus on the fundamental needs of your population: food, shelter, and safety. Speed, relevancy, and accuracy are paramount.
  2. Consider the user’s state of mind and deliver a website that feels supportive and comforting. Organized and efficient access to information can contribute to improvements in public safety and mental well-being.
  3. Inclusivity and accessibility must remain a priority. Updates should be presented which accommodate multiple languages and diverse abilities.
  4. Don’t just post updates, distribute them. An organized and up-to-date website is helpful, but vital information should be disseminated using all available communication channels.
  5. Plan and prepare an emergency-focused website now for launch when the next crisis happens. A “dark” website designed and ready to deploy with room for dated, organized updates can save critical time in the future.

The recent pandemic has asked a lot of all of us, but it has also shown how we can shine in the face of adversity. Capturing lessons learned and proactively applying them during calmer times can help your team be prepared for whatever comes next.