Roanoke Higher Education Center

Working with higher education web design in a whole new way.


The Roanoke Higher Education Center site drew on our experience working with higher education, but in a new context — a facility that brings numerous degree programs and so much more to the local community.

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Located right here in Southwest Virginia, just over 40 miles from our office, the Roanoke Higher Education Center gives locals access to over 200 programs of study through more than a dozen member institutions spread across Virginia and beyond. The center offers everything from Doctoral, Master’s, Bachelor’s, and Associate’s degrees to Post-Bachelor’s and Training/Certificate programs, either at the center in downtown Roanoke, Virginia, or online, through one of its partnering colleges and universities. They also offers job training programs and space rental for the community.

A Fresh Start

Sometimes a site just needs a few tweaks instead of a complete overhaul, but that wasn’t the case here. The site was more than 15 years old and the design was clearly dated, and even more importantly, not mobile friendly.

Carla Jackson, Director of Academic and Student Services at the Roanoke Higher Education Center laughed when we asked her about the “redesign.”

“Instead of a redesign it was really like new construction. The website we had previously was the original website from [when] the higher ed center was created — so that would have been 1999 or 2000. There had been some content updates, but no other updates to the website in all those many years,” she explained.

The site obviously needed a fresh start with a new, responsive design and updated content. We also added some new features to help the center achieve its business goals.

Our research showed that within the Roanoke region, awareness of the center is high, but understanding of what it offers is low. So the site needed to clearly communicate the many resources, from educational opportunities to rental space, the RHEC offers the community.


Architectural Design

The Roanoke Higher Education Center’s 1931 Art Deco-style building, formerly the headquarters for Norfolk Southern railroad company, is an iconic landmark in the heart of Roanoke, and when envisioning the design for the new site, Art Director Sara Andrew found inspiration in the architectural details of the building itself.

“They have this really interesting and cool building with a lot of personality and great details, so we basically took our design cues from that. We came up with color schemes and patterns that were very architectural and Art Deco influenced, with a unique enough look and feel that it really tied the design to the center,” Sara said.

The design of the site also reflects the function of the center as a physical structure encompassing several different institutions. “They’re pulling together all of these other colleges and universities, so their building is honestly one of the biggest things that they offer. It’s a place, so it makes sense,” said User Experience Architect Jennie Salamoun.


Presenting Programs

Because the center houses numerous programs from colleges and universities, many of whom offer similar degree options, devising a strategy to present the degree information clearly and impartially was a big focus.

“They have programs that they want people to know about, and on their old website they weren’t really doing anything about that other than linking to the partner websites. Presenting programs effectively became a goal,” Jennie said. “Before, they were separated by member institutions. Now, when you look at the degrees and programs page, you’re able to see them all at once.”

To accomplish this, we selected broad categories of similar programs offered by different partner institutions to allow prospective students to explore the differences between the programs without leaving the RHEC site. Creating templates to help the members write consistent program pages was a critical piece piece of the puzzle.

“One of the big concerns we had was that a lot of the members were just copying and pasting program content from their own sites, so we had SEO concerns about that,” explained Project Manager Kristin Sartain. “Content for the Roanoke Higher Ed Center needed to be different than the descriptions on the member sites; they needed to make content specific to the RHEC to avoid duplication and provide unique value to users.”

Unlike most higher ed institutions, there isn’t really a typical RHEC student. The audience includes everyone from a recent high school graduate to a 55-year-old pursuing a second career, so in this project, the design and content is not tailored to any specific persona. The site does, however, highlight the many services and resources that the center offers its students, regardless of which program they choose.

Pairing UX with Dev

Part of the focus while building the site was creating a website that worked well, not only for visitors, but for the small, extremely busy staff tasked with maintaining it. Our UX and development teams worked in tandem to develop a WordPress site with a clean, easy-to-use back end that makes content management on the site a breeze.

After developing the site architecture, Jennie dug in and configured the content types in WordPress herself. Having a user experience architect design the back end made the content entry process more intuitive for the Roanoke Higher Education Center team and also proved to be an efficient way of working for our own team.