International students and self-identification on PSE websites

Miniature figurine standing on a map

Much of the work we do on large websites is in the Post Secondary Education (PSE) space. These projects are complex for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the growing importance of attracting International students. When conducting UX research we pay special attention to International students, their needs, and their habits when it comes to using PSE websites.


We believe all users approach PSE websites with a job in mind and are looking to hire both the school and the school’s website to help perform that job. We believe that International students approach the execution of these jobs by considering the task they’re performing first and their status as an International student second.

Put another way, we’re hypothesizing that International students don’t self-identify early in their journey.

Current state

Most of the project committees we work with have a representative from the School’s International division. This is warranted given the financial importance of attracting and retaining a growing number of students from overseas. In nearly every case there’s an expressed interest in having a label for ‘International Students’ in the main navigation system. While not out of the question it’s important to challenge how important this label is and empathize with International students and how they really use PSE websites.


The UX research we perform as part of a PSE website overhaul typically includes a review of existing site analytics and group interview sessions with various student and stakeholder groups, including International students. When reviewing analytics we slice the data by country of origin to understand where International sessions are coming from and the common journeys taken during those sessions. We take into consideration that not all International sessions are from prospective students and always mention this when reporting our findings.

The interview sessions are focused on asking International students to identify and prioritize what they expect to find and/or do on the website. This helps us understand the jobs to be done without explaining the JTBD framework.


Combined data from two Ontario colleges points out that International sessions appear to be interested in product information (programs and courses) and seek out this kind of information prior to interacting with anything that requires self-identification.

Sessions from India most frequently access the home page followed by program content. In the figure below there are 39,621 sessions across the three most popular pages as accessed by visitors from India. A significant drop occurs after program detail.

Photo breaking down the three most visited pages by users from India

The majority of sessions originate on the home page with some kind of program and/or course selection page and a program detail page next in terms of session count.

Behaviour flow data shows that both the starting pages and first interactions for sessions from India are product centric:

Photo showing that starting page and first interactions for sessions from India are product centric


Being International isn’t about having an International section on your site. Providing the best experience for International students should be rooted in creating a thread of International content that is weaved throughout the entire website. Find out where prospective International students are engaging with the site and meet them there. Typically, this means clearly identifying which programs and courses are available to International students, the cost associated with those programs, and the admission requirements for International students through a product-first lens.

Through our experience we’ve come to understand that many International students are seeking a program that compliments their prior learning. This underscores the importance of making program information a priority while clearly identifying if a program is open to International students. The important distinction to make is that the path ‘find a program > can I take it?’ is more common than ‘I’m an International student > show me the programs I can take.’

I like to draw a parallel between the ideal on-campus experience for International students and their experience on a College or University website. The entire campus should be accessible to International students. They should be met with inclusion and integration as opposed to isolation built around assumptions. Of course, the necessary supports need to be in place but those supports shouldn’t be prioritized over other critical features.


Higher education UX research User journey mapping User interviews

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