I just returned from AACRAO SEM in Orange County, CA this week. Besides the nearby wildfires, which took an incredible amount of property and effort to control, the trip was great. My presentation there was How To Engage Your Web Audience. I had great feedback from the attendees - thank you all very much.
I sat in on a few other sessions, always looking to pick up new ideas and research data. Many of the sessions were on using Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) for recruitment of college prospective students. What struck me as I browsed the sites and watched some of the demonstrations was Man, nobody has paid attention to the user experience at all!
Some of the tools' created web forms were downright embarrassing. I went online to visit some of the (unnamed) schools to see how they worked. Come on guys! The forms themselves were cumbersome, not well integrated (running on a separate server), designed poorly, and just not at all intuitive. http/https errors abound. After completing one form, it sent me back to the home page using https and none of the style sheets or images loaded. The entire site was text at that point. Yuk!
There is no doubt that CRM tools (Datatel's included) can be great time savers and even increase customer service. They help administrative personnel handle the load and are capable of tracking and reporting prospect status very well. But we have to examine the TOTAL experience from the persona of the prospective student. Millennials and even Gen-X's today have little tolerance for bad web design. Your web site might look awesome, and have all the tools the prospective student is looking for, but you HAVE to make sure that when the CRM forms take over that experience remains consistent.
Will you lose students if that integrated experience is poor? I really don't know. Maybe not. But I can guarantee that their view of your institution will drop a notch or two.
Make sure your vendor knows the Web, and how best practice forms need to look and behave. I highly recommend Luke Wroblewski's book, Web Form Design: Filling in the Blanks (2008, Rosenfeld Media). If your site (vendor or your home grown) follows Luke's simple advice when it comes to forms design, you'll be on your way to brand consistency.
Don't give your prospective students a reason to abandon your site. In Luke's words, forms on your website "are all that stand in the way of your user completing a task." Make it work well.