Higher education needs a user experience overhaul

Amazon’s and Netflix’s obsessive focus on using customer data to improve user experience has valuable lessons for universities, argues Mike O’Connor

August 30, 2020
Amazon boxes

You’ve probably heard the term “user experience” in recent years, though probably not on your university campus.

For those who haven’t, user experience, or UX for short, is the increasingly important sub-field of technology in which organisations seek to maximise interaction between users and products and services. By doing so, they make their goods and technology user-friendly, enjoyable and accessible.

Think about your favourite apps, technology products, services or websites. Whatever you are thinking of is likely a result of a tonne of user data and feedback, testing of placement and features, and a team of people working to make their technology as intuitive as possible. It is why so many of us opt for Netflix over other streaming services or default to ordering on Amazon, even though we love to signal the virtues of “buying local”. 

At the time of my writing, a quick Indeed search resulted in more than 10,000 UX-related jobs, indicating how UX has become more important and integrated into every aspect of our lives.

Despite this, very few colleges and universities orient their offerings around UX or even the “customer experience” of students – although our customer base is used to engaging with brands obsessed with both. As I watch our institutions navigate an unruly pandemic, shrinking revenues, a quickly evolving demographic base and record numbers of students experiencing college through their computer screen and smart devices, I’d argue that there’s never been a more critical time for us to focus obsessively on the end-user experience.

I’m not advocating for changing of our missions, nor that we stop challenging students academically, but we should rethink how we structure and deliver our offerings while also assessing the gaps between our intentions and student reality.

I’m talking about building tighter feedback loops and letting student feedback more drastically shape institutional design. It will mean changing the structure of meetings to be less self-aggrandising and more data/user informed. And it will require making continuous and speedy user-informed improvements and training our teams to iterate quickly and experiment constantly.

More bottom up than top down. Less ivory tower.

Of course, universities may claim student experience has been their lodestar for many years, particularly when undergraduates are paying tens of thousands of dollars a year in tuition, accommodation and other fees.

But can they really claim to have adopted best practice around user experience to the same extent as business and technology firms? Do we encourage mindsets and skillsets that allow rapid prototyping, radical collaboration and a bias toward action rather than endless pontificating?

While specifics of how UX can be more greatly implemented will differ by institution, there are a few practices that can get us there more quickly.

The first is encouraging constant user feedback. In practice, it means giving students the ability to easily provide feedback on every programme, institutional initiative and communication. Feedback might range from a single-click option, such as smiley, neutral and annoyed faces, to outcome-based surveys, detailed user feedback and focus groups. Feedback should not just be captured but used daily at all organisational levels to inform timely platform, programmatic and strategic changes.

Data should also inform staff performance reviews. Not just assessing how staff fare on delivering student learning outcomes, but how effective said employee is in capturing and making use of feedback to inform progress. Staff should be encouraged, perhaps even incentivised, to run experiments connected to their area goals, including work to assess which co-curricular learning activities engage best with students

Institutions could also do more to curate the content and notifications that bombard students, who receive all sorts of information competing for their limited attention. Institutions can help by walking students towards meaningful milestones related to satisfaction and their intended goals by flagging opportunities to, say, get involved on campus or secure an internship. Institutions should play a bigger role in helping “cut down the noise” by making communications customisable and optimised for each student.

When it comes to advising students, universities should draw on institutional data related to career outcomes and salary by major and support them in securing a combination of student mentors, alumni and staff advisers. By building their own “advisory boards”, students will be better able to tap social capital and triangulate opinions around their own academic and career decisions. Platforms such as PeopleGrove make this kind of idea both doable and scalable.

Should academics be sceptical about all of this? Perhaps even a little scared?

No. A “design overhaul” is not as drastic as one might think. Most of us working in student services have the majority of the accompanying design skills – such as tech and data fluency and learning outcome assessment strategies – to make this happen. However, how we combine these skills and focus our efforts on the user can be improved. We need to change the way we think and do our work – and quickly.

As many of our institutions face revenue drops that will undoubtedly lead to layoffs, furloughs and restructuring, there has never been a better time to rethink how we can construct institutions that directly serve the evolving needs of our student base.

Mike O’Connor is Riaz Wariach dean of the Center for Career, Life and Community Engagement at Lawrence University, a private liberal arts college in Appleton, Wisconsin.

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Reader's comments (3)

new
The analogy of using non-education (e.g., retail) based industries for informing how education should work in user experience should be taken very cautiously because these sectors are different. In sales and retail, the purpose is to ease the purchasing process and improve informed decision making. In education sector, it is about three parties engaging in the learning process to achieve certain outcomes - the learner, the educator, and the learning environment/resources. Research shows that *effective* learning is effortful and often tedious and laborious whereas in retail such as Netflix Amazon, consumers strive for effortless processes. Assuming that policies in UX in sales and retail to be directly applicable to the education sector is what is generating cohorts of students who want to obtain excellent degrees by doing less and less. Standards for achieving higher and higher educational qualifications have been steadily decreasing in the UK through processes such as grade inflation due to this dangerous application of retail based UX principles to the education sector. The important differences between these two sectors should be taken more seriously rather than taken perfunctorily.
new
I with what you say here. The article, I think, does not account for the fact that in education, the customer is also to a large extent the product in a way that is not applicable to retail.
new
The retail analogy may be not be entirely analagous for the education itself - but it does have relevance across a range of ancillary areas which are just as critical to the wider student experience. Better UX-informed processes to assist with course discovery and application are two obvious examples of where a more forensic focus on what matters to students and developing a more streamlined and data informed decisions will enhance and make relevant the "hard yards" of the education. If students are clear about their programme and the journey involved, they are more likely to develop the resilience to see it through.

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