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Lens on education

Designing for human resilience in a digital-first world

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By Mark Jarecke, Managing Director, New York

Our current lens

As we shelter in place during these strange times, our digital experiences have become our primary windows to the outside world. We rely on the utility of digital to keep us informed, entertained, safe and most of all connected. In other words, digital is doing what it has always done — only now with more urgency and purpose than ever.

The quality of our collective future will be determined by how we choose to move forward today: how to advance digital across entire industries, within institutions, and at both global and local scales. At AREA 17, we’ve always believed that connectivity should contribute to a fuller, more profound and enriched experience of life, not distract from it. And our current reality has made us redouble our commitment to that ethos, both in our work with clients and our own team.

For the last 17 years, we’ve had the privilege and responsibility of helping our clients navigate some of their biggest digital challenges, and we’re eager to contribute our ideas, hypotheses, design, and code to help shape our collective future. Over the next few weeks in this Lens on series, we’ll offer some of our thoughts on industries that we have extensive experience in, starting with education. Lens on is not a response to the current COVID-19 pandemic, but a vehicle for us to reflect, clarify, and share our long-held beliefs in the importance of digital transformation.

Navigating the unique complexities of Higher Education ecosystems

Shortly after Spring Break 2020, COVID-19 displaced nearly 20 million students from across 4,298 colleges and universities in the U.S. — thrusting many of them back home or into other off-campus environments to continue their studies. Many educational organizations were unprepared and lacked a resilient digital infrastructure to respond quickly to the unforeseen challenges that came with supporting the millions of students and teachers suddenly required to teach and learn online. But while these changes were indeed sudden shocks to higher education’s everyday operations, the needs they addressed had already started appearing in one form or another over the past two decades, thanks to shifting student needs and business challenges within the hyper-competitive environment of higher education.

Even before the impact of COVID-19, digital responsiveness, security, and infrastructure were mounting priorities for our higher-education clients. In our work together, we took the opportunity to push those initiatives further by creating extensible brand platforms and flexible digital systems and products. With those in place, these organizations are better poised to respond to changing conditions with agility and confidence, while maintaining consistent brand identity across every experience.

Our work may be digital by nature, but we solve the most complex problems by prioritizing the human perspective. With Columbia Business School, Radcliffe Institute, and The New School among our most recent clients, we’ve deepened our understanding of education’s role in enriching people’s lives and the accompanying necessity for crafting platforms that can bridge divides, facilitate community, and simplify complexity.

1. Design for diverse mindsets and audiences

An institution’s digital presence usually focuses on providing a virtual representation of the physical, intellectual, and cultural worlds that students experience in real life — it is, in essence, a beautiful brochure that tries to illustrate what campus life is like. But we’ve learned that a prospective student’s journey to considering an institution and ultimately choosing it is complex and nonlinear. The decision is not derived through a typical purchase funnel, as students are not looking for a transactional experience; they’re examining an institution through a variety of different lenses and mindsets. It is a personal journey, not a straight path, and needs to be supported by an in-depth content strategy that appreciates those mindsets and engages students wherever they are in their decision.

But if an institution’s website only focuses on selling to prospective students, they’re missing the opportunity to engage their larger community. Current students, alumni, faculty, the local community, and administrators are all important users of the institution’s digital properties. Their digital platform has to dynamically serve multiple audiences in specific and distinct ways: eliciting discovery, facilitating conversation, and increasing community in a way that aligns with their brand. It shows the necessity of moving a website from a simple brochure to an integrated service platform for every customer journey — learning, engaging, connecting, and more.

In our post-COVID-19 reality, digital platforms will be required to deliver more. Successfully mapping features and content to ever-increasing and diversified audiences is just the beginning. To truly fulfill the needs of all audiences, institutions must develop a detailed content strategy that doesn’t just look at content hierarchy, but understands that content format — the right content medium for the right message — is the best way to serve the people who come to their sites.

2. Support a culture of independence with extensible design systems

It’s been our experience that the most unique aspect of working with higher education institutions is their culture. Here, Presidents are not CEOs — they are co-leaders working alongside their faculty to build diverse and valuable experiences for their students and serving as a critical resource for their alumni. Inherent in this egalitarian culture is a decentralization of authority over specific programs and initiatives, which empowers the faculty and administrators to lead their own programs in the ways they determine best — including being responsible for creating their programs’ digital experiences.

However, educators often find themselves burdened with archaic content management systems that are inflexible, unintuitive, or simply broken, and, rather than try to work with them, they’ll either decide it’s not worth the hassle and forgo publishing their content altogether, or go rogue and create standalone sites. While these one-offs may be easier to manage in the short term, they too often don’t follow the institution’s brand guidelines, thereby creating inconsistencies that can degrade the trust a brand has built with the public. What’s more, by compromising user privacy rights, creating unmanageable administrative privileges, and just being poorly designed, they create a multitude of problems that end up costing the administration valuable time and resources to correct.

Universities need platforms that support their faculty, not burden them, and their content should be part of the institution’s full offering, not hidden away on a standalone site somewhere. They need a coherent ecosystem. And while ecosystems are complex, the platform that supports them doesn’t need to be.

Furthermore, with physical campuses off-limits for now, faculty have become the university’s most critical ambassadors, responsible for fostering the university’s collective sense of community — a valuable but new role that they need to balance alongside all their other responsibilities and with limited remote resources. A robust publishing system can support student engagement by supporting faculty, and simultaneously serve as an essential tool for maintaining that important cultural continuity. A centralized CMS that uses a modular design system can facilitate easy, quick, and seamless innovation across the university — empowering resourceful and gifted professionals with the tools they need, when they need them, from wherever they’re working.

3. Engineer for consistency within complex ecosystems

Institutions require a highly integrated ecosystem of specialized products and bespoke services. Student portals, learning management systems, multiple calendars, intranets, campus resources, library services, application tracking, and directories are all potential components of a vast and complex network. These specialized products are each optimized to deliver a specific function, but are not always designed to fit into a college or university’s visual identity or existing digital infrastructure.

When disparate interfaces are stitched together without attention to the context of the overall ecosystem, the user experience that results is usually visually jarring and painful to use, with students, faculty, and administrators often required to login over and over as they navigate from link to link. This experiential quagmire not only introduces possible data privacy issues, but also sends the message that the institution lacks experience, doesn’t realize there’s a problem, or simply doesn’t care enough to invest in a better solution. Focusing on visual consistency and experiential continuity is paramount to creating and maintaining a brand through all touch-points, especially in the digital space. A comprehensive digital style guide and pattern library designed for multiple platforms and usages is essential. Technology also can bridge the gaps between these various systems by instituting single sign-on protocols to create a uniform flow between properties without the need for multiple logins.

The current pandemic and resulting study-from-home realities have made an institution-wide approach and strategy critical to help minimize the compounded sense of disassociation and dislocation students may be experiencing as a result of their physical isolation. In short, ensuring experience continuity with your institution’s brand across its entire digital ecosystem is more important than ever to maintain and foster a sense of community and belonging as digital becomes our primary touchpoint.

As the Director of UNESCO’s Institute for Capacity Building in Africa said,

“As necessity is the mother of invention, this situation may become an opportunity for teachers and learners to become more empowered, creative and innovative.”

We couldn’t agree more, and it’s AREA 17’s privilege and purpose to help them do so. Educational institutions are unique, complex, and vital. From multiple audiences and mindsets, to a decentralized culture, and a complex digital infrastructure, preparing academic organizations for success — now and into the future — calls for digital transformations that are fully human. And while we can’t predict what lies ahead, we’re confident that with a flexible and resilient digital foundation, institutions will be well-equipped to face as-yet-unknown challenges.

At AREA 17, we’re committed to enriching lives by choosing to partner with organizations that contribute greatly to our collective human experience both online and offline. In this series, we’re illustrating some of our recent insights with organizations that share our goal of improving our collective human experiences. Make sure to sign up for our newsletter for more insights. Up next, reimagining the digital presence of cultural institutions like Art Institute of Chicago.

Written by

A brand and digital product agency in Paris and New York. We solve problems to serve people with work designed to simplify and engineered to endure.

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