The student experience is a mess (Part 1)

This is the first of a 2-part blog post taking a look at the interactions students have with their institution.

A quick foreword: Throughout this article I specifically talk about the ‘University’ experience. That’s because it’s where my experience lies: I’m a UX specialist and I’ve been working in and around HE for several years. I’ve designed and developed systems in universities, and recently did a masters. Nothing in this article stands out to me as being any less applicable to the FE sector (ie colleges), but as it’s not my background, I’ve stuck to what I know best.

The problem

Imagine for a moment you’re a University student, doing all the things you need to do to get through university. Throughout the day, the semester, and your entire course from fresher to graduate, your interaction with the university is not as straightforward as turning up to lectures and handing in work. It starts with the application process, sorting out accommodation, finding your way around campus, getting your timetable. And then it’s time to study.
You use the library, you find resources. You get teaching resources through your VLE, and you hand in your first piece of work and eagerly await your feedback. Oh, and you’re living away from home, so that’s another thing to figure out while you’re figuring out how the university works
Some days you use the ICT resources on campus. So you find IT labs equipped for your specific needs. Sometimes along the way, there are issues, so you use the excellent IT or learning support services to help you through to the end when, with adrenaline in your veins and caffeine on your jumper, you finally hand in your dissertation. You make it out the other side, and you graduate.

Universities consist of more than bricks and mortar, people, and books. Each of the interactions described above (and countless more) constitute an interaction with a system of some kind.

Here’s a picture of just some of the systems that we ask students to interact with that I thought of when writing this blog post (there are more!):

VLE, Timetabling, IT helpdesk, library catalogue, careers hub, are among the many systems students interact with

Why is this a problem?

My argument here isn’t just that the interfaces are poorly designed or un-intuitive (though that is certainly a part of the problem). Each time someone has to use a different system we’re asking quite a lot of them. We’re asking them to know how to access that system and how to use it. But more than “just” those ICT skills, we’re asking them to know (and care) about a lot of other things. In order to navigate their way through university, students need to:

  1. Understand that they have a need
  2. Know that the institution has something (maybe it’s a system, maybe it’s something different) that can address that need
  3. Know which system addresses that need
  4. Know where to go to access it (is it a URL? or a physical desk somewhere?
  5. Know how to log into that system
  6. Know how to use that system (and deal with it’s quirks)
  7. Know the limitations of the system, and where to go to find other parts of the answer they’re looking for.

It may seem a bit pedantic to break it up into such small chunks. But that’s actually quite a conservative summary: think for a moment just how much prior knowledge, expertise, and understanding item 6 alone is likely to involve for any given system. After all, these are not just simple systems — they are complex, deep, and arguably not always well designed (which systems, if any, are as easy to use as twitter, for example). Also, breaking it up like this highlights how little things like Single Sign-On, or all-in-one portals really do to address the problem.

The complex nature of what universities do mean that we often end up ‘bouncing’ students between systems in order for them to fulfil their tasks. Moving between inconsistent systems, that look and behave in their own peculiar ways, can be discombobulating, further taxing the minds of our learners, and testing their patience.

For a people-centric organisation, items 1 and 2 on the list above are outstandingly important, and the more opaque we make steps 4–7, the more we constrain users’ ability to think about their needs by forcing them to reconcile them with a bunch of systems. Effectively we are putting our institution before the student.

I would argue that it is unreasonable to burden students with that amount of required knowledge. It is after all a symptom of the particular way that their institution runs things; which systems they use for what, how they connect, and where they sit. It’s a heck of a lot of systems-knowledge, and I argue that students shouldn’t have to care this much about the idiosyncrasies of their university’s IT landscape — they have bigger things to be thinking about, after all!

Students’ ability to make the most of their institution shouldn’t be reliant on having an acute awareness of the idiosyncracies of the ICT infrastructure they find themselves in.

Moreover, if you’re reading this as someone who works in a university, ask yourself what proportion of staff has the requisite knowledge to help a lost or struggling student navigate these systems. It could be argued that very few people in an institution have a proper working knowledge of everything the institution offers and how to access them. More likely, lots of specialist knowledge sits within different roles, teams, ‘front-line’ helpdesks, wikis, and handbooks. Challenge your lecturerers, helpdesk staff, or even IT director to draw a map of all the systems students have access to, how to access them, and what they specifically do. If they get it right, ask them if what they’ve drawn actually applies to all cohorts, faculties, and disciplines.

“Similar barriers exist for everything the institution tries to offer the student”

Let’s broaden this out. The main thrust of what I’ve described above doesn’t just apply to IT systems. Similar barriers exist for every single thing the institution tries to offer the student. Institutions pride themselves on offering fantastic programmes of support and guidance, on any number of topics from money, to inclusion, health, counselling, special interest societies, and so many more. In these cases, the discoverability/accessibility of this offer might also be hindered by both online and offline weaknesses within the organisation making the offer opaque to students. Poor signposting, lack of design budget, bad naming, weak communications strategies, spam filters, bad SEO — just some of the things that can keep a university’s offer hidden from students. The status quo is inefficient for our learners, and it’s inefficient for the institutions themselves.

We have seen how — in no small way — this matter taps into some key strategic headlines from our sector: digital learning, wellbeing, the student experience, institutional efficiencies, value for money felt by students, learning support. I have argued that it is messy, burdensome, and inefficient. And while every other sector — from airlines to supermarkets, to the NHS, are going to great lengths to innovate and deliver top-class services, it’s only appropriate that the HE sector does too.

The way these other sectors do this is by using a user-centered approach. They didn’t just think of a solution, or mimic another solution — they thought about the problem, built empathy, and understood what a solution should actually do. Only by dissecting issues in a manner which puts the user (in our case: students) at the centre, can businesses ensure their services are relevant. In the current economic climate, our innovative-by-nature sector should be seeking to ensure that we are not only relevant, not only as good as other sectors, but, I would argue, better.

Addressing the problem

Ok, so the solution is to use a unified system then? Yeah ok good luck.

The picture I’ve described above is problematic, but it exists for a reason. IT departments procure systems based upon their need, departmental budgets, organisational structure, and many other factors. Each of these systems has specific requirements: they need to perform certain things, connect to other specific things, work in a certain way to fit the organisation’s setup. For this reason, we must sympathise. To summarise: the whole thing is messy, but there’s a good reason for it. Those are the paramaters we have to work within.

While there is something kind of cathartic about just blogging about a problem, I’m feeling productive, so let’s think about possible solutions to this mess:

Option 1: Use a single multi-tentacled solution from a mega-vendor

…and hope it does everything you need it to, that you can support it, that the vendor stays afloat, that it changes in step with the institution’s changes…

Option 2: Create a dashboard or a portal. Students just log-in, and everything is piped into that

The thing with dashboards is that the design challenge of putting a visual front-end onto large subsets of systems is agonisingly difficult. All of those functions, navigations, and the data itself need to be thought about and re-presented. It can be done, and it’s great if you pull it off… but doesn’t it still ask users to learn another system; to understand the nature of their need, and how the system designer has decided to bury it within the dashboard? Using dashboards to tackle this problem still place a big cognitive burden on students… not to mention, your development team!

Option 3: Apply a uniform pattern library across all the services

Essentially re-skin the individual services, applying consistent patterns wherever possible. This does address some of the issues, sure. It probably helps make things feel more familiar and reduce some of the learning curve. However there are huge technical and design/UX challenges in implementing consistent navigation patterns, layouts, behaviours, standardising vocabulary, etc etc. Work that needs to be repeated for every system, and every time system vendors change their product. Oh, and it only addresses a couple of the things on that list above (and probably not all that well). Worth looking into, but not the silver bullet that it might at first seem.

Option 4:

Find out my proposal in part 2 of this blog post!

Closing thoughts

I think that when you take a step back and look at the IT landscape students find themselves in, it’s hard not to be sympathetic. Among all the other challenges they are likely to be facing (moving away from home, becoming independent, essay and exam stresses, etc), this picture feels almost hostile. However it definitely feels more like a ‘status quo’ thing than a deliberate act. It’s just the way things are, and it’s an easy situation to arrive at. Furthermore I think that the ‘departmentalised’ structure of HEIs make it hard for this issue to become visible: whose remit does the task of evaluating the entire digital experience fall under? [side-note: why aren’t more universities carrying out longitudional UX reviews of the student experience to map out these issues?]

If you’re lucky enough to work in higher education, in any capacity, perhaps take a look at the systems you work with, and then discover some of those that you don’t. Consider how much knowledge you’ve built up on the job that makes it possible for you to understand how to find and use them.

Also, consider the systems (IT and non-IT), and think about what data is sat there unused. Are the campus maps being used to their full potential? Are people finding the information about the upcoming money advice seminar? Is all the data stored in the VLE being put to best use to help students manage their learning?

If you’re a student, be reassured that universities do care passionately about improving your experience (I’ve been working in the sector for several years in many roles). So if any of this rings true, do reach out to any (and all) feedback routes available to you.

Comments are open and I’m keen to hear your thoughts.

Update: Check out part 2, in which I present a solution!
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