Saturday 20 October 2012

University applicant experience enhancement - Nomensa white paper

Nomensa (a digital experience design and strategy agency) have produced a white paper titled “Enhancing the university submission experience”. While their survey and user research reveals trends I’ve also seen in my own research at Edinburgh, I found their recommendations perhaps a bit simplistic and overlooked the complex nature of higher education institutions.

In a nutshell, they conducted a small survey, interviewed 12 students, tested their wireframe design proposal with 6 students, refined then tested again with 3 more. They conclude that what universities (and organisations like UCAS) need to adopt e-commerce comparison tools to enhance the student experience when choosing.

It would be nice to think that if all universities needed to do was change their UIs and make the course selection process a bit like buying insurance.

I think (hope) most higher ed web managers and designers are aware of the design patterns used again and again in e-commerce. What we know, and it seems Nomensa don’t, is that the problem isn’t so much with the design, it’s with the content curators and the organisations within which they operate.

Go Compare, Moneysupermarket and the rest would soon come unstuck if every insurer steadfastly refused to provide a similar level of information in a similar format. And that is the problem faced in most universities.

I often think that a university isn’t so much a business, or a single organisation even. It’s more like a load of semi-autonomous businesses operating under a franchise.

And each of these businesses have different levels of resource, have differing views on the importance of their websites and (whisper it) differing views on the importance of the experience their students have whilst studying with them. While teaching is core to some schools in some universities, in others research and commercialisation are a higher priority.

So the idea that all a university needs to do is create a new, user-focused system or widget is, to me, misplaced. All a university really needs to do is breakdown its organisational silos, share in a vision for the student experience, establish a content strategy and resource it consistently across its academic units. Simples - as an insurance price comparison rodent likes to tell us.

Bad user experience isn’t an interface design choice; it’s ingrained in the culture of the organisation.

Good advice

Now having said this, there are a lot of great observations in this report. Here are some of the ones that I’ve encountered first hand myself, mainly in working on projects around prospective postgraduate experience enhancement:

Structure your information architecture around the stages of student decision making and the application process. Easier said than done with so many content stakeholders involved, but the more typical approach of bundling (say) all accommodation or finance information together makes for a difficult information seeking experience.

Be clear about and communicate the unique selling points of each degree. I’ve seen lack of distinction between degrees in a school lead to frustration in user testing, and additional administrative work processing strong candidates who give up trying to choose and apply for several.

Acknowledge that students make decisions away from your website, and design your content to be consumed by other sites and aggregation services. I’ve watched user testing sessions where students only visited the university site to answer their questions when they had to – pogoing in and out of the site and preferring third party, independent information sources like the Student Room and Find-a-Masters. Nomensa says “don’t make students play digital ping-pong” between UCAS and institution websites, but from what I’ve seen students increasingly want to use institutional sites only when they have to and treat some of the material they read with a pinch of salt. On the other hand making students play ping pong around a single institution site causes a high degree of frustration.

Location and orientation are important – and from what I’ve seen in user tests on a number of university websites, rarely well done. Simple questions around how the student will get from halls to their place of study are commonly difficult-to-impossible to answer on university websites. Third parties do it far better. The irony is that services like Google Maps can be easily integrated into other sites.

Poor information results in bad decisions. Nomensa talk about undergraduates rejecting suitable degrees in their decision making process. In postgraduate studies, I’ve seen the opposite – unsuitable candidates deciding that they’re qualified to apply, thereby wasting their own time in applying and that of administrators in having to process the application.

People are interested in people. Nomensa look at customer reviews on sites like Amazon and suggest universities should do the same. But I’m not convinced. From what I’ve seen, students are interested in, but also cynical about, student profiles and testimonials on university sites. While they’re undoubtedly valued, I wonder if the university website is the place to host them? Impartiality is key. Copying e-commerce conventions probably won’t work here I think – but there is a demand and the trick will be to come up with the format and the functionality and the location that works to complement the course information.

All areas of the user experience require attention – not just websites. Rising costs are causing students to be more careful in their choices. Attendances at open days are rising at Edinburgh, and it seems, everywhere. In-person engagement is just another part of the user experience. If you put the same level of investment into event management as attendance doubles, how is this likely to impact on the visitor’s experience? Would it be better to limit attendance and guarantee a level of service or accept everyone then inflict long queues and seminar lockouts?

(Related: Jared Spool gives a great example to illustrate the difference between website usability and user experience)

Or, of course, universities can invest more so that they can accommodate more visitors on open days and ensure a high level of service. But in-person engagement is the most expensive, and website engagement the cheapest… (Previous post - The cost of customer service)

Express the anticipated user experience and share it. I thought Nomensa’s attempts to document the key stages was to be applauded and provide us all with a starting point to develop into something that suits our institutions. I’m constantly talking about the user experience with stakeholders these days – encouraging them to generalise and sign up to a statement or diagram or whatever, that expresses what it is they want to achieve for a target audience. Doing this provides a yardstick against which to measure all subsequent user testing findings.

Related - I pulled together a collection of examples of communicating the user experience in a presentation earlier this year (UX session slides) and came across a great book a few months back (Communicating the user experience).

So – lots of food for thought and definitely worth a read. I think for all its flaws, Nomensa are to be applauded for producing the report. If it raises awareness of the importance of the user experience in some quarters then that can only be a good thing.

A few senior staff identifying that they want course comparison tools on their websites, and being led through the content strategy prerequisites for this to be possible would be a conversation I bet lots of web and content managers would welcome.

Nomensa’s news article summarising their white paper

Download the Nomensa white paper (registration required)

Sophie Dennis has also written a commentary on the report (for .Net Magazine)

Universities are not ecommerce businesses – article by Sophie Dennis for .Net

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