Tuesday, 29 July 2014

What's with UX in Higher Ed? My presentation to IWMW 2014

Earlier this month, I presented at the UK Higher Education Web Managers Conference, IWMW. I talked about how user experience skills and techniques aren't as prevalent in higher education as they are in other sectors and why I thought this might be. The slides were quote and image heavy, so here is a transcript of what I said, interspersed with what my audience were tweeting as they listened.

@steethdavis tweet

"Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple." - Woody Guthrie
“Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” - Thomas Edison

@CraigCowling tweet@stratosf1

A couple of quotes to kick things off and to introduce myself alongside a couple of people who might be considered geniuses…

My point here though is that making something simple doesn’t happen by accident. And while some may perceive great design to be genius, in reality it’s down to hard work and perseverance. Edison is famous for the sheer number of inventions he and his company came up with, but he was very open in admitting how hard he worked, and how many ideas he had came to nothing or needed several attempts to get right.

About me & Edinburgh's University Website Programme

I’m Neil Allison. I’m the User Experience Manager at the University of Edinburgh Website Programme.

Once upon a time I was a teacher. Then I was a student recruitment and marketing officer. Then I started doing that kind of stuff online. So I progressed into website management, and from there into CMS management and supporting others with their online business, which is where I am now with the University Website Programme.

We started out as a 2 year project in 2006 to roll out the first corporate content management system. Eight years on we’re managing that CMS for about 700 users across 80+ business units who manage around 50,000 web pages. But on top of that, we also offer training, support and consultancy to the web publishing community – going beyond our CMS user group – and we’re currently developing a new CMS that will replace our current system over the next 18 months.

 A common thread through everything I’ve ever done is communication and engagement. And I judge the effectiveness of what I do on how well it works for its intended purpose. For its intended audience. In its intended context. Self reflection and iterative improvement is pretty much drilled into you when you train to teach and I suppose that’s why user experience management has always seemed like such a no-brainer to me.

Usability - ISO 9241 definition: “The effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction with which specified users achieve specified goals in particular environments.”
@jtisqo tweet

How do you know how well you’re doing if you can’t express what it is you’re trying to do and apply some metrics to it so that you can objectively appraise?

Do teachers monitor the pupil experience?

So pretend you’re a secondary school teacher for a moment. You get to the end of the lesson and the kids have all gone. How are you doing? A few metrics you might use:

  • % who did their homework
  • % who brought everything they needed to class
  • Average noise level
  • Did the class enjoy themselves?
  • How many kids did I need to sanction?
  • % of required content covered
  • Topic test scores
  • End of year exam scores

Are all these metrics equally important? Do all teachers measure against these? How do these metrics align with what the headteacher is trying to achieve – for the school and for the individual pupil?

When I taught I obviously wanted my pupils to do well. But I also wanted them to enjoy the subject, so worked hard to make maths more stimulating than when I had been at school. And if I’d asked my head, they would have wholeheartedly agreed – yes, our students should enjoy their lessons. But how would they know? Did they put anything in place to measure this? Or would they let things roll along so long as the right results were being churned out and standards of behaviour were maintained?

So now have a think about your website or your application. What are your objectives and how do you measure them? Do all your colleagues and stakeholders agree?

If I asked you to name your top 3 audiences, could you do it immediately? And are you confident your colleagues and stakeholders would say the same thing? Now think about your number one audience. What are their 3 top tasks? Again, would your colleagues say the same things as you?

@adrianstevenson tweet

And how do these objectives and metrics fit in with the bigger picture? For the organisation? For the customer? It’s big, isn’t it?

Evolving my question - what is it with UX in Higher Ed?

Last year I gave a presentation at the Chartered Institute of Marketing’s Higher Ed Group conference and I called it “Marketing is Dead, Long Live UX!” Well that went quite well, so I thought it might be good to update it a bit and come along to IWMW.

But as I thought some more about what I was going to say and I talked to a few people in and out of our sector, I realised that I wanted to talk about something slightly different. So apologies if you came along today for “Marketing is dead…” because I’m calling this “What’s with UX in Higher Ed?”

@stawebteam tweet

(Marketing isn’t dead, by the way. It’s just changing. But that doesn’t sound so interesting when you’re proposing to conference organisers.)

What I’m wondering is why is the UX profession is seemingly booming elsewhere, but not in higher education?

@DuncanBSS tweet

There have been a small handful of UX-related jobs advertised in the higher education sector over the past few years – low to mid-level, coming from an IT-developer-designer sort of angle. Nothing like the tens or even hundreds that are coming up month after month elsewhere.

But what I was basing this on was fairly anecdotal. I monitor the jobs situation a bit, but not assiduously; it’s not like I’m looking to leave Edinburgh, after all. I thought I’d ask the community via the Jisc mailing list but before I got that far I came across a message from Dan Jackson (@beesman) at UCL in 2012.

-----Original Message-----
From: Managing institutional Web services [mailto:[log in to unmask]] On Behalf Of Dan Jackson
Sent: 06 September 2012 09:50
Subject: UX & IA professionals in UK HE?

Hi all,

I'm wondering out loud how many HEI's in the UK have positions directly responsible for improving the user experience, interaction design and information architecture of their institutional web sites and web applications? A quick scan of the last 12 months' activity on this list, and a perusal of the web/digital jobs currently being advertised at jobs.ac.uk, shows the usual mix of adverts for web developers and web content editors, but nothing related to UX or IA.

This is in stark contrast to private sector companies, who are recruiting UX consultants like there's no tomorrow. If this is a true reflection of a lack of recruitment to these kinds of positions, is our sector blind to the criticality of these disciplines? Do we still put UX & interface design in the hands of developers? Or is it now common practice to outsource these activities to digital agencies? Or perhaps we expect our front-end developers to have cross-discipline skills (not always the case IMO)? Or maybe we all agree that this is vital, but are having trouble persuading & educating budget holders?

Would be very interested in any feedback - thanks!

Turns out I was the only person to reply to Dan on list.

Original dialogue on Higher Ed Web Managers Jisc Mailing List

I had a great chat with Dan and he shared a few other responses he’d have off-list, but there really wasn’t anything to speak of in the emails he received.

So I thought I’d try again, this time with a survey. I’m not going to go through the results of that survey here today; instead I’ve written a blog post and I’d be happy to continue the conversation after this session.

UX activity in UK Higher Ed web teams (17 July 2014)

A couple of headlines though – 60% had tried at least one UX technique in the course of a project, and just under a quarter used some in most projects.

@adrianstevenson tweet

So, what I’m thinking: Is there a problem here? Is there an opportunity? Should we care?
I’d say yes to all three questions.

User experience & usability: what are they?

Now, just to back pedal a little bit for those of you who are thinking - what is user experience stuff, anyway?

A couple of quotes I really like in explaining the value of having a UX vision for a product or service or project:
Jesse James Garrett: “A star to sail your ship by”
Jared Spool: “A flag in the sand on the horizon”
I think I prefer Jared’s as the flag can and indeed should be moved on the horizon from time to time, as new research causes you to refine your view or when your environment changes.

Jakob Nielsen’s Nielsen Norman Group produced a model I think does a good job of illustrating the relationship between usability, user experience and brand.

Nielsen Norman Group's circles model is used in the article "The difference (and relationship) between usability and user experience" by Justin Mifsud on usabilitygeek.com

And Jared Spool outlined quite a nice scenario that helps illustrate:
The difference between usability and user experience - blog post on uie.com

@mike_mcconnell tweet

One of the key things I said when I presented to the Chartered Institute of Marketing last year, I shamelessly borrowed from Whitney Hess:
“Advertising is about getting the customer to love the company. UX is about getting the company to love the customer.”
Don Draper is the Antithesis of User Experience – blog post by Whitney Hess

@steethdavies tweet

@CerriMacSl tweet

So what about us in higher education? Do we not love our customers? Do we even see “customers”?

UX is big. Where do we fit in?

And there’s a question of scale here. At the University Website Programme at Edinburgh, we manage a content management system. This is part of our overall web publishing service to the University. How is this contributing to the student experience?

We try to put the CMS user at the centre of our work. After all, it’s the people that make the website first and foremost - not the tool. By understanding our users – their skills, their priorities, their contexts of use – we develop our service to enable them to do a better job of managing their website. A better website helps contribute to a better user experience, but I think possibly more importantly, a leaner, more focused website helps save the editors time – fewer pages to manage, more visitor self-service reducing enquiries and so on. And of course, a CMS tool that prioritises the time-poor, non-specialist and the key tasks they do most often frees up more time for their ‘real’ jobs (which often involves servicing our student customers in one way or another).

Jared Spool’s camera purchase scenario is a good one, but I don’t think you could compare it to managing the student experience. Probably more like managing a service that contributes to the student experience like, say, what we do, or the accommodation service or the library perhaps. I’ll come back to this question of scale and what we can compare our fundamental overarching services against a little later.

@jtisqo tweet

@adrianstevenson tweet

Jakob Nielsen suggested that usability is like cookery.

I’ve long been a subscriber to this. Before Steve Krug’s Rocket Surgery book I was borrowing all his best ideas and training colleagues. Over 400 staff at Edinburgh have learned that it’s easy to do the usability equivalent to beans on toast. And that’s fine in the main. You don’t need a UX consultant most of the time. You don’t want a gourmet chef to be making your beans on toast.

For me, the user experience is everyone’s responsibility.

Imagine if this wasn’t UX I’m talking about. Imagine it was writing. How crazy would it be if every team, every project had a person responsible for writing stuff down?

@mike_mcconnell tweet

Our ultimate aim should be to ensure that UX – being interested in users’ interaction with our product, being capable of investigating UX and being capable of sharing or communicating it – is something everyone on the team can do to some extent. It shouldn’t be anything special, just a basic skill regardless of your role.

We all need motivation

But we need motivation. Remember Edison’s perserverence? So what motivates us to invest our time and attention on delivering a better UX?

@steethdavies tweet
What's our motivation to invest in UX-related activity?

I’m an educator, a trainer at heart. My focus over the years at Edinburgh has changed to apps, to the UX of our staff using the CMS. Why? Because investing in UX during the development process makes for less of a training overhead. It makes support easier.

And I’ve also come to realise that the better the CMS product we have, the better the job our non-specialist, time-poor website editors do in terms of maintaining the website. There’s nothing like a stint in training or support services to help you develop a degree of empathy…

What about you?

The developer – Better products sooner? Clearer requirements at the outset? Less rework? Time saved?

The marketer – Better products? An easier sell? (Others do it for you, even?!)

But what about our leaders? What’s in it for them, UX-wise?

The higher up you go, the further you get from the customers and from the front line staff who are often as frustrated with the UX as the customers. And it’s up there that decisions are made, where strategy is formulated.

@davidturton tweet

UX is not a deliverable, it's not something that we sell to our organisations.

What we sell is what is enhanced by adopting UX processes. The value we bring:
  • Money saved
  • More revenue
  • Better customer satisfaction
  • The risk avoided
For senior colleagues UX isn’t about being nice to users. It has to be about revenue and reputation.

We’re not going to get far by talking about usability and personas and wireframes and experience maps. That’s for workshops at conferences such as this.

And at senior level, there’s perhaps a perception that we just need to recruit the right people. When actually it’s not so much about the people as the culture and the processes we go through in design and management.

@mike_mcconnell tweet

A slight aside now. Let me tell you about a system at the University of Edinburgh. It’s called the DRPS which stands for Degree Regulations and Programmes of Study. It is the central web resource for information on courses and degree programmes. And it’s not very nice to use. For students or the staff that support them. We offer very flexible degrees, but our students often found course selection difficult and/or confusing due to the limitations of the available information.

So a couple of students studying Maths set out to make it easier and developed a system they called PATH. And it proved so popular it was taken on by their school. And it’s since been taken on by Information Services and is being scaled up to ultimately cater for all students. It’s very popular with both students and staff.

@mike_mcconnell tweet

@millaraj tweet

So did we just get lucky there? Did we stumble upon a couple of genius designers?

Yes we were lucky to have a couple of talented, proactive students whose motivation was to address their own need. And it has since evolved in such a way that it could be shared and scaled.

But genius?
Jakob Nielsen (amongst others) has written about the myth of the genius designer. 

What we got is a product that happened to be developed by the target audience. It happens.
Jared Spool wrote about this - Actually, You Might Be Your User (an article on uie.com).

But as I said, there may be a perception out there that we just need to get the right people in. The genius designer – someone who’s done something great somewhere else. Or better yet, consultants.

I’m not saying we don’t need talented, experienced people. I’m also not saying that there isn’t a place for consultants. But for anyone, however talented, to have a real impact processes and organisational culture has to be willing to move.

@DuncanBSS tweet

Is higher ed really that different to other sectors?

I was at the UX Scotland conference a few weeks ago, and as I was talking to delegates and listening at sessions I was thinking about the question I had posed myself for this session.

I perceived that things were so much better UX-wise in other sectors. Because of all the jobs being advertised, because every time I go to events in Edinburgh there are UX people from just about every financial sector company there as well as the consultants. Even in the national and local government sectors there’s such a lot happening these days.

But what I heard and saw was that yes, organisations in other sectors are further down the line than us. They’ve got UX teams established. But they’re battling too. Despite an executive somewhere stumping up the money to establish a team they’re still finding their place in the organisation, fighting their battles in siloed cultures, taking the wins where they can get them.

So while I’m envious of what’s happening in other sectors, the big takeaway from the conference was that doing UX in big organisations is hard. And real change and big success only comes with some serious endorsement from on high.

Paul Boag was talking about just getting on and doing stuff under the radar; bringing about digital culture change at grassroots level. And I’m completely supportive of this. It’s what I’ve been doing myself for years in one way or another. The example of gov.uk building an alpha release in a matter of weeks, testing and evolving, is absolutely the way to go. But seeing that through into real change on an ongoing basis has taken support from the very top.

The higher education sector is different to other sectors. But it’s not that different.

How can UX practices flourish in higher ed?

UX flourishes in mature markets where there’s not a great deal of differentiation between competitors’ products. That’s not going to happen right across our sector, but in places where supply exceeds demand, or to differentiate from your institutional peers perhaps, a culture of UX management can really take root.

@mike_mcconnell tweet

And if we think about the trend towards online distance learning I think it’s highly likely that UX will become a differentiator. A worldwide market, less familiar with who we all are, international students looking first and foremost for a UK university degree, checking forums to see what students are saying about a particular product…

Opportunities for online learning are potentially disruptive too. Think about MOOCs and professional development courses offered by a whole range of new providers in the marketplace. We only have to look at the banking sector and what has happened since in-person banking began to decline. Could you have imagined supermarkets or new start-ups entering the sector and gaining a strong foothold just 20 years ago?

Disruptive events in the sector are potentially not far away at all, and with online provision comes the opportunity for scaling up delivery and the requirement for self-service. And of course UX is so important to achieving these things. Could your institution find itself being the Blockbuster Video of the higher education sector, missing the point entirely as new entrants like Netflix leave them for dust?

Perhaps that critical mass required for senior colleagues to tune in isn’t so far away.

We’ve got the same humps to get over:
  1. Recognise that we have customers and prioritise them as such.
  2. Appoint people accountable for managing the user experience; joining it up across the silos.
  3. Establish what we want from and for our customers. Share this vision throughout the organisation so everyone knows how to play their part. And incentivise great UX.
  4. Measure and improve and measure and improve. Forever.
@WebSol_UniKent tweet

@mike_mcconnell tweet

When UX is part of an organisation’s fabric – not treated separately – it’s core to the business. Like it is at Amazon, Apple, IKEA…

And I think perhaps IKEA is a good customer experience on which to model what we need to achieve for our students. I bought a kitchen a couple of years back from them, and not from one of a number of other providers of similar quality products that cost roughly the same. What then made IKEA different?

It was no one thing, but a whole load of big and little experiences that kept me and my family engaged. The kitchen design app that my wife found easy and engaging and played with for hours. The café breakfast and free wifi that helped drag me to the store to browse over numerous weekends. The little trolley that kept my 4 year old son entertained. And many more things besides.

Now imagine if we were all managers of the various services that go together to make the IKEA experience, like we are all managers of services that go together to make the student experience. Do you think IKEA achieve their experience by having a load of mini-businesses operating semi-autonomously and prioritising their activity according to metrics they’ve set themselves? Of course not.

@Siteimproveuk tweet

So maybe we’re not really talking about UX strategy at all, really. Jeff Gothelf said:

“…there is no such thing as UX strategy. There is only product strategy.”
Read Jeff Gothelf's blog post on UX strategy 

There are lots of organisational UX maturity models out there. The one I'm using today is from johnnyholland.com (See: Planning your UX Strategy, an article by Renato Feijo)

So where are you? Where is your team? Your parent organisation? Your university?


  • I think the University Website Programme is pretty solidly at 3.
  • The Programme is part of Information Services which is perhaps at 2 in small pockets, but in many areas still at 1.
  • And the University as a whole, you’d have to say 1.

So back to my question – what’s with UX in higher education?

Is it that UX isn’t perceived as a differentiator yet?
Possibly, but that’s changing. And in some areas that rate of change is going to be quite dramatic, quite soon I think.

Is it that the nature of the product is such that customers tolerate poorer UX?
Maybe; students aren’t likely to switch to a degree at a competitor institution but they are going to talk about you. What if your business model involves repeat trade? Why wouldn’t you want your best undergrads to stay on at postgrad level after all?

Is it because it’s just too hard?
Do we need higher education UX Woodie Guthries and Thomas Edisons to get where we need to be?
No. Joined up thinking across semi-autonomous business units is possible. Our grassroots endeavours achieve things on a unit-by-unit basis and collaboration across units happens organically when there is sufficient mutual benefit.

The growth in UX management and service design is not going to tail off. It’s not going to fade away because it’s about empowering users. And empowering users is essential to effective self service.

We need to keep on working at grassroots and weaving UX techniques into the projects we have the remit to shape.

We also need to keep on shouting about our victories however small, and the tangible benefits we bring. We also need to understand and communicate where we fit into the bigger picture. Because to achieve the real cultural change that is absolutely essential for future success, what we are going to need a bit of vision and will at a senior level (maybe not quite Edison's inspiration), and a lot of perspiration all round to see it through.

Feedback from conference attendees

28 people provided feedback on my talk. It scored 3.8 where the scale was the scale was 5 (Excellent); 4 (Very Good); 3 (Good); 2 (Poor) and 1 (Very Poor).


  • "Wanted to know more! Was very good!"

  • "Good presentation with some useful insights and examples of a mismatch between online UX and real-life which I have returned to [my university] telling people about."

  • "Really enjoyed the UX presentation, just wish there had been longer!"

  • "Interesting and relevant to me."

  • "Practical and entertaining too."

  • "Again - a beacon for HE to sail towards; particularly in terms of content delivered to our existing students; who seem to be a rather neglected bunch (a good subject for a future talk perhaps: all our web resource seems to be thrown at prospective students)..."

  • "I felt the talk was more of a discussion / exploration which was in itself interesting."

@afanofthebard tweet

@rossferg tweet

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