User experience, customer centricity, human design, and customer experience – call it what you like, it’s all the same thing. Regardless of the buzzword prefix, I can almost guarantee that you have sat through a presentation, read a research paper or maybe stumbled across a blog like this one talking about UX over the past year.
But what about user experience within higher education, how much have you heard about that? I’d hazard a guess to say not enough. A quick, albeit rudimentary, search on LinkedIn tells me that there are over 127,000 individuals who have UX as part of their job title – filter this by industry and there are just 480 individuals who have a UX related job title and work in higher education.
Considering that there are over 4,000 colleges and universities in the US alone, this seems like a surprisingly low number. And I am not the only one to have noticed this. Neil Allison, user experience manager at the University of Edinburgh, has talked about this in the past, citing the lack of colleagues he has across universities in the UK. Why is this number so low? Is UX just another fad, a buzzword, or is the higher education industry missing a trick?
Not a fad
While some buzzwords and online trends will come and go, the art of user experience may evolve; but with an increase in online content, expansion of websites and increasing expectations of your users, it will only become more important – particularly within higher education, where content is invariably plentiful across different faculties, research areas and expert contributors.
Serving a vast amount of users, your website is no longer just the window to your institution; it is the office, the filing cabinet, the information stand, the library, and the shop. Your website might need to be able to connect a prospective student with academic program information, a professor with their course notes, a current student with a timetable, a parent with information on tuition fees, and a journalist with a press release — all at the same time. Your website needs to be everything to everyone, which is a lot easier said than done.
What makes this more difficult is that as users we have become accustomed to exceptional UX experiences from big brands such as Amazon, who have benchmarked our expectations.
Create a thoughtful user experience
Although Amazon has thousands of products, with millions of variations, it never takes me very long to find what I am looking for. Once I have found my product, I have full transparency over reviews, shipping times, specifications and even recommendations about complementary products or alternatives. All the information I might want, in one page and after one click. I feel informed enough to make a decision, which leads me to complete my purchase – clever UX design.
So what can the higher education industry learn from websites like Amazon? The answer is a lot. Although you will have more varied user personas, and conversions are not the ultimate goal for every user, the same principles of providing all the information a user might be looking for in one place will set your institution apart, add value to your visitors, and in the case of sign-up’s of prospective students, increase conversions.
A visitor to your website who is interested in studying a degree in psychology may not be aware of the more specialized courses within that field, so make sure they get a comprehensive view of what is available to them.
When was the last time you had a conversation about you website and considered how informative it was to a potential student? You might already have great content, but how easy is it for a visitor to find what they are looking for — is it one click, or is it ten clicks? Compare this to how easy it is to find information on Amazon and you can begin to understand the effectiveness of your UX design.
Put your user first
Putting yourself in your visitors shoes is key to ensuring that your website achieves its ambitions of serving all, but is ironically one of the reasons why your institution may not value investment in user experience.
Institutional websites are often multi-managed and expansive. Sometimes the decision maker can be so far removed from the needs of users that an investment in UX is seen as unnecessary, often being confused with a marketing budget — but these are two very different things.
The next time the subject is discussed, or you are told that improving UX isn’t a priority, remember this great quote from user experience expert Whitney Hess – “Advertising is about getting the customer to love the company. UX is about getting the company to love the customer.” You work hard to get your audience to love you, so make sure it’s reciprocal.