Taming Higher Education’s Digital Wild West: The Value of a Centralized UX Strategy Plan
Consistent UX strategy will take your organization to next-level success online. But getting decision makers on board is easier said than done in the decentralized world of higher education.
Digital experiences for most universities resemble a vast, lawless territory where divisions, offices, and even individuals act as sovereign entities who do as they wish, for better or — more often — worse.
If you have any responsibility for a university’s digital properties, you know how it goes: Thousands of people with varying levels of digital expertise across your organization make interactive decisions all day every day without regard to consistency, UX best practices, university branding, or any other standards. Over time, this has turned your university’s digital landscape into an unpredictable Wild West of interaction and experience.
You know this is bad — for your users, for your university’s bottom line, for your digital team’s sanity, and more.
What you need is long-term UX strategy that sets forth standards for user experience across your university’s digital properties, no matter who owns them. But at a higher education institution, implementing this kind of plan is much easier said than done.
The Decentralization Problem
At most higher education institutions, almost nothing abides by broad-spectrum standards, especially areas that don’t pose immediate compliance or legal risk to the organization. There are some exceptions, of course. But for the most part, decentralized autonomy is the name of the game.
That decentralization — of decisions, responsibilities, tasks, you name it — is the enemy here, allowing for so many digital content creators and development teams heading in just as many different directions. But decentralization is also the way a university or any organization of large scale can get anything done, maintained, updated, decided, pushed forward, etc. You’re not going to magically centralize your institution overnight. Nor probably would you even want to.
To get around the problem of decentralization and attempt to offer a somewhat consistent experience, many universities’ digital teams spot fix high-traffic, top-level screens. With this model, things fall apart as soon as you click through to any deeper screen, which usually is exactly where you need to go to find vital tasks and information.
If you want highly a successful, engaging digital experience that instills confidence in your university’s prospective and current communities alike, you need to get the wheels rolling toward an official university-wide UX strategy plan. Start by building a case that UX strategy is valuable and even necessary for your university’s success online.
Getting Buy-In for a University-Wide UX Strategy Plan
Decision makers at higher education institutions weigh whether to support a new way of doing things based on measurable proof that it will benefit the university’s overall business and operations. Make your case for a long-term UX strategy plan by setting yourself up to collect numbers and data that show its worth.
The following six areas are places where you can begin — as early as today — to gather evidence that will show your higher-ups the extreme value of investing in good, consistent UX at the highest level.
In the process, you will likely make inroads and improvements to your university’s overall digital experience long before you get support for an official UX strategy plan.
1. Make a First Draft of Your Plan
You won’t write and polish a perfect draft of your plan in one sitting or a single day. It will take time and likely efforts from stakeholders outside of your team to create a comprehensive UX strategy plan. Get a start on it now, though, to give your efforts structure and your data a place to live.
If you do no other work on the actual plan document right now, identify existing issues stemming from poor user experience across your university’s digital properties. Document the risks associated with each issue, the improvements needed to make the issue go away, and how success of those improvements should be measured. This will prepare you to make and measure these improvements yourself as you go forward.
2. Measure Where You Stand Today
Once you’ve listed out the UX issues and the ways they are negatively impacting your university, probably the first time anyone has ever done such a thing at your organization, you are ready to put some current numbers to them.
For instance, if you’ve identified that your higher education institution simply has too many web pages that are abandoned, inaccurate, or broken, you might decide to document the following:
- Current total number of web pages under the university’s domain
- Approximate number of units and/or individuals that own and maintain digital content for the university
- A list of the disparate tools or platforms used (to your knowledge) at the university to create digital content
- Screen shots of outdated or abandoned websites and web pages under the university’s domain
- Any other metrics that you know a consistent UX strategy will improve
By measuring where things are now, you’re setting yourself up to portray a very clear before-and-after picture, a powerful tool for persuading other teams and higher-ups that a long-term UX strategy plan is valuable and even necessary.
3. Start a UX Standards Document
You likely already have UX standards set within your digital team, and that’s why you care that others don’t follow them. But if you haven’t officially documented those standards yet, the time has come to do so.
Carefully define the UX standards your team uses and any corresponding user interface components. As you go, evaluate your UX and UI practices to make sure that they will be successful for the rest of the university’s digital properties. For instance, if one of your standard practices requires a design wizard to pull off, other teams probably won’t be able to replicate it. Keep standards simple and without room for interpretation, even if that means modifying some of the standards your team has set to ensure they are easy to duplicate elsewhere.
Before you unleash these standards to those outside your team, also consider if there is any room to condense your standards into fewer options. Too few choices and other teams won’t have enough flexibility to present their content. You’ll get pushback when you try to implement these standards. But too many choices will cause uncertainty about what component or widget to use when. This can lead to its own type of consistency and undo some of your good work.
Here again you can and should work with an eye to metrics. Identify the benefits that your UX standards will offer and how you can measure them. For example, consistent button and link standards might lead to greater certainty for users and aid in their decision-making. If a button or a link always look a certain way, people know what they can click and how to take an action. You can measure these to know if it is working:
- User path toward a particular task
- Engagement numbers for a given page or task
- Percent completion of a particular task
- Support call or email volume
- User feedback
You may need to set up some measurement tools to get these numbers, such as analytics, user testing (see number 6 below), call center interviews, surveys, etc. Prepare for this as you identify what you will measure and make sure your tools are in place before you continue.
Once you have your standards set and know how you will measure their success, you are ready to find others who will help you start to gather your evidence.
4. Seek Out Allies
You’re surely not the only person who understands the toll an inconsistent, unreliable digital experience is having on your university’s day-to-day operations and bottom line. Find the other people who have noticed too. Get anecdotes, horror stories, and frustrations from them and their end users. Continue to identify metrics and measure everything you can before making changes.
Then, work with your newfound allies to incorporate their feedback into your evolving standards documentation. Apply these standards to the screens your allies’ departments or offices own and maintain. A month or two after implementation, measure the data again and note progress. Use measurable improvements in your allies’ experiences as mini case studies to prove the value that a common UX strategy could provide to the university as a whole.
5. Prioritize Screens
Identify which of your university’s screens have the highest traffic, deepest importance, and most impact. You can do this by looking at analytics and mapping out the most common paths different types of people take: Where they go, what they are trying to do, what tasks they must complete successfully, etc. Consider seasonal trends too — much of your university’s digital content will be more important at certain times of the year than others.
Create a list of these prioritized screens, making sure to list deeper screens under top-level navigation that contain major tasks or important information.
Identify which of these screens are most in need of UX help and seek out more allies in the divisions or departments that maintain them. Make UX improvements everywhere you can in collaboration with these allies, using your UX standards. Then, once again, measure, measure, measure.
Soon, you should have a nice trove of mini case studies to bring to your manager and your manager’s managers.
6. Do a Little User Testing
User testing will serve as an extremely useful tool while trying to convince decision makers of the need for a university-wide UX strategy plan.
This user testing does not have to be involved and complicated. As best you can, identify a handful of representative users to try and complete tasks related to high-traffic or high impact screen that really needs UX strategy assistance.
Observe users as they try to complete the task. Record their screen and their face at the same time while they narrate out loud what they are doing, what they’re expecting to happen, and where they run into trouble. Document what happens. How many people succeed? How long do they take? What UX problems do they encounter?
In other situations, you would do a more robust, time-consuming, expensive user test. What you’re aiming for with this exercise is objective proof of real people’s struggles. You want data to show to decision makers at your university, and qualitative feedback straight from the mouths of users just might seal the deal. It’s hard to argue when a real person interacting with your digital experience names the problems with it.
When you present your findings and proof to higher-ups, include a short highlights reel of the most frustrating moments that people encountered during the test. Identify how your UX standards could make that frustration go away, if only they were part of a plan implemented across the university.
The Wild West Wasn’t Tamed in a Day
You are starting out on a long and dusty road. Advocating for a centralized set of standards in an institution decentralized to its very core will not be easy.
Gathering proof of your UX strategy plan’s value will take time, as will convincing your university’s decision makers that this is a necessary effort that requires an allocated team, budget, and other resources.
Don’t throw up your hands in defeat. Even your first steps will go far toward improving your university’s overall user experience. Every little bit helps your users, your university’s daily business and operations, and your ultimate goal of an official, central, university-wide plan for UX strategy.
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Our team has been doing the real work of user experience since the early days of the commercial web. We’re out to make your digital products a whole lot better.
Even when it requires the digital equivalent of an Old West shootout to get them in line.