User-Centered Design for Higher Ed: Webinar Recap & Resources

min read

Article Artwork

Remember back in seventh grade when your friends didn't like each other and they tried to make you choose between them? You struggled because they each had good qualities that they didn't see in each other, but you did. Why couldn't they just all get along?

I think we have found ourselves at a similar juncture in higher ed. We have two friends who are great—efficiency and user-centered design—but they're having a hard time connecting. Here's the good news: we can do better than we did in seventh grade.

We've had a long relationship with efficiency, and it's just getting stronger as resources become more scarce. Budget cuts are real. Sky-high, middle-class eroding tuition is real. We don't have unlimited money (never mind that we could have a LOT MORE if we changed some of our priorities, but that's a different blog).

We have to make college more affordable. We can't afford to turn our backs on the demands of efficiency. Here's the thing: it's forcing us to neglect an important aspect of our relationship with students and other stakeholders. We need to be just as close to the concept of user-centered design as we are to efficiency, but there's an inherent conflict there. User-centered design isn't efficient. Or is it?

Getting Close to Users

In a recent webinar, we talked about the tools to really understanding our stakeholders and students. In order to truly grasp the things they want and need from us, we need to understand who they are, what makes them tick, what slows them down. According to this infographic:

  • People are on the internet an average of 27x a day
  • Most people won't watch a video longer than 4 minutes
  • People unlock their phones an average of 9x a hour
  • 80% of workforce learning is on the job via interactions with peers, teammates and managers (58.7% of the webinar found this to the most salient of these four facts)

This isn't the stuff an anonymous survey reveals.

The parent-supported, dorm-living, 20-year-old college student is becoming an exotic idea. The 25-year-old +, independent, immigrant/minority, working-with-a kid or two is becoming the norm. (See this blog about the characteristics of modern learners.) They share some (but not all of the same) needs and concerns.

Employers are absorbing these demographic shifts alongside massive cultural shifts, like expectations of flexibility, preference for certain benefits over salary, men taking paternal leave—the list is endless. Like the graduates they are expected to hire, employer stakeholders are not well understood by higher education.

In order to really bridge these gaps of understanding, we have to engage in techniques like:

  • Individual interviews to reveal nuance and detail around needs
  • Group interviews to uncover the extremes (including both positive and negative) regarding user experience
  • Immersion studies (using camcorders, journals and onsite embedded observation)

Based on the things we learn, we then take stock of what we do know about the challenges confronting our stakeholders and students, engage them in helping us to fill in our knowledge gaps, articulate potential solutions that we can prototype and then test those prototypes. You can check out the slides and recording.

Efficiency + User-Centered Design

Now, it's no secret that engaging in user-centered design costs money. When compared to our usual methods for designing programs (surveys or just plain guessing), it costs a lot more on the front end. Creating prototypes based on that information costs money (even small prototypes take time, talent, and money). And there's always the very real possibility of that the prototype with "fail" (i.e., produce a result that supports scrapping the idea instead of scaling it). Our relationship with efficiency can hardly tolerate these realities. It's enough to flat out stop most people from engaging in user-centered design processes.

Can we reframe this relationship so there's room for us to attend to both efficiency and user-centered design? We can, but it's sort of like ending world hunger. We have the means to ensure that every person on the planet has food, but it requires a certain mindset, different priorities, and a kind of will we haven't found yet.

The Right Mindset, Priorities and Will

It would be a lot easier to embrace user-centered design if our mindset did not view failure to scale as a bad thing. It's taken me quite a while to unlearn this concept that is hardwired into our educational system, but I can honestly say that I don't see failures anymore. I see all the things we learned and wonder how we can put those to use next time. It doesn't mean I'm not disappointed when the plans don't work as expected; I simply no longer let these disappointments take away from the valuable learning experience.

As far as priorities go, I say this all the time, so I'll say it once more: the best reason to engage in innovation is to meet needs and solve problems. It's not about "innovate or die," and it isn't about being cool or cutting edge. It's about being committed to helping people by meeting their needs and solving their problems. I've worked with a lot of administrators and faculty, from presidents to instructional designers to student success coaches to IT managers. Everyone in higher ed wants to help students. So this really shouldn't be hard. Let's put our money where our mouths are by committing to a process and way of engaging designed to do that.

Finally, there is the matter of will. You only have to do the process once and experience the value of it firsthand to see that user-centered design is actually efficient in the end. By revealing information that helps dictate whether to scrap or scale early in the game, we save money—potentially lots of it—that might have been committed to something that would ultimately fail on a big scale.

By building empathy between students, faculty, and administrators, we create an invaluable sense of alignment around mission and goals.  Once you've done it, the will to embrace new mindsets and methods builds itself. Efficiency and user-centered design are wholly compatible.

You really don't have to pick between your friends.

Holly Morris is director of postsecondary model development and adoption, Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC), at EDUCAUSE.