What is UX design, and how does it benefit higher ed?

What is UX design, and how does it benefit higher ed?

By Mariana Cavalcanti on Tuesday, May 29, 2018


Today’s tech-savvy students have high expectations of what a digital experience should offer, and they inevitably bring those expectations to campus. Every online interaction they have with your institution—from applying to enrolling to registering and beyond—leaves an impression.

These days more than ever, those impressions matter. In the face of rising student standards and increased competition, user experience (UX) has become a vital area of focus for colleges and universities seeking ways to attract and retain more students.

But a well-designed UX doesn’t only benefit students—it helps faculty and staff, too, delivering a smoother, more efficient work experience that saves time and effort. And it can confer real competitive advantage on institutions that understand the importance of offering modern technology.

The evolution of UX in higher ed

UX is an approach that puts users’ needs at the center of the product experience, making each interaction easy-to-use and in sync with their goals. It requires deep understanding of user behavior, and thoughtful execution to help users seamlessly accomplish their tasks.

At Ellucian, we take this approach even further. When we design, we consider factors like time, location, and personalization—all of which must be addressed in order to deliver quality experiences that are parallel to the best digital experiences.

In the higher ed context, this means applying user-centric design processes to develop new technologies that improve the student experience in particular. A campus is complex ecosystem—and that brings a lot of challenges for students, who often have to log into five, six, even seven different systems to complete various tasks. Our goal is to facilitate making everything really simple and easy.

What kind of experience does a good UX deliver?

Above all, a responsive and connected one—and these days, that means one that was designed with a mobile-first approach.

Mobile-first means that we design for a level of simplicity, so users can complete tasks on their phones efficiently and without friction. The elements of touch, ergonomics, locations of buttons on cell phones—all these things are considered, along with the ability to complete tasks quickly. No one wants to struggle through a complicated task or wait for a heavy download when working on a smartphone.

A good UX, then, eliminates obstacles that stand in the way of the efficient execution of a given task, and helps users move from one to the next without any extra steps. Once a student logs in—ideally once, using single sign-on—she should be able fulfill all her tasks seamlessly, from any device, whether registering for a class, checking her grades, or scheduling time with a professor or counselor. Only mobile allows for this kind of anytime/anywhere access, which many of us now rely on for convenience.

Ultimately, every campus-related task should be facilitated through one cohesive experience, and mobile really helps with this bridging. We can include elements that make students’ lives better—for example, something as simple yet useful as real-time bus schedules or the availability of computers at the computer lab. By merging digital and physical experiences, we allow the campus itself to be connected.

Meeting expectations

As a software and services provider that partners with higher ed institutions serving nearly 20 million students, Ellucian incorporates multiple rounds of user testing and feedback into our UX design process. Our conversations with users make it clear: students care very much about the tech-forwardness of their institutions. In fact, 87% of students in a recent survey said that a school’s tech savviness was an important factor in their decision to enroll.

I recently spoke with a student who told me, “I’m coming here to learn and to be ahead of the game. I can’t be at a school that’s behind.” He’s counting on the institution to bring him to the next level. Technology really is a key player now in decision-making by students, and they don’t want to be at an institution that doesn’t understand technology, because they don’t see how such institutions can help their future.

In a very real sense, a good UX can serve as a powerful competitive differentiator for institutions that want to stand out from the crowd. Mobile experiences are now the norm, and people’s lives aren’t compartmentalized. What they experience from their bank, from Google, from Amazon—where they can accomplish tasks easily—they bring those expectations to other industries. In higher ed, you’re not just competing with other higher ed institutions; you’re competing and trying to live up to the experiences and sophistication that you find in the consumer space.

And, of course, it isn’t just students who can benefit from the ease of use that a good UX delivers. Your faculty and staff members stand to gain, too, from a connected experience that makes their jobs easier, gives them more time for strategic work, and frees them for more meaningful interactions with students.

By improving online experiences for all users, UX ultimately helps colleges and universities create positive feelings about their reputation and institutional brand. Every interaction counts, and every user improvement adds up.

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About the Author

Mariyana Cavalcanti

Mariana Cavalcanti

Vice President at Ellucian

Mariana Cavalcanti, Vice President, Ellucian, leads the User Experience Design and User Research teams. She and her 30-person-team spearhead user-centric design processes to develop new technologies that improve the higher education student experience.