Looking at UK university websites and student portals it’s clear that there’s a lack of user-centred design capability in the higher education sector.
Individual higher education (HE) institutions have mature design capabilities – I’ll highlight some examples later – but others seem to be muddling through without.
As someone who worked in marketing and corporate communications for many years, it looks to me as if many institutions are leaving this work entirely in the hands of marketing professionals.
This might make sense if we think of universities and courses as consumer products, and students as customers.
But if we think of them as public services, fulfilling a social need, it doesn’t feel quite right.
Shouldn’t we hold universities to higher standards around user experience? First, because they receive public funding. And, secondly, because they have a key role to play in social mobility.
If university services are not presenting information in a way that is accessible and inclusive, who gets locked out?
Serving the information people need
There’s a great cartoon from XKCD that shows a Venn diagram of:
- the contents of a typical university homepage (like alumni in the news)
- the information people need (such as a usable map of the campus)
Of course, the two circles barely overlap – only ‘Full name of school’ is in both.
This reflects the fact that university websites often have many functions to fulfil. And sometimes, those functions are at odds with each other.
On the one hand, they are a marketing tool. They need to appeal to prospective students and institutional partners, and support public relations.
On the other hand, they also need to work as functional information sources for prospective students, current students and university staff.
This echoes a more general tension between marketing and user-centred design (UCD) exemplified in the distinction between copywriting and content design.
The former is about catching the attention of customers and encouraging them to choose your product over the competition.
Whereas content design is about giving people the information they need, when they need it, in formats that are easy to digest and understand.
How many universities have content designers on staff? Not many, if conversations between designers in HE I’ve seen on LinkedIn are to be believed.
User journeys are rarely tidy
We know from successive rounds of research that university websites are a vital source of information for students choosing a university, per Erdil, Tümer, Nadiri, Aghaei, 2021:
“[Students] mostly rely on information sources produced and distributed by the university. In regards to the information sources, websites ranked as the most important source used by students to obtain information about higher education institutions.”
At the same time, a university’s website is unlikely to be the first or only place that people look for information.
Prospective students might start with Google, which will present user reviews alongside search results.
Those search results will usually include the university website but will also be laden with third-party review websites and aggregators.
Beyond the digital realm, students might ask friends and family, or use networks established by their school or further education college.
(I chose my university, in the days before websites, based on a firm steer from my further education lecturers, and on the basis of a single university open day I was made to attend.)
Current students might arrive at the student website only after they’ve failed to find the information they need from peers, or from university staff responsible for their pastoral care.
When it comes to things like accommodation, they might get information from letting agents. The NHS might be their first stop for advice on mental health. And they might learn about managing their finances from their bank.
Service designers use service ecosystem maps to identify the different systems, people, places and channels in a domain. They often end up resembling maps of distant galaxies, with overlapping ellipses and looping lines trying to show the numerous connections between entities.
What this means in practice is that by the time they reach any website, they’re very probably already frustrated and confused.
So, the faster you then resolve their query or need, the better.
Students as service users
A recent study of university websites published in the International Journal of Visual Design concluded that “most university websites do not include and involve students’ needs in the website design process”.
That doesn’t surprise me based on the informal survey of website I’ve been carrying out over the past couple of months.
Imagine you’re a student heading into the winter with worries about your mental health and personal finances.
On the website of the University of Bath, help and support is three clicks away from the homepage. The content becomes clearer and more businesslike as this journey progresses, too. I was reasonably impressed by this.
On the website of another West Country university (I won’t name and shame), the homepage has no obvious resources for current students at all, let alone support for those who are struggling.
There is, however, a huge aerial video of the campus, a lot of marketing copy that reads as if it’s advertising a bank, and some news stories about alumni appearing on TV.
This is much less impressive – and, sadly, typical.
Basic accessibility problems
I also found numerous examples of university websites with obvious accessibility problems in their designs.
Typical issues include:
- autoplaying video
- animated or moving elements
- important text concealed in images
- complex layouts
- heavy use of photography
- large, dominating header images
- animated carousels
These are all elements which can make web pages less accessible to people who use screen reading technology or have cognitive disabilities.
For example, carousels, which present a range of content in a moving section on the page, can be hard to navigate if you can’t see them. They can also be a problem for people who are distracted by movement.
Plain, plainer, plainest
It’s clear that many universities have embraced the idea of plain language. Most of the websites I’ve looked at were relatively clear and informal.
Many could be better, however. As a content designer, I found myself itching to make improvements in most cases.
For example, there are some long, flowery sentences, like this:
“Our stunning waterfront campuses make us a desirable location for students and staff from around the world, and our multicultural community provides a global perspective, enabling those who join us to develop skills and knowledge that set them on successful and enriching careers.”
I also found many instances of marketing language being used for headings, buttons and navigation links:
- “Our promises”
- “Ready to change the world?”
- “See yourself studying here at an open day”
- “Creativity in everything – discover our creative community”
In these cases, there’s no way to find out what a page might cover without clicking the link and finding out. It’s like 1990s ‘mystery meat navigation’ all over again.
Too many hamburgers
The majority of websites I looked at had particular problems around navigation.
This is partly because of the multiple jobs they’re doing, but also because not enough thought has gone into the information architecture and navigation structure.
In particular, there’s an over-reliance on hamburger menus – those three stripes that conceal navigation until they’re clicked on or hovered over.
The problem with hamburger menus is that they conceal information you might want users to spot at a glance. If people can’t see it, they won’t click on it. (Nielsen Norman Group.)
Other sites do have visible navigation but rely on hover-and-expand menus for sub navigation. I find these tricky to use myself and frustratingly unstable.
The rise of ‘student experience’
The growing focus on student experience is a step in the right direction.
My colleague, Emma Layton, is a digital consultant who has been working with and speaking to university digital teams recently.
She observes that a growing focus on student experience is a step in the right direction.
“We can see universities starting to join the dots between student services and their performance as businesses,” she says. “They need to attract students and the quality of the student experience is one way to stand out against the competition. Why would I choose this institution over that one as a place to study?”
In commercial environments, huge amounts of time, effort and money go into creating great customer experiences through websites, apps and other digital products.
Will students who have grown used to slick services in every other aspect of their lives, from online shopping to banking, put up with anything less from their place of study?
Some universities take design seriously
There are UK universities with mature design capabilities, and some brilliant designers working in higher education.
Newcastle University, for example, has a design system which appears to be derived from the UK government model (GDS). Designers steeped in GDS thinking might have some quibbles but, overall, it shows that design is being taken seriously.
Notably, there’s a clear stated commitment to user research with students, and testing of prototypes and digital products.
The University of Southampton’s OneWeb programme wrapped up in 2021 with the roll-out of a new website built on user-centred design principles.
This retrospective on the process by Ayala Gordon, Associate Director Digital User Experience at Southampton, highlights the depth of thinking and care involved. It also surfaces some of the tensions within institutions:
“This may sound obvious: only design, write, develop services and products that meet a real person’s needs. Over the last few months, I have witnessed a huge increase in the demand for my team’s skills at a particular time where everything feels urgent. ‘Getting pulled in different directions’ was one of the main themes in our team’s retro – something I also experienced first hand… Whilst we weathered the storm, I feel it is important to remind my colleagues across the University, who understandably sought fast solutions to complex problems, that (external) users who come looking for our services have a choice.”
The University of Bristol also takes user-centred approach as explained in this recent blog post by senior front-end developer Joshua Morris about its design system.
Getting user-centred design started
Starting a conversation about user-centred design in higher education institutions which don’t see the need is difficult.
It’s usually about finding a wedge to get the conversation started. An introductory workshop or training session, perhaps. Or a small, low-risk, low-cost project where the approach can be tested.
This is one way Sparck is already working with some UK higher education institutions.
There is also, of course, the human instinct to competition. What do the administrative decision-makers at Newcastle and Bristol know that your stakeholders don’t?