Are you really involving students in your design process?
Guy Carberry, 12 July 2021
Higher Education is all about students. To design an exceptional digital experience you need to understand student needs and expectations. Rather than speculate, bring students into the heart of everything you do. Let them participate and lead your research forward.
You may think that you are already doing this. You have UX designers, researchers, product owners and talk at length about User-Centred Design. You tell colleagues that you put students at the heart of your design process, but do you really?
What does involving students look like?
We often wax lyrical about putting students at the heart of our design process. But what does that actually mean?
A typical process will include spending time researching and empathising with your users. This should happen throughout the lifecycle of your project. Be it in the initial stages or right up before launching a change and beyond.
Are you able to identify where you are involving students in your user-centred design process? If it’s at every stage then things are looking good. If not, perhaps you are engaged in the ‘theatre of UX’? That is, convincing others in your organisation that you are ‘doing UX’ because you’ve created some personas and captured some positive sentiment from users? If you are simply filtering out negative sentiment and focussing on anything that helps you tell the story you want to tell you may need to be honest about what you are doing.
Intuition isn’t worthless - your lived experience is valuable. The key thing is to check that your assumptions hold true.
As user experience designers and researchers we are trying to develop services that students like to use. We can use our intuition to predict what students like but this is dangerous because we’ll often be looking through a very narrow lens of our own experience. Super-intuitive people who gather their insights by observing and understanding the people around them might have something of a knack for this but using intuition alone is a very risky strategy.
To help us be a little more objective and considerate about a wider variety of user needs we turn to user personas, profiles, and journey maps. These tools are incredibly effective at enabling us to empathise with the people who we serve, but we can do better than that!
One of the great things about Universities is that
- research is valued and essential - students are always researching something or other via a survey on Facebook
- students are willing participants in research
- students come from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. You can tap into this throughout the life of your research and design project.
Are you clear about why you’re doing this in the first place?
Why do you tell people that you put students at the heart of everything you do? Does it make your work feel more meaningful and authentic? Does it help you drive through changes that might otherwise meet opposition from stakeholders? Or do you have a deep-seated need to do the right thing? It’s important to take a step back and be as objective as you can about your own values and those of the people in your team.
Are you really listening?
Involving students in your design process means listening first and foremost. If you find yourself doing the majority of the talking, about your great ideas, then you’re not really involving students in your design process. When you ask questions, really listen and capture their answers, often you’ll hear things you didn’t expect or simply don’t want to hear.
What if the majority of students you talk to have a strong dislike of the wording you have used on your webpage? How do you handle that? Recognise where your ego is being triggered and try to remove your own opinion from the mix completely. When testing something with students that you are really proud of and they just don’t like it, be prepared to bin the idea. Keep it for your own portfolio by all means, but don’t push forward with your own vanity project and tell people that students are at the heart of your design process!
Dealing with objections
Product sponsors, owners, stakeholders and managers may well object to you spending so much time testing and evaluating ideas and concepts with users. You’ll need to find ways to overcome these objections to stay true to your values.
Here are a few common reasons for not engaging with students:
- Students are too busy
- Not enough budget to pay them for their help
- Students don’t know what they want or need
- You don’t like talking to students
- You or your stakeholders might not like what they say
- What students really want might be too hard to achieve
- Involving them slows everything down too much
- You are afraid of looking bad
You can probably add a few more items to this list! Spend some time thinking about how true these assumptions are and what you might be able to do to overcome them. For example, if you don’t like talking to students, perhaps you know somebody who would relish the opportunity? Maybe you could do with some coaching, development and training to help you remove some of these barriers?
Sometimes you might need to convince people that involving students will pay off. Here are a few ideas for you to use in discussions. See if you can think of what might resonate with your boss and make the case!
- You’ll be able to see how your designs look from multiple perspectives and lenses, including the real lived experience of people with disabilities and from different backgrounds
- You’ll catch critical issues early
- You’ll build trust and faith in your users and stakeholders
- You’ll be able to change direction before investing too much time and money into something that doesn’t resonate
- You’ll deliver something that meets organisation objectives and performance indicators, including those set by the Office for Students
- You can test your assumptions
- Helps you be more objective about solutions
- They will all need to access your services
- They will have very different experiences of your services!
- You can learn from them!
- Involve them throughout your design process! At any opportunity
- Particularly when you need to challenge your own assumptions
- Meeting student needs and expectations = happy students = good uni reputation
- Builds trust, enhances reputation
- Aids continuous improvement
Things you can do right nowThere are plenty of things you can do in absence of having students to involve, whilst waiting for approval from your boss. Here are some ideas:
- Speak to tutors, lecturers, and support staff about student needs and expectations. Even if you can’t get direct access to students, talking to the people who know them best will be the next best thing.
- Look through social media threads and forums to get a sense of the topics and themes that resonate with them and get them emotive. Try and empathise with them.
- Create surveys that hold all the questions you’d like to ask students. That way it’s ready to go once you have some students to survey.
- Plan codesign activities and workshops and understand what you hope to learn from them.
- Devise your ultimate user research toolkit: Card sorting, Tree testing, Usability testing, Accessibility testing and Diary studies.