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Hearing about UX from Higher Education leaders – our latest UCISA UX Group panel discussion

With my co-chair Joseph Talbot from the University of Oxford, I chaired a UCISA UX Group panel discussion earlier this year to learn how key decision makers in UK universities perceive UX and make it happen in their institutions.

About the UCISA UX Group

UCISA is a professional body which exists to support digital practitioners in education in the UK. Its members include universities and higher education institutes as well as further education colleges and centres. UCISA supports its members in various ways, for example, working closely with technology and digital service suppliers in the education sector and also supporting the running of cross-institutional groups in specialist areas. The UX Group falls into this category. I’ve co-chaired this group since January 2021 and have been involved in it since its inception in July 2020.

Read more about the set-up of the group in my related blog post:

New UCISA Higher Education UX Community of Practice

Evolving our UX Group events – in line with what our attendees want

One of the best things about the UX Group is bringing UX practitioners from different education institutes together through our online events. We want to make our events the best they can be, and since the group began we have experimented with different formats. We’ve tried break-outs on Miro and Teams, we’ve had a guest speaker with a practical exercise and a Q&A, we’ve put call-outs for practitioners to present on particular topics (such as accessibility and user research) and we’ve ran panel discussions. At each event, we monitor topics, questions and reactions coming up in the audience and we seek feedback from all attendees, and we use this information to inform our future event planning.

An executive view of UX in Higher Education – the prompt

When we planned our events at the start of the year we reviewed what we had learned from our community and noted a recurring theme. Many of our UX practitioner members were able to share the great UX work we were doing in the context of projects and initiatives, however, they shared a feeling of disconnect from the bigger institutional picture. There was uncertainty around how to move from UX being tactical to strategic, so it could show greater value and have more impact driving a shift to user-centred ways of working, with the question of ‘how to get UX buy-in’ regularly being raised. Wed decided to address this in our event for May 2023.

Assembling a panel of executive leaders to hear from

We recognised the value of hearing from the people in senior leadership positions, who make decisions in our institutions, to give our community a fresh perspective on how UX can better make its mark and effect long-lasting change. Our panel included:

  • Anne Trefethen, Pro-Vice Chancellor (People and Digital), University of Oxford
  • Samantha Fanning, Head of Digital Experience, VP External Engagement & ISD, University College London (UCL)
  • Chris Condron, Chief Digital Officer, University of the Arts London (UAL)

Having compiled a list of possible questions for the panel, we reached out to members of our community to prioritise what they wanted to know from the panel. UX metrics, barriers to UX adoption, and change management were all up-voted which guided the direction of the discussion.

Points raised in the discussion

All three panellists shared insights into successes and challenges embedding UX in their respective institutions, and provided food for thought on how we as UX practitioners can improve the way we advocate for UX and push for positive change towards a culture of user-led digital design. Several points stood out for me.

Staff understanding of design processes plays a part in UX success

Anne Trefethen described a digital transformation initiative at the University of Oxford aimed at improving staff and student satisfaction with digital services. She spoke of building a ‘contract for change’ with staff to ensure they understood their role in building and shaping the technology they would ultimately use. She pointed out that, by being part of this process, staff could develop a better understanding of what was involved and could recognise that to achieve good UX design, compromises were necessary – for example simplifying processes and reducing the number of bespoke options in favour of more streamlined interfaces.

Agile and UX can work together – but it depends on the set-up

Samantha Fanning described how UCL had successfully adopted the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) with teams set up around products (not services) led by product owners in a range of portfolios across the business. This set-up was supported by the central digital experience service with functions like content design, user interface design and UX insight. The digital experience service had built some products which served as exemplars of good UX, however, increasingly this was achieved through the product or portfolio teams, with UX responsibility being devolved to these individual teams. Describing a different set-up at UAL, Chris Condron made the valid point that UX has to start somewhere, whether a single service, team or project, however, he highlighted the difficulties in sustainably achieving good UX when processes were adopted on a project-by-project basis.

Generic and specific UX metrics can be useful to measure UX impact

Anne Trefethen hoped that the University of Oxford’s investment in digital transformation would result in improved staff and student satisfaction scores. She also cited cost reduction (due to reduced support calls) and improved efficiency of typical tasks as measures of UX success.

One measure [of UX success] could be how much time we remove from the use of services. How quickly can staff put in their reports into particular services? How quickly can they get their expenses done? – Anne Trefethen, University of Oxford.

At UCL, Samantha Fanning described using the System Usability Score metric as a baseline for all the products. She also mentioned using a ‘pride in product’ questionnaire to assess usability and UX in products.

Good UX can show its worth by restoring trust in staff

All three panellists noted how investing in better UX had helped demonstrate a commitment to improving things to both staff and students. Samantha Fanning shared how UCL’s development of an app for staff – which used data connections to bring together their day-to-day admin tasks and aimed to alleviate them using older clunkier systems – had made life easier for staff and demonstrated to staff that their user experience worth investing in, and therefore just as important as the student and the academic experience.

We’re doing this for our staff. And we’re showing them the benefit of focusing on the experience – Samantha Fanning, UCL, referring to the UCL staff app

Procurement and ‘buy not build’ was noted as a barrier to UX implementation

Anne, Samantha and Chris all noted the difficulties in achieving good UX in systems and products that were supplied by third-party vendors. Configuring procured systems to achieve better UX at an institutional level ran the risk of making scalability and upgrades more difficult, and with every institution going through the same process, there was potential to work together to save work and influence vendors. There was also potential to learn about from bodies like the Government Digital Service about their approach.

How we talk about designing experiences matters

Several panellists emphasised the importance of ditching ‘design-speak’ in favour of talking about staff and students’ real-life experiences and perceptions of the digital products and services they use. Quotes illustrating the sentiment of using poorly-designed systems were a powerful way to persuade those at the top to push for more commitment to UX.

If we want to sell the power of UX and UX people to the organisation, don’t talk about UX, because noone’s really interested in anybody else’s discipline or tribe. Talk about the thing whoever it is you’re talking to cares about’ – Chris Condron, University of the Arts London

Listen to the recording and sign up to our mailing list

To hear the panel discussion in full, you can watch the recording (1 hour long) via the UCISA website (log in required)

Recording of an executive view of UX in Higher Education

If you’re interested in being informed about our future events, you can sign up to our mailing list  (via JISCMail)

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