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What’s it like to work in UX in a university?

If you’re familiar with higher education, you’ll know that it’s a broad and varied sector. This is no more true than in a university as large, old and research-focused as Edinburgh. And supporting our university by working in user research and experience design in Information Services right now is a challenging and interesting prospect.

UPDATE: The positions available at the time this blog was written are no longer available. 

However, I’m always interested to connect with user research and service design professionals interested in joining the University. Our recruitment needs are evolving constantly; we’re a big organisation.

Find me on LinkedIn

Why write this blog post?

We’re recruiting. I want talented and motivated people with the right experience to want to come in and help shape the future of UX and service design functions in the University.

But we’re not perhaps the kind of organisation a UX professional first thinks of when looking for their next career step.

So I wanted to get away from the formal job spec and be open about the prospect of joining us. I’m biased of course…

UPDATE: Duncan Stephen writes about his experiences in his first year in post with us, working on content design and user research projects

…it’s an immensely fulfilling place to work. I have grown and learnt a great deal in a very short space of time…

Duncan Stephen

View of Edinburgh Castle through window

The view from our staff social area is pretty special

What’s good?

These are interesting times. We’re only a few steps into new territory so there are lots of opportunities to use your initiative , try new things and make a mark.

We may be relatively immature in terms of user experience culture, but this presents opportunities. The work we do tends to really make a difference across a varied range of business areas.

Because the organisation is broad, the diversity of work is too. We work with students and researchers at home and across the world, with academic and support staff, and a range of other audiences interacting with the University through a range of academic disciplines.

Just to give you a flavour of audiences involved in research that has been at least proposed in the past 12 months:

  • Students worldwide applying to our online masters degrees
  • Staff at all levels of the organisation producing and consuming business intelligence reports
  • Human Resources specialists across the organisation supporting the central service function
  • Outreach staff in developing countries involved in supporting access to research generated by academics across the European Union
  • Current students needing IT support on a day-to-day basis
  • Newly arrived students coping with their first few weeks away from home at university
  • Overseas students going through the visa and immigration process as part of their journey to joining us in Edinburgh
  • Software developers and project managers across the University who potentially would benefit from new centrally supported tools
  • The non-specialist web publishing community who maintain the University website through our corporate Content Management System
  • Academics who need support with the management of the data they generate through their research
  • Donors and alumni of the University

The list goes on. You get the idea…

And with over 30,000 students and about 10,000 staff in the city our target research groups are often close at hand. Recruitment is always a challenge in our line of work but I like to think that here it’s a good bit easier to access our users than in other sectors.

As an academic business, we invest in staff development so the opportunities to learn are everywhere. From networking and collaborating with colleagues, to open access to online learning with Lynda to conference attendance.

We have a strong grass roots interest in our discipline across the University’s communities of developers, editors, digital educators, marketers and so on. This has translated into a growing UX community of interest who are meeting most months and are keen to learn more.

Education is a competitive market, but it’s not competitive like, say, the finance sector. Collaboration across institutions is feasible as is using your experiences and learning as a basis for presenting outside the University. We’re proud of our profile in the higher education sector and like to talk about what we’re doing.

And the University is a good employer. Pay is competitive and transparent (see our salary scales), holidays are generous, we’re flexible and accommodating in our working practices and the pension is good.

More information about working for the University of Edinburgh from our Human Resources website

What’s challenging?

There are always challenges. It wouldn’t be interesting otherwise, now would it?

We’ve got a fair way to go to catch up in terms of UX maturity compared to commercial and financial sectors, so many colleagues still are yet to appreciate the value of a UX function. We can be seen as a nice-to-have addition, or the team who does interface design. So we can spend quite a bit of time explaining, promoting, demonstrating and explaining some more.

If you’ve worked in UX or service design over the past 10 years, this won’t be new to you. I want to work with people who have been meeting these challenges and have experiences to share. War stories – successes and failures – are important to keeping us moving forward.

Another challenge is the relative profile of our UX function at the moment in relation to our development methodologies. Formalisation will come – it’s a major focus for this coming (academic) year and why the evolution and embedding of our digital experience standards is so important. But right now, we could be thought of as an agency working in house.

Again, perhaps this isn’t an unfamiliar scenario for you. It’s how many UX teams start out – looking for opportunities, finding champions to work with and endorse us, bending our principles a bit to fit in with existing cultural practices.

Finally – and this is one challenge that will probably more be unfamiliar to seasoned UX, research and service design professionals – there is the challenge of the University’s culture itself. A 500-year old organisation with a world-wide reputation, filled with brilliant and innovative thinkers does not necessarily evolve easily or in a controlled, top-down way. But that’s what a university is, at its heart; a collection of brilliant people generating new knowledge and disseminating. And you can’t always put that kind of thing in a packaged box like a pension product or a sign up process.

But the patterns are there to be discovered, explained and worked on. We have massive initiatives happening at the moment around design of new services, large scale adoption of online learning at distance, blended learning, student administration and data warehousing amongst others. And of course UX and service design have a critical role to play in this. We just have to keep showing what we can do.

Find out more about our work

Our UX Service website is the best place to start. It’s here that we make our proposition to the University, and share case studies.

I’d also encourage you to explore the UX-themed posts in this blog. Here are a couple for starters:

Summary of our first year of the UX Service
Training colleagues in UX techniques

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