Last night we conducted a focus group for an app we have under development, an online replacement for our printed Undergraduate Bulletin. As the last bulletins to be printed have come off the press already, there’s excitement mixed with urgency in the project. We’ve got to get it substantially right, and right away. The best way to determine if you’re on the right track is to ask, and we had a unique opportunity to ask in dozens of different ways last night courtesy of some generous and brilliant UNL students.
In the Background
In between attending this year’s High Ed Web conference (Mark Greenfield’s ‘The Kids are Alright’ session and a subsequent UNL-Greenfield conversation on the airport shuttle created a particular itch in my brain), picking up a new copy of The Cluetrain Manifesto at Mark’s urging (the 10th Anniversary Edition has been rewritten and recalibrated), and conducting last night’s focus group (along with Seth Meranda and Meg Lauerman), I am more convinced than ever that we are out of step with the students we are here to serve.
Institutions Care About Different Things Than Users Do.
Where does the institution perceive value in an online environment? For too long, the institutional point of view has trumped the user perspective when considering the overall perceived value of the software platforms that make a university go. “This is where the data goes” is more important, seemingly, than “this is how the user experiences her interaction with the data.” For many of the academic enterprise’s administrative systems, the systems that manage financials, student information, hiring, etc., it doesn’t matter so much. Because many of those systems’ users are employees. While substandard UIs might affect their productivity and job satisfaction, and may cost the university in terms of lost efficiency, employees are more likely to value their paycheck over the annoyances of bad interface and experience.
Broadly, those experiences with substandard interfaces result in employees who, in the end, don’t expect much from user experience. That would be sad enough in itself, but for its unintended consequence: decisionmaking bodies composed of people with low expectations for user experience tend to breed more systems with bad, even user-hostile, user experience. Restated, substantially all of the people in decisionmaking positions regarding computer systems in the university are employees who are used to wrestling with the often-byzantine user experiences of our enterprise apps. Is it a stretch to suppose that all of the figurative toe-stubbing endured dealing with those systems over the years has left most of the decision-makers a bit exhausted, perhaps jaded where online user experience is concerned?
Students expect more and they expect better. And it’s not because they’re cranky.
Our university’s fundamental mission of education involves engagement with a user population that is dramatically different where their user experience expectations are concerned. They have very high expectations, and they are not casual about them. What is expected is expected, and if it is not there, that unfulfilled expectation turns to disappointment.
Consider that incoming students in the fall of 2009 were already born when the web was invented. Their favorite games as children were likely played on computers, through engrossing and fanciful user experiences that rewarded exploration. Mosaic, the first graphical web browser, was spreading around the net before they reached kindergarten. The ‘net is not a second language to them. To them, the Internet is and has always been. They have used computers, have communicated and interacted through computers, all of their lives.
The powerful upshot of all of this is that not only do they respond to what’s presented in a focus group, they know what’s possible (or, at least, what should be possible). They instinctively ‘get’ that data can come from multiple sources and be presented in a single optimized interface. Every day, they see it happen across their data landscape, with YouTube videos showing up in Facebook, mashups between Flickr and Google Maps, and on and on. And not only do they know what’s possible, they know what they want, and they recognize the sometimes huge gaps between what they want and know is possible and what they have. It’s the “can’t have it” gap.
In last night’s focus group session, students described the schizophrenic process required each semester to simply continue their enrollment at the university. One described the three windows that he, every enrollment period, painstakingly arranged on his computer screen. On the left, a display of his degree audit report. At center, the PDF of the undergraduate bulletin. On the right, the Schedule of Classes. Copying and pasting data between all three, preparing a list of call numbers to be entered into the enrollment system at the designated hour of 8 a.m. It was no surprise when the entire group responded to the question “should we integrate all of this?” with a resounding “yes!”
Every focus group yields good intel; you invariably leave smarter than you arrived. But last night’s was remarkable for its yield of Things We Hadn’t Thought of Yet. One student spoke up and asked if he could have a weekly calendar displayed, blocking out the various course times as they selected them in the Schedule of Classes. An honors student wanted the system to know, by user authentication, that she was an honors student, and to highlight Honors sections. All wanted ACE (Achievement-Centered Education) data to be pulled in and displayed alongside the course descriptions. Students want that data integrated, presented friction-free in one interface. They expect us to bring it to the surface. They don’t care that it comes from seven or eight different databases likely run by the same number of university departments. They don’t care about that at all.
For now we’ll deliver all that is within our control to deliver for Undergraduate Bulletin 1.0. There is a gap between that first generation of the Undergrad Bulletin online, to launch in late spring 2010, and the second version that would integrate data into an optimized user experience. It’s the difference between what we envision and where our systems are now, what departments “own” the relevant data and who they trust to display it.
The “can’t have it gap” is a vulnerability. Because while it persists, there are others that are delivering. How much quality user experience affects recruitment and retention is anyone’s guess. But until we meet students’ expectations across a whole range of user experience of which the enrollment process is but a small part, we are vulnerable by comparison to competitive institutions and enterprises that have a comprehensive strategy to optimize their online student experience.
A friend of Doc Searls’ gave The Cluetrain Manifesto its title with this quote, about a Silicon Valley tech company that had fallen on hard times: “The clue train stopped there four times a day, and they never took delivery.”