By David Poteet, president NewCity
To celebrate 10 years of edUi, I’d like to reflect back on the last decade in our industry and share my observations of how we’ve progressed. I’ve never been a futurist, but I’ll also give some thoughts on what may be next.
In 2009, Virginia Humanities launched the edUi conference. It was the brainchild of conference co-founders Trey Mitchell and John Loy who saw the need for a conference focused on the human side of digital for educational and cultural institutions whose mission is helping people learn and grow.
You’d think that any organization whose mission is about people would be people-centered, but if you’ve worked in education, you know that folks make decisions every day without considering the real needs of the people they serve.
So, the edUi team made a conscious decision to focus on areas like UX, content strategy, UI design and front-end development that directly impact the human experience online. The conference has hosted well-known speakers and lesser-known, but equally excellent, leaders from among our institutions. We’ve attended every year and every year, we’ve gone home with new skills and fresh insight.
So, what difference have we made?
I’d like to highlight five places where I think we’ve made a real impact:
1. User research is an expected part of any serious web project.
In 2009, we were fighting to convince universities to invest in user research to inform their architecture and design decisions. Now, nearly every request for proposal (RFP) we see includes research as a foundation for strategy. In-house user experience positions exist where none did before. Institutional leaders value the market advantage that comes with human-centered design.
2. Content strategy has a seat at the table.
More than 15 years ago, Jared Spool’s firm User Interface Engineering demonstrated that 50% of usability problems are caused by the words we write (or don’t). But for years, content within higher ed websites was neglected, often relegated to people with no time or relevant expertise.
Around the time edUi started, several industry leaders began talking about the importance of content strategy—and more importantly—proving the power of user-focused content. We started pushing for better storytelling and vivid details to awaken readers’ imaginations. And, if nothing else, mobile has forced us to get serious about brevity and clarity.
Today, we’re finally seeing institutions invest in content as a valuable resource.
3. Signs of unity between marketing and IT
<rant>Putting the developers who support your web presence into a separate organization from the site architects, designers, and writers is one of the dumbest things I’ve seen in 25 years working with the web. Who says only IT people can manage developers? Marketing ends up having to fight for resources or do end-runs around IT to get things done, leading to technology decisions that are not in the best interest of the organization. IT develops a trouble-ticket mentality focused on putting out fires rather than moving the institution forward.</rant>
But, we see signs of change—more and more institutions are building unified multidisciplinary web teams. A new generation is blurring the lines between ux/design/writing/development. This is good, let’s keep going!
4. Responsive web design and accessibility have forced us to get smart about front-end frameworks and design systems.
A tremendous number of website redesign projects in the last decade have been driven by the need to make websites mobile-friendly and compliant with laws governing accessibility. While these aren’t the most strategic reasons for a redesign, they’ve driven a renaissance in smart, semantic front-end code that is easier to manage and re-use.
The same pressure has led UX architects and designers to create user interface patterns with variable options that can be reused to create a wide variety of templates and interfaces. Reusable design patterns mean reusable code patterns, which brings the time and cost down for building custom, dynamic, responsive, and accessible websites.
All of this sets the stage for what we hope will be a new era of sustainable, scalable digital infrastructure, but more on that in a minute.
5. Analytics are enabling institutions to make decisions based on real user needs and behavior.
Analytics have been important infrastructure since the dawn of the web. But a decade ago, few institutions were using this data to create better experiences for users. Mostly you just heard things like, “We get this many visits and page views per month,” or, “These are our top pages.”
We see organizations making tremendous strides in this area, relying on analytics to answer strategic questions about audiences, track goals, and prioritize improvements. The result is websites that target users’ needs and help them complete tasks, instead of serving as an exposé of an organization’s internal vision.
There’s still room to grow
Even with all of these great strides, these are five areas we think smart learning institutions will pursue in the next decade:
1. Brand strategy still ignores the impact digital experience has on brand perception.
Institutions are spending hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of dollars on brand strategy to be competitive in a changing higher ed landscape. Brand strategy is an important foundation for digital strategy. But in user tests, we’ve seen well crafted brand messages undermined in less than three minutes by a poor web experience.
Brand strategy and digital strategy need to be developed in concert, by experts who understand both. Without this, a rebrand results in little more than some new marketing content, a flashy new home page, and a template refresh. Dig deeper, and the only brand message coming through is, “We’re disorganized and our programs are pretty much the same as everyone else’s.”
2. Need for managing editor role
If content strategy now has a seat at the table, it’s time to talk about the need for an institutional managing editor. It’s crucial to have an executive director who can serve as a visionary leader of the web team. But just like newspapers, magazines, and other print publications, learning institutions also need a managing editor: someone who decides how to achieve the leadership’s vision and has authority to edit and direct the work of communication professionals in any department. They need to even be able to say “no” to deans!
In 2016, we conducted a study of content governance models at 64 higher ed institutions, both large and small. The schools with a full-time person in that managing editor role had better defined web standards, clearer lines of responsibility, and more focus on strategy.
3. Digital is not a utility service
We still see institutions, particularly larger universities, treating their website infrastructure like electricity or plumbing. Strategy is reserved for the central institutional website. They make sure everyone else has access to a CMS, standardized templates, and the brand style guide. But beyond that, individual units are on their own to figure out how to create effective websites.
The three main causes of this are:
- lack of vision from senior leadership,
- political challenges with wrangling all the players, and
- limited budget for funding the staff required to provide this level of support
Departments and centers need user research, personas, recommended architecture, content strategy, and standards for common content types like faculty bios, research articles, and degree programs. These subsections of your site are where your audiences spend most of their time. They need strategy, not just templates.
When departments devote resources to designing individual websites, they end up spending money on redundant research, services, and systems that could be shared with other groups on campus. Building an ongoing institutional strategy from the top down would save time and money for everyone, and deliver a more consistent user experience.
4. Consolidating infrastructure and analytics
Large institutions are still particularly prone to fragmentation, with various sub-unit sites running on myriad platforms. This represents tremendous hidden cost and security risks. The fragmentation also makes it difficult for anyone to see the whole audience experience.
But forcing everyone onto the same CMS with a limited set of templates isn’t necessarily the right path either. We’ve seen some reasonable compromises in offering choice and flexibility to groups on campus while still maintaining consistency. This might just be the Holy Grail of digital strategy in higher ed, and if we’re still talking about it 10 years from now, I won’t be terribly surprised. But we can hope!
At the very least, institutions need to architect their analytics solution so they can track the overall user experience while still providing each unit the visibility they need into their own part. This takes some planning and coordination, but it’s very doable.
5. Sustainability for digital
Institutions spend a lot of money on their websites and digital marketing campaigns. For more than 20 years, the common cycle has been to invest a bunch of money in a website redesign/rebuild, use it for three to five years, then throw it out and make something new. Sometimes the existing content management system (CMS) is kept, but if there are significant architecture and design changes, you still end up re-integrating the CMS.
Do we have to do things this way? After all, we don’t tear buildings down and rebuild them every five years. We think institutional websites can be more sustainable by relying on smart, modern development methods. These methods include:
- modular design systems and pattern libraries
- technical training/sharing of methods between in-house and external developers
- regular, iterative improvements based on data
- a template language that works with multiple CMSes
- version control
- pre-processors to ensure quality code with consistent structures
Always be a student
Education is changing in the U.S. We have to change with it. One of our mantras at NewCity is, “Always be a student.” For a decade, edUi has been an invaluable opportunity for myself and numerous other professionals to come together as students. And by sharing our collective knowledge, we’ve come a long way in these 10 years.
Stepping back to reflect on where we’ve been helps me learn and recognize how much I have yet to learn. I hope you found it relevant to your own experience.
Share your reflections in the comments, or look for us at edUi 2018. We’d love to talk about what you’ve seen and where we’re heading.
About the Author
David Poteet is the president of NewCity, a digital agency proud to have sponsored edUi every year since its foundation in 2009.