Category Archives: Communications

The UX of Learning and prospective students

I promised myself as part of my New Year’s resolutions to read more blogs, so this morning I’ve been catching up with some A List Apart articles. Taking a bit of a lucky dip approach I made some random navigation selections and happened upon The UX of Learning by Tyler Tate.

In, not a huge concidence, I attended Tyler’s talk on the same subject at the Content Strategy Forum 2011 in London. His ideas helped me to form some suggestions as to how we can help users within higher education websites learn as they browse – specifically prospective students.

Tyler Tate

Tyler Tate at CS Forum 2011, photograph by Rhiannan Walton

Tyler sets out seven learning-orientated tasks:

  • explore
  • re-find
  • organize
  • compare
  • annotate
  • monitor
  • collaborate

I won’t go into too much detail about each one, I’d recommend reading his article to find out more, but it’s interesting to think how these could be applied to improving user experience for prospective students.

Just like looking for a new car or phone, we don’t always have an exact idea of our needs and requirements when we first start searching. With so many different study choices available (thick and thin sandwiches, joint and foundation courses, part-time learning and distance programmes) we need to help new students to explore their options. Tate suggests that “browsing and flexible filtering options can expose users to serendiptious discovery”.

I know from experience that some courses appear in faculties or departments that you wouldn’t instinctively expect them to. Content is often organised in a fashion that is dictated by internal policy or structure.

Instead of forcing students to choose to browse courses by just department or faculty, perhaps we could widen the search to subjects of interest, length of course or availabilty of a placement year in industry. Would it be unreasonable to allow students to find courses depending on entry requirements or the courses they are studying at A Level?

How about being able to organise and save courses you are interested in? Would students appreciate being able to compare very similiar courses to find out what the key differences are?

I’d be interested to find out what kind of collaborative tools students use when it comes to deciding where and what to study. The Student Room and similiar sites have some excellent forums and these are pulled into the university profiles. What about ranking systems and allowing students to create bookmarks of courses they like and send them to friends and family to look at?

By engaging with information sources, students are making more informed choices – learning – as they go along. By exploring  prospectuses, reading reviews, searching online and seeking advice they are educating themselves – something we encourage them to do once they have arrived on campus.

If we help prospective students to learn more about their choices and options as they move through the myriad of information that we offer them, then chances are we’ll create better relationships with them. This might lead to some loyalty or leaning towards the university that encouraged them to learn long before they enrolled.

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New year, new content

So, here we are again. The first week of January and the majority of us have returned to work to clear away the remains of the mince pies and banish the boxes of chocolates from the office. It’s New Year’s resolution time, which means diets, exercise and giving up various temptations.

I started my diet early (last August) so I need to find a new resolution for this year. This morning whilst contemplating cleaning my dusty desk I began thinking about what resolutions I wanted to make about my work for 2012.

1. Be open to new content ideas

It’s hard when you work for the same client each day to not get used to writing in the same way, or using the same kind of content or layout for all the pages you work on. Formulaic content has to be the worst thing in the world. It’s easy to be lazy, but instead I want to spend time thinking about different ways in which I can get my message across, or present information in a better way for users. Currently we’ve been talking about info-graphics quite alot and I’ve seen some great examples. I love Apple’s pages about their environmental footprint.

2. Read more

I try to keep up to date with industry blogs and books but I know I’ve been slacking in the last few months. It’s so important to find out what other people are doing and thinking. I can’t profess to know everything – so how else will I learn? Will tidy up my Google reader and make an effort to read at least one blog article a day.

3. Engage with the community more

This year I’d like our team to be more involved with social media output. We’ve had some good successes in 2011 but it would be great to push that further. As a university it’s important that we communicate on common ground with all of our audiences. I think it’s time we explore further what that means for us. We need strategy and measurable goals, and to examine how we go about connecting our community.

I’m hoping that by starting small and giving myself a few achievable goals that I’ll get back into the January swing of things with a spring in my step and a glint in my eye. After all, it’s enjoying what we do that makes us all so passionate about doing it well.

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How reading a book made me think about reading online

This weekend I started reading Clout: the art and science of influential web content, written by Colleen Jones.

My initial thoughts (I’m up to page 82) are:

  1. I really should have read this already
  2. it smells nice (I’m a bookophile).

I’ve littered it with post-it notes already to remind me to go back and re-read some really interesting sections – and do some further reading around the points.

Something I have already talked about in the office was written as a sidebar. It was the heading that caught my eye:

Blasting the myth that people don’t read

If you aren’t familiar with Jakob Neilsen then you can read his article ‘How users read on the web‘ to get the main points, but he (and others) believe that users don’t read online. They scan.

I’ve never been entirely comfortable with this, I know that I do read online – and surely I can’t be the only one?

Collen points to the Poynter EyeTrack07 study that supports the idea that users read more deeply online than offline.

Erin Kissane puts it succinctly in her blog post on the subject, “people read on the web almost exactly the way they read anywhere else: they skim till they find what they need.”

I think the key difference here is the difference between skimming and scanning:

  • scanning implies speed but no depth
  • skimming is a precursor to delving in.

If no-one reads online then why do we bother with text at all?

I’m happy to agree with lots of points about the way we read online, however it’s important that the art of web writing still remains. It’s not just about bullet points and highlighted key words.

Depth of knowledge about our user and how our words can connect with them is key to creating quality, influential content that is read and understood.

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Box UK Hack Day

I’ve been asked to be part of the judging panel for a hack day in November. It’s not something I’ve had much experience of before but the premise of this event sounds good. One day to create something ‘for the social good’.

If you are a coder, developer, designer and feel like you want to give it a go then get in touch with them. Oh, and I promise not to go all Simon Cowell on you.

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Working with stakeholders

I’m lucky that I get to attend lots of conferences. They make me think, help me develop better skills and put me in a room with lots of people who all face similiar challenges to me. Recently I’ve noticed the same question keeps getting asked:

A wooden figure of an academic

Be nice...

“How do you work best with academics?”

The phrase appears to be code for ‘how do you work with people who don’t understand what you are doing – or why you are doing it’. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t apply to all academics and I’m also sure that (in my case at least) it can apply to working with anyone within your institution.

Personally, I don’t tend to work very often with academics. Mostly I work with internal departments like Recruitment and Admissions, the International Office and Student Services. I find the most important step of each project is to get full understanding and involvement from my stakeholders.

Just imagine, someone you don’t really know very well comes swooping into your office and tells you how they are going to save the day and ‘sort out your web pages’. Annoyed much? Well, I would be.

I’ve made pretty much every mistake in the book at some point, but I’ve also learnt from trial, error and practice. So here are my tips for working with stakeholders:

1. Know all your stakeholders

On one recent project I found out right towards the end that I had one stakeholder I wasn’t aware of. I now had to go meet this person, apologise for not meeting them before, and then try to get their agreement to let me finish the project on time. Being that the deadline was in a week and she hadn’t even seen the content at that stage this was clearly never going to happen.

I will never rely on other people to tell me who I need to speak to again. Go out and find out for yourself. The first part of any project should involve getting a list of your stakeholders and meeting them all.

2. Don’t dictate your strategy – ask for help to prepare it

It’s just no good striding into your first meeting with a group and letting them know your plans. You need to meet with them and talk and listen. Tell them why you want to undertake this piece of work. Let them know the benefits to them.

Then ask them what they want:

  • what are their goals for the coming year?
  • can the website goals tie into this?
  • what do they like/dislike about the current site?
  • where do they think things are going wrong/right?
  • what do they want from their website?

The list could go on, but hopefully you get the point. Finding out what your stakeholders think of the site can be invaluable in helping you to create a strategy for the project.

3. Understand that your stakeholder is the expert in their field

When we decided to redevelop country pages for international students our main stakeholders were the country managers in the International Office. Whilst I can list the key selling points for the University of Bath in my sleep, I’ve no idea what makes a Chinese or American student tick.

Referring to the country managers for content was invaluable. They could tell me which students were all about campus safety – and which ones just wanted to know how their subject ranked. Without this we wouldn’t have been able to create such targeted content.

4. Accept that sometimes you are wrong and learn to say sorry. A lot.

We all make mistakes. Mine involve sending emails to the wrong people, deleting content that turned out to be vital, and generally offending people when I thought that working in the web made me some sort of ninja.

Sometimes we get things wrong. All our ideas aren’t amazing. Be prepared to apologise when this happens and make sure you listen enough in the future to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

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