A California school dramatically improved its online interaction with students by hiding its back-end systems behind an elegant user interface that integrates them all.

human-centered-designWhen students have negative interactions with a school’s online systems, it hurts the brand and the bottom line—problems that are all too common in higher education. Luckily, there’s a relatively painless design fix.

Steve Jobs built a corporate empire around the concept that tech products should be elegant and easy to use. Unfortunately, higher education didn’t get the memo. Indeed, many university systems—from payment tools to registration and websites—often appear to be the work of vengeful bureaucrats, with more focus spent on the needs of the technology than of the students and staff who must use them.

The problem is most acute at large state systems, which often favor comprehensive solutions despite having incredibly diverse programs and student needs. But when students—and prospective students—have negative interactions with a school’s online systems, it not only hurts the brand but the bottom line as well.

The good news is that schools can often fix these issues without having to throw out their legacy systems and start again.

That’s what the Continuing Education (CE) division of California State University, East Bay, discovered when it embarked on an ambitious program to overhaul the user interface of its existing systems. The problem wasn’t the systems per se—it was the way students were forced to interact with them.

“We’re kind of big bureaucratic institutions and we focus so much on process that we have a tough time thinking that we have customers,” explained Dan Bellone, marketing director for CSUEB’s University Extension. “There’s a lot of competition out there. If you’re not customer-centered and not serving the needs of your prospective audience, you ‘re in trouble.”

To help CE recapture its customer focus, Bellone turned to Story+Structure, a Boston-based design and technology firm that specializes in what its founder, Chokdee Rutirasiri, calls “human-centered design.”

“Often folks focus mainly on the technology,” said Bellone of why Story+Structure’s approach appealed to him. “Instead, we focused on what type of experience we wanted to offer our clientele. Then we made the technology fit around that.”

A crisis in the school’s registration system served as the catalyst for change. While Bellone didn’t believe it at the time, it may have been the best thing that could have happened because it forced the division to act.

The crisis was precipitated when CSUEB decided to move all CE student data into PeopleSoft, which already handles CSU’s traditional student programs across its 23 campuses. “It makes sense to have one system of record across the whole campus supported by the IT department,” acknowledged Bellone. “But it created this really big issue for us around the registration process. When we moved into PeopleSoft, the system had been set up for traditional students, and it didn’t really make sense for our students.” It’s a problem, Bellone noted, faced by CE and Extension departments across the CSU system and probably many other institutional users of PeopleSoft.

(Next page: Students in crisis and design woes)


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