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.
When 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)
CE students are primarily adult learners who might enroll in the middle of a quarter or even for a single day, as happens with CE’s eight-hour notary public class. While CE did manage to shoehorn its courses into PeopleSoft, it proved very difficult for students to find and then register for them online.
At the beginning of the process, for example, students were asked whether they were enrolling in a graduate or undergraduate program. “Notary public doesn’t really fit into any of those categories, but you had to select one to move onto the next step,” said Bellone.
Even if CE students succeeded in navigating their way through the labyrinth, they still couldn’t register and pay until PeopleSoft generated an ID for them—two days later. “You want to take this program, you’ve got your wallet out, and we’re telling you to come back in two days to register,” said Bellone.
Payment created a whole new set of issues. Like a lot of universities nationwide, CSUEB uses CASHNet, a third-party payment system that requires the university to hand students off to its site. Unfortunately, under the old system, almost no information was conveyed to CASHNet.
“Your course information didn’t follow you, so you were basically presented with a blank field,” said Bellone. “Hopefully, you had written down the price of the course. And if you were paying by credit card, we relied on you to do the calculation of the 2.9 percent fee. We were making it really hard for students to register for class.”
Not surprisingly, a lot of students were unprepared to jump through the hoops. “We saw a drastic drop in registration when we moved to PeopleSoft,” noted Bellone. “It was really clear to the higher-ups that this created a big problem and we needed to fix it.”
Not just a ‘some students’ issue
At the same time, Bellone realized that the problems with PeopleSoft and CASHNet were part of a much broader loss of customer focus across the division.
To understand the scope of the problem, CE and Story+Structure first conducted a discovery phase. “We spent a lot of time looking at the organization top down,” noted Bellone, who believes this was the most important step in the whole process. “We spent a lot of time talking to staff. We also surveyed our current students, we surveyed past students, we surveyed prospective students. We got a sense of who we were, who we wanted to be, where we wanted to go, and we used that discovery document to really launch this whole project.”
Once Bellone and Story+Structure understood the full scope of the issues they faced, they were in a position to consider possible solutions. Starting from scratch was out of the question, though.
“We were told, ‘You can’t get rid of PeopleSoft and we have a payment gateway that we can’t change,'” recalled Story+Structure’s Rutirasiri, citing some of the key takeaways that his team learned during the discovery phase. “That’s fine, but you also don’t want to show the messiness of the sausage-making to the student. Instead, let’s use API calls that bury everything—all the back-office stuff—under a really great UI, and float the student on top of that.”
(Next page: Designing a beautiful face)
Designing a beautiful face
Working together with IT, Bellone, and vendors, Story+Structure developed a familiar shopping cart experience to replace the previous registration and payment system, and eliminated the two-day wait for an ID.
For Bellone, the significance of this achievement should not be underestimated. “The fact that we were able to create a shopping cart using PeopleSoft is the most amazing thing,” he noted.
CE’s overhaul did not stop with the development of the shopping cart, however. The CE website and course catalog were among a total of four major projects (including a Salesforce CRM implementation) that the division undertook all at once. “A respectful experience is one that takes into account the entire student experience,” said Rutirasiri as explanation for the broad scope of the redesign.
The CE website had not been redesigned since 2004.
“The old website used catalog-type language that’s quite common in higher ed,” said Bellone. “We wanted to build a site that was easy to use but also had more of an emotional appeal. We went from talking about programs at an institutional level to talking directly to prospective students by using words like ‘you.’ The new site is also really beautiful: big hero images at the top, a lot of graphical elements, and a lot less content.”
Student testimonials, quotes from professors, as well as data about how programs mesh with today’s job market further round out the website experience. Also key, in Bellone’s view, is a distinct call to action on every page: a button, for example, where students can request more information.
Bellone is the first to admit that the ambitious agenda left him and his staff running around with their hair on fire. “It may seem crazy to be doing these four projects all at the same time, but I wouldn’t do it any other way,” he recalled. “It made much more sense to develop them in unison. The end product is much stronger than if you tackled them one at a time.”
While it’s too soon to know whether the new shopping cart system is a success—its launch is slated for late November—the redesigned website is already pulling its weight. “From day one, the number of info requests has gone up drastically,” said Bellone. “We went up from getting six or eight a day to 60, and that’s been consistent since we launched.”
For Bellone, the benefits of CE’s new customer-centric approach far outweigh the costs. “The percent of our overall budget that we spent on this project was small,” he noted, “In exchange, we’re presenting students—and prospective students—with a user experience that is very friendly.”
Andrew Barbour is an editorial freelancer with eCampus News.