Almost every institution acknowledges either actively or passively the need to improve and focus on the student experience. That the student experience needs to be the starting point. This is because the students who come through their doors are no longer passive receivers of education, just happy to be accepted. These days most young people are used to being powerful consumers (research shows that Millennials increasingly use their money to reflect their values and also that “they will have the most spending power of any generation by 2018”). Today’s potential students are much savvier than they have been in the past because they have much more information at their fingertips 24/7. Information asymmetry has shifted to the point where students/customers/users are no longer at a disadvantage. This means that institutions need to be much more deliberate, open and collaborative regarding their services and, ultimately, they need to focus on the whole experience.
Access to information informs student expectations
This means that universities, who are increasingly recruiting fee-paying students (whether domestic or international) need to recognise that those students will be analysing how you market to them, where you market to them, and what your core values are. While I know that the relationship between a student and their institution is different (I even highlight this here), it is not as far away from a customer- business relationship as we would all imagine, especially in the initial institution search/application/accepting phase. Students these days have a lot of choice, are very mobile and they have access to a lot of information sources.
Design FOR the student experience – the goal and the tool
University is one of the most, if not THE most, important and long lasting experiences a person will have in their lifetime. It is certainly one of the only experiences that can and will inspire donations years after the experience has ‘ended’. It is also one of the most co-created experiences in a person’s life (it is no longer just me alone in the shadows shouting this fact- the 2017 Higher Education Policy Institute found in their annual survey that “Students see themselves as co-producers of their student experience”). So this, in a way, makes the university student experience different than the business one I mentioned earlier but only in the way that makes it MORE intense, and more in need of being based on experience design principles.
As much as we talk about experience design, one of the most important aspects to remember is that the institution cannot actually design the student experience. You can only design FOR the student experience. This may not seem like a big difference (just 3 letters) but a big difference in mindset. Understanding that you are designing for an experience reminds you that there are two (or more) participants in the process. The figure below shows that not only are there more immediate participants, but the experience is also interacting with everything that has happened before in the student’s life and the hopes and dreams that they are investing in by attending university. All this means that how someone experiences something is not in the service provider’s power. It is influenced by the provider but ultimately it is up to the student to determine how it is experienced.
The above graphic is designed as a customer experience but the same processes happen when students have an experience. There are two aspects to take into consideration- the encounter experience and the overall student experience. The encounter experience is explained as being “limited to the customer’s experience of the interaction with the service provider during a service encounter” while the student (or customer = experience “includes memories of critical incidents from past experiences, and the encounter experience, as well as dreams and goals of the future”.
As mentioned earlier, Higher Education is different. It is quite different in the scope with which interactions happen. During a degree programme, these experiences can happen hundreds of times (if not thousands) from the time recruitment process starts until the student leaves. This is what makes having a good student experience a good marketing tool. Therefore a good student experience is both the goal and the tool.
When does the student experience begin? Earlier than you may think
The beginning of the student experience begins even before they are actually your student. Prior to applying and attending your institution, these prospective students will search online to wade through the sea of information in which to judge if their outlay of tens of thousands of dollars/euros, etc will be worth the experience – which includes, but is not limited to, the actual education, services rendered, housing, etc. To get an idea about how this experience will play out, they will be judging from the information online posted by present and past students (and possibly staff) what their experience will be like. Therefore, designing your information is part of the student experience, dealing with public complaints is marketing, how you respond to their enquiring emails is marketing, how you advise students about study abroad is marketing, how you conduct office hours for the registrar’s office is marketing…and ALL of this is student experience as well as being service design (if you want to know more about service design see these video descriptions here and here).
The curriculum is not the only thing that counts in attracting students (and staff). The care with which you plan and execute your services will affect your reputation as an institution; services also impacts if it is worth the money. People are also tweeting, writing status updates, Instagramming about your services, how they are treated on a day-to-day basis via online and face-to-face services. It is time to design them to benefit those who use them rather than those who provide them. Even better if you can get your students to help co-create them!