It is the above sentiment from Maya Angelou that led me to pursuing a career in higher education administration and eventually to service design. I loved my study experiences in my late teens and early-mid 20s but I could not reconcile some of the experiences I had at the institutions I attended. It was the enduring feeling that these situations left that drove me to try to improve the experiences of the students that came after me.
My first foray into trying to improve the student experience was while finishing my first Master’s degree and after two exchanges abroad. I was back at my undergraduate institution and I had a position working with the exchange students at the International Office. Having been both an exchange student twice and an international degree student in different countries, I knew what some of their challenges would be but I certainly did not know all. Each experience is different. But I knew how various situations – good and bad – had made me feel. My intention was to try to dull some of the negative sharp edges and to help them get the most out of their time in Canada.
The feelings stay
One of my enduring feelings (that greatly influenced my opinion on tuition fees) comes from doing my first Master’s degree in Uppsala in the early 2000s. As much as I loved my time there, and I really did, there were some issues around their lack of tuition fees. You wouldn’t think that something that seemed like such a great benefit could cause negative feelings but it did.
The degree programme that I was involved in was new and in its first year. This means that there were times when I (and my classmates) were not satisfied with our studies/teaching.When we raised this issue with others (usually nationals but not always) including staff and students, the issue that it was free came up repeatedly. The idea that we shouldn’t really be complaining because it is free ultimately left me with the feeling of having no voice; that feeling has really stuck with me.
This is why I have been an advocate of tuition fees (whatever the level) because, I believe, one of its by-products is a voice; a valid reason in the eyes of others for you to stand up for yourself. Otherwise you can be seen as ungrateful…and if you have earned a spot in a great university (as my classmates and I had), it isn’t about being grateful or ungrateful but about quality of education and a voice to stand up for yourself.
So what, who cares? (as my favourite Prof used to say)
My point is that services in higher education are experiences. The increasing importance of ‘the student experience’ is evidence of this. But to elevate this to another level and to put your money where your mouth (or strategy) is, these experiences need to be deliberately designed. They need to be designed in conjunction with those who will use them and those who provide them. Service design is an amazing way to create desirable experiences. This kind of experience design takes into account many factors – internal and external. It takes into account how people feel, how they think, what the environment is like, what language is used (semantics and different languages), content, purpose, etc. Experience design is holistic in a way that ad hoc or reactionary services many times are not and it supports a real competitive advantage.
Sometimes you will go to a service point at an institution and want to accomplish X but for whatever reason that cannot be done at that moment, maybe you are at the wrong service point, maybe that person is sick that day and no one else is authorised to do that transaction, maybe they only deal with that particular request on a certain day or at a certain time…whatever the reason…how you come away from that interaction will affect the rest of your day emotionally. Good or bad it will be an experience. As Pine and Gilmore say, “The easiest way to turn a service into an experience is to provide poor service, thus creating a memorable encounter of the most unpleasant kind.”
Just because you cannot complete the transaction at that time, does not mean that it needs to be an entirely negative experience. A well-designed service will have a process in place to avoid that as much as possible. And this takes us back to the original quote by Maya Angelou:
“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
It is on this emotional level where wins happen even when the outcome is not what was expected or desired. Higher education is a long-distance race rather than a sprint where people are engaged for much longer than they are with most services (and much more invested in), with hundreds, if not thousands, of touchpoints over the years they will spend with you. As Joe McLeod talks about designing endings, organisations, in a similar vein, need to also design an unfulfilled service expectation. Asking themselves ‘What happens when we can’t do what is wanted/needed?’ so that it isn’t just left as a “too bad, so sad” kind of feeling in the student. Design both positive and negative outcomes experiences carefully and purposefully to maximise their return and yours. How they feel about your service lingers and affects what they think and say about you.
Marketing shifts in Higher Education – from word of mouth to word of mouth
Word of mouth marketing has always been important in higher education. Before the internet pockets of students from specific areas heard about opportunities literally from someone personally through letters home, personal visits, a friend of a friend, etc. The original word of mouth was limited in scope and affect but an effective method on a small scale.
Now word of mouth means social media where one person’s voice is much more amplified and reaches people they don’t know or are not connected to in any way. In addition to standard social media our society is moving ever close to a ubiquitous rating culture, which gives more weight to the experience of students and potential students. As writer and branding strategist Arwa Mahdawi wrote in 2016 about the emerging “rating culture is forging new power structures…”. While her article in The Guardian is about companies like Uber and TripAdvisor, this is also happening in the higher education sector. It started with more light-hearted ventures like “Rate my professor” but these kinds of platforms in general, and this one specifically, have expanded to include rating of other aspects of higher education and the institutions themselves.
With potential, current, and former students rating their experiences via these sites and social media in general, there are huge implications for the institutions. It also has implications regarding the kinds of experiences people are hearing about. The experiences posted by potential, current, and former students are your marketing (good and bad). This marketing is not delivered in the tone or words you craft or by the people you pay to market your institution. Designing your services is the only input you have in this ubiquitous marketing that happens 24/7.