ExtensionEngine recently analyzed the user experience (UX) of student portals for over half of the country’s top business schools and the results were not great. While I won’t get into the names, you’ve heard of most, if not all, of them. We visually reviewed the portal interfaces and surveyed a small number of students and alumni. While users overall found the sites useful in their daily lives, all respondents, for all these top-tier portals, overwhelmingly gave low marks for user experience and design.
So how is it possible that the portals got a passing grade overall but scored so poorly on usability and design? The answer is simple. Despite poor usability and design, the portals were functional at delivering on the basic needs of students, mainly getting course materials, getting assignments, and submitting assignments. And besides, what choice do students have?
But is that really the bar we want, terrible but sufficient? There is a missed opportunity here to deliver a world-class online experience to match that world-class curriculum and faculty. There is a missed opportunity to go beyond the basics and really innovate around helping students to succeed. There is a missed opportunity to turn that basic student portal into a lifelong platform for learning and community that enriches both students and universities.
So here are some ideas on how to improve those lame business school portals:
1. Think Beyond SharePoint-Like Design
From a design perspective almost all of the portals had the same uninspired 1990s SharePoint look and feel. You know the interface: basic tabbed header, basic left-hand navigation, and a main content area made of little blocks of information where everything is equally important in its 11-point font. Take a look these 3 images.
Blackboard Demo Site
The first is a product demo version on Blackboard. The second is SharePoint. Look similar? Now take a look at Duolingo’s dashboard? Which of these 3 looks like someone put some thought into design and user experience? Granted this isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison. Duolingo is a consumer app. It’s designed to be simple, interesting, and engaging. But guess what folks, that’s what people want and expect these days. That’s what people mean when they say good design. As we’ve seen with the enterprise mobile market, people are consumers too. They CAN see outside of the institution that things don’t have to be poorly designed. Things don’t have to be boring to be useful. And they want that superior, consumer design in everything they use, at work or at school.
So how can a school fix the SharePoint portal syndrome? Stop using off-the-shelf software completely off-the-shelf. As the chart below shows, most schools are using 1 of the 3 major learning management software (LMS) platforms. Which is fine, but they are using them right out of the box with that awesome SharePoint-like interface.
Bringing some better design to an LMS doesn’t have to be an expensive, 6-month process. Some easy wins could include:
- Skinning. Invest some time skinning your LMS implementation with the help of a professional designer. Most of the major platforms support CSS customizations to varying degrees.
- Visual Information Hierarchy. When everything looks like a needle the whole thing looks like a pile of needles. Put the most frequently used features in a larger font and place them at the top of the page. Don’t be afraid of putting things below the fold in order to provide a visual hierarchy to your information.
- Use Bold Images and Icons. Current modern consumer UX makes heavy use of imagery to both soften the user experience and to provide visual clues to navigation. Take the time to skin your page using images and take a bit of time creating useful, flat icons that break up content and help navigation.
2. Integrate Portal Sections into a Unified Experience
One of the most common complaints we heard from students was that various parts of the portal – such as classes, financial information, the library, career planning, etc. – were implemented as completely different sections. This meant that information was difficult to find since each section carried its own design and navigation. It meant that users had to log in multiple times to use different services at the same university portal. It meant that universities missed the opportunity to create an integrated experience that could do more than basic support.
“I also did not like how the portals we used were siloed, with academic, administrative and career info all in different locations. It would make sense that this info be connected and talk to each other.”
“I wish that there were not so many different systems and programs.”
While system integration can more difficult that skinning your platform, here are some points to shoot for.
- Single Sign-On. Allow session management tokens to be carried from one application to next, creating a unified experience.
- Unified Functions. For many sections of the portals there was overlap in functionality. Calendars were a common example where a student might have a calendar for classes, a separate calendar for group events, and a separate calendar for university events, plus, of course, their personal calendars. Whether it’s calendars, messaging, file management, etc., create a unified functional experience across sections.
- Consistent Design. If each section has its own navigation style, its own contact page, its own visual design, it becomes painfully apparent to users that they are using separate systems and adds to the cognitive disconnect between sections.
3. Uniform Faculty Usage
Though it may not seem a UX issue, a common complaint from students came from inconsistent use by faculty.
“There seems to be a fair opportunity for redundancy in the platform – some professors post homework in Course Assignments, and some post homework in Class Materials download. Apparently there is no set of standards among the faculty on how to engage in uniform usage of the web portal; the process is different for each course.”
Several people mentioned that inconsistent usage or non-usage of the platform made it difficult to find information. Therefore strict enforcement, if possible, amongst faculty usage would actually be a UX win.
4. Platform for the Ages
Does Facebook push you to an entirely different platform when you change your status from single to married? No that would be silly. Similar to an integrated section experience above, most university portals don’t take a lifelong approach to their students. They may have both a student portal and an alumni portal. The fact that from a user perspective they are completely separate creates a poor user experience.
There are many differences in the student persona over the course of the relationship with the university but the fragmented user experience is not primarily driven by limitations of technology or design, but rather by the fragmented delivery organization--just think about how admissions, core programs, alumni relations, executive education, etc. are different organizations with different budgets, staff and performance metrics.
But it can be done. It requires taking a "user centric design" perspective and focusing on what your users want at each phase of their journey.
5. Integrated Online and Offline Learning
Almost all of the schools we looked at had some online learning presence. Currently offline and online courses are produced differently. Online courses require dedicated production capabilities and assets not required by offline courses.
However, it is obvious that these two teaching methods cannot stay siloed from each other forever. The trick is integrated the two types of content from a user perspective but also from a faculty perspective. The low(-ish) hanging fruit is likely integrating similar subject matter between online and offline courses. Make edX and Coursera content seamlessly available with appropriate class content found on student portals.
Some of the suggested improvements to student portals, such as improved design, are straightforward. Others, like integrated systems or blended learning, not as much. However the fact of the matter is that the school experience has gone online and will only continue to do so. It is important that the leading business schools have both a short-term and long-term online strategy to make the most of the university experience.