The UX Gap in Higher Education

Finally, the consensus is that user experience (UX) is not a fad. All sizes and types of companies are catching on. Terminology, concepts, and thoughtful discussions are trickling down and no longer exclusive to experts, but now also employed by professionals in all roles and industries. Practitioners have to fight less frequently to prove the value of usability research and UX design.

Similarly, the conversation we’re having online is shifting. New content focuses less on “what” and “why”. We’re identifying less obvious gaps and brainstorming innovative ways of accomplishing usability goals. To that end, I’m not going to deliver a primer on what usability/UX is and why it’s important. Instead, I’ll focus on some of those gaps as they exist today.

Despite the improving trend of familiarity with UX, some industries have remained immune from its reach. Even the institutions that are responsible for teaching the foundations of human-centered design, accessibility, and so on, are failing to practice what they preach. Specifically: higher education.

A few weeks ago, I met with a professor from graduate school (an individual who has a greatly influenced my obsession with all things user-centric). We chatted about the program (technical communication), our industry, teaching, jobs, and the like. In the end, our conversation left me distinctly aware of and perplexed by an unfulfilled need for user advocacy, research, and design at the university level.

Notably, we commiserated on the unfortunate redesign of the university website. As my former professor had been told, little usability testing — in the traditional sense, as UX practitioners understand it — had gone into the website design before implementation, and the depth and quality of on-going evaluation was questionable at best.

When I looked for official guidelines on usability, I found only a short blurb in the accessibility section of the university’s web guide. It included a total of three bullet points and suggested that the designer navigate their website using a keyboard, imagine their website without images, and scan the headings and hyperlinks for “proper structure”.

That’s it. Three suggestions. While solid suggestions, certainly, they only scratch the surface of usability practices.

Web usability has been discussed at length in articles and research publications, and it’s importance should be common knowledge. For a university, the website is likely the user’s initial interaction with the school. The experience of that interaction can make or break a first impression. Additionally, a university website serves a broad audience: current and prospective students; alumni; family members; job seekers; faculty and staff. The obvious conclusion is that web usability is critical. But what about everything else?

What about curriculum, syllabi, assignments, and exercises? Considering the broad audience, we can extend that question to include other kinds of users. What about new hire orientations, faculty on-boarding, class registration, advising, navigating financial aid, career fairs, and campus events?

And, equally important, who is responsible for asking these questions in an effort to improve the usability of those experiences and services?

The Gap

Unfortunately, there are no designated usability practitioners in my story. Based on my knowledge as a long-time student, customer, and adjunct, I strongly suspect that there is no team assigned to address the UX needs of the university. I also suspect that his might be a trend across higher education as a whole.

Out of curiosity, I used LinkedIn to collect some hard and fast numbers. A quick search for professionals with “usability” in their job title returns 4,081 results. When filtered for the higher education industry, that number drops to 62. Similarly, there are 111,864 users with “UX” in their job title. 840 of those users are in higher education. Based on these numbers, less than 1% of UX practitioners on LinkedIn are working in higher education.


Again, I ask: who is responsible for evaluating usability and designing effective, meaningful interactions for the higher education user?

There are two possible answers: faculty and/or staff.

In a perfect world, colleges and universities would employ teams of professionals dedicated to research and design of all interactions. We are not in that perfect world yet. While it’s important to talk about the value and benefit of dedicated UX teams, I’m going to tackle smaller pieces of the problem by focusing specifically on faculty as the usability practitioner, and students as the higher education user.

Why Do Students Need Usability?

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Photo by Charles Deluvio 🇵🇭🇨🇦 on Unsplash

I said I wasn’t going to spend time on the basics of “what” and “why”, but I will briefly address the big question: “why do I care?”

At risk of sounding repetitive: UX is not just a fad. Some of the biggest companies, responsible for designing products that customers use multiple times a day, have been investing in user-centered design and research for years now. As a result, consumers (that is, all of us humans) are growing accustomed to an excellent experience every time we interact with something. From mobile applications to door handles to the websites we visit and the content we read, we are being considered by creators behind the scenes. As a society, we are growing to expect great design, which leaves us with very little patience for less-than-stellar interactions. When you download a new app and it doesn’t function the way you expect, how often do you uninstall or never use it again? Or have you ever resorted to Google when you can’t quickly find the information you need on a website?

That same frustration exists in higher education. There are several negative outcomes when a student is unable to find information, whether they are trying to identify the late-work policy in a syllabus, find due dates on the schedule, or interpret a rubric, assignment description, or quiz instructions. Unlike an unfriendly app, students can’t uninstall class materials that aren’t effective or usable. They can email questions to the instructor or classmates. They can make their best guess and move forward, risking possible mistakes because they do not have all of the key information. And, most dangerously, they can give up and check out, missing their opportunity to learn.

When you look for information on the benefits of usability testing, you will find results like:

  • Learn how satisfied your users are
  • Gauge the performance of your product
  • See how long it takes users to complete a task

At first blush, these benefits might sound specific to a product, like software or a smart toaster (that’s a thing, right?) However, they also apply to students and learning environments. A satisfied student is one that finds the information they need. They can focus on learning because they aren’t frustrated, and they can excel because their resources are clear and easy to find. As for performance, learning materials are performing (and effective) when the student is digesting the material and able to apply concepts practically in their projects. Homework takes time and effort, but there is a reasonable time frame for each assignment. If a task takes a student too long to complete, they might miss out on understanding, which can lead to frustration and mental shut-down.

Students = Customers

All of the necessary arguments have been made for why usability is important to the customer. Students are customers, too. The key difference is that many students feel like they have less choice in where or how they spend their money as a customer of higher education. In some situations, they might very well be able to take their business to another institution. But, depending on accessibility to colleges and social pressure to complete school, students might feel like there’s nothing they can do when class materials aren’t working for them, short of “checking out”.

Furthermore, these efforts matter because the outcomes are meaningful. A thoughtfully designed product improves a person’s life and secures a customer for the company. But imagine the impact of making usability improvements to someone’s education. Imagine the good that can be effected for the lives of students.

Hence the need for usability research and design specialists in higher education. Imagine that same impact made across all aspects of higher education (class websites, registration, orientations, scheduling, etc.), with entire teams dedicated to improving UX. It’s time to start the conversation, to discuss why usability is foreign to higher education, identify the needs and benefits, and brainstorm solutions.

Meanwhile, the responsibility falls on individuals at academic institutions to recognize the usability gap. Most educators are passionate about what they teach and want their students to succeed. They want students to really learn and continue learning after the class ends. Evaluating and adjusting usability of class materials goes a long way in accomplishing that goal by transforming learning for the individual.

How Can We Improve?

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Photo by David Travis on Unsplash

Luckily, there are simple and practical steps that instructors can take to improve usability for students right now. The fantastic thing about usability testing is that it can be done with minimal time and resources.

For most methods of usability study, you need to recruit a group of representative users. Usability research has shown that sufficient data to make observations and implement change can be gathered with as few as 3–9 participants. According to some experts in the field, like the Nielsen Norman Group, 5 users is the magic number.

Either way, a usability test can be conducted with a much smaller group than many people expect. Real discoveries can be made with just a handful of participants. This is great news because, as any usability practitioner will tell you, recruiting users can be a difficult obstacle that often requires some incentive to garner responses. Instructors are in a good position to recruit users because they have the option to offer extra credit in exchange for student participation in usability studies.

In addition to gathering users, think about the designs that you want to evaluate. An instructor might consider evaluating the following materials and content:

  • Syllabus
  • Class website
  • Group activities
  • Assignment description

There are many methods that can be used quickly and easily to evaluate these and other materials, including usability tests, surveys, and more.

Usability tests

After you have identified what it is you want to test and gathered a group of users, develop some representative tasks. For example, if you are evaluating a syllbus, you might task the user with identifying a policy or guideline described in that document.

The number of tasks will vary depending on the level of difficulty and the design being tested. You might start by writing 5–10 tasks and find that your users only make it through 3 in the time allotted. Don’t be afraid to adjust accordingly and try again. Usability testing works best in an iterative format (think: short, frequent testing).

Ask your users to complete the tasks and think out loud as they do so. Now observe: listen to your users and watch what they do. Where do they experience difficulty? What questions do they ask? Which tasks do they fail? While the user is working through the tasks, let them do the talking and be careful not to lead them to any conclusions. It’s alright to ask the user questions, but wait until after the testing is complete, and remember that interviewing is different from observation.


While direct observation is one of the most effective way to conduct research, it’s not always possible or practical. Surveys can be a valuable way to bolster usability studies.

Users can take a survey in-person using paper and pen, or remotely using an online survey form (free online survey tools, such as Google Forms and Survey Monkey, make this an accessible option). Instead of writing tasks, draft open-ended questions for your participants to answer. While developing your questions, consider how you want collect responses. Does it make most sense for participants to respond with free-form answers, select from multiple choice options, choose a rating on a scale, or indicate their level of agreement using a Likert scale?

Effective surveys are short. Avoid survey bloat by keeping total questions to a minimum, asking only the important questions and keeping those questions clear and concise.

Something else to keep in mind when developing a survey is that human memory is not perfect, and our brains tend to fill in the things that we cannot remember (often inaccurately). If possible, design and administer surveys in such a way that the representative users can respond shortly after using or reviewing the design being evaluated. For example, if you want to evaluate an assignment description and/or submission process, make a survey link available in the confirmation landing page that follows an assignment submission.

Other Methods

Usability tests and surveys are two fast, practical methods that instructors can use to start gathering data right away, effectively evaluating content and design of their materials. Other methods of usability research can be useful in an educational setting. Maybe it’s easiest for an instructor to start by creating personas based on their existing knowledge of and familiarity with students. Perhaps web usability can be improved through a combination of usability tests, card sorting, and/or focus groups.

It’s important to keep testing. Try out different methods of UX research, refine the questions being asked to identify problems, and listen to the user.

Looking Forward

Making small, realistic changes as instructors in the classroom is a practical way to address the usability gap in higher education. However, it’s only a small part of the larger conversation and the work certainly doesn’t stop there.

In order for real improvements to be made, everyone (adjuncts, faculty, staff, and students) needs to continue asking the bigger questions: who are the users in higher education? What are their needs and motivations? Which services do they utilize at the institution? What services do they need that aren’t currently available?

Usability doesn’t stop at the consumer of a smartphone. In higher education, it certainly doesn’t stop at the student or at the class website.

Keeping in mind larger goals as professionals can help to improve usability and awareness in higher education:

  • Identify problems
  • Brainstorm solutions
  • Never stop asking questions

And, more broadly, what are other ways that UX design thinking and mindset can be applicable in higher education?

Written by

BA, MATC. Technical and business writer, adjunct instructor, usability nerd, extroverted-introvert, occasional poet, autodidact, Idaho native. @rachaelrenk.

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