Users Don't Care About the Status Quo

I was recently discussing a portal implementation with a small college. The portal "solution" was purchased so that current students could conform to institution business functions (pay tuition, graduation check-lists, grade summaries, etc...). The institution was excited about this new tool, however they had one problem: current students weren't using it. When the institution was asked why not, their response was: "The current students don't know that this is where they are supposed to be. We need to spend more time, money and energy on converting the students." (not verbatim, but the gist).

Wrong, they need to return the portal and reinvest time, money and energy into understanding what their students want.

Portals Aren't Solutions
Those of you that know me well, know that I hate portals. Portals are a poor excuse of bolting on a silo of political process to a university's website. Portals are not designed for the correct target audience (students), rather they are designed to enforce out-dated, non-user-centric workflows that appease [non]decision makers. Furthermore, portals fail to aggregate the student life experience. They do not combine all aspects of student interests (academic, residence life, involvement, advising, athletics), instead they primarily focus on only the academic side.

In addition, portals do not provide branding. Slapping your logo on the top and scheming the colors isn't branding. Branding is entrenched into user experience. Branding revolves around your students' experiences and expectations related to your institution. Portals cheapen brands by lowering user experiences and hindering expectations.

Though I am very condescending of portals, I understand how they have become a major part of academia. Institutions have primarily been siloed beasts. Divisions, political turfs, and process-centered areas are the norm. The organizational chart of colleges and universities are long, vertical lines. This has benefits when it comes to student segmenting, decision making, accountability, and development. However, this organizational system will struggle to maintain stability and timeliness as our students become more complex, more entrenched in interactive channels and more demanding of service.

Portals are designed to accommodate processes, but our future interactive communication (primarily the web) needs to be designed to accommodate the user (student) experience. Students do not see our institutions as a collection of silos, rather they see us one brand. User experiences dominate silos. Why? Because a user experience involves many areas that from a user's point of view should be one seamless entity. Students want to be able to join a club, register for classes, buy books, read profiles on professors and sign up for yoga without having to relearn navigation structures, processes, or workflows. Students don't care that the IT department runs the e-commerce section and the registrar handles the schedule of classes. To them, it is all one entity. Our job is not to educate the student on our silos, rather to design based on their expectations.

Experience Architects Needed
We need to start navigating towards a more holistic, user-experience-centric approach. "Experience Architects" need to work with students (current and prospective) to determine online content and design. Student input needs to become the dominating impact on our future realignment strategies. The marketing team is no more in charge than the IT team, nor does registrar's office have more clout than the housing department. The "Experience Architects" will hold the conversations with students, and both will work collaboratively.

In the end, our sites are for the students - they are the user's who have a need to accomplish a task (the degree). By taking their perspective, we can eliminate the friction that so often accompanies academic processes.

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