Putting the User at the Heart of Education

This is an update on a recent Usability workshop held by Ben Showers and Torsten Reimer as part of their work on the Usability and Adaptability of User-Interfaces.


As universities and academic institutions increase the focus and investment on improving the ‘student experience’, so the ‘user’ needs to find their way into the heart of everything the institution does, not just the teaching and learning.

Usability and user experience (UX) have become important considerations in the design and creation of new websites, software and systems for universities. With increasing investments in digital infrastructure and content, addressing the needs of the users is one of the best ways to ensure the uptake of these investments – be it in research, administration or learning.

UX should become a critical tool in the sector’s response to the challenges of rising student fees, the need to make every investment count in the light of reduced budgets and increasing expectations from students and staff who are used to new sleek gadgets and web 2.0 environments.

In light of this context, Torsten and I recently held a two day workshop exploring usability in higher education.

The first day focused on JISC funded projects that were exploring the Usability and Adaptability of User-Interfaces. The second day involved a broad range of delegates from both within and outside universities, including the library, institutional web managers, systems managers, usability consultants and academics.

The workshop resulted in some very rich discussions from the delegates, and we have attempted to capture some of the themes and main topics of conversation below.

Emerging themes

We have grouped the themes under some broad headings:

Affecting the project/development culture

Embedding Usability

It was clear that usability and considerations of the user are usually a ‘bolt-on’ to institutional developments and projects. The workshop reiterated the need for usability to be part of the project from the start – furthermore it should be the framework from within which you undertake your project. This point was echoed by a number of the projects that took part in the JISC usability programme (an example being the British History Online project).

Indeed during a ‘programme design’ session it was suggested that future usability project funding should aim to embed usability into the institution. This could be achieved by a kind of ‘pay it forward’ idea whereby the successful project then initiates its usability lessons into another of the institutions developments.

Strategic buy-in

Connected to the above poin is the need to make strong arguments to the senior managers who make the decisions about resources as there may not always be a strong appreciation of the benefits of a user-centred approach.

An appeal to the usability of the product is a first step, but more may be required. One suggestion was exposing senior managers to the user’s pain – let them watch the UX sessions you undertake. Let them see every grimace and hear all the expletives!

Training and Skills

It was clear that there are a number of significant skills gaps within the current training and teaching of developers and project managers for usability practice and methods. JISC programmes of work are often addressing the skills gaps in their area specifically, and this may be something that any future work in the UX environment should confront.

However, there was agreement that it’s important to be able to share best practice, and enable institutions to have conversations with each other and experts to ensure they’re able to get hold of the right skills externally if necessary (one of the projects: UsabilityUK, has exactly this remit).

Demonstrating Impact

One of the most interesting discussions at the event was the difficulties involved in demonstrating the impact of usability. Functional requirements are easy to quantify (it either does or doesn’t do as requested), non-functional requirements (like usability) are harder to measure.

What potential does including metrics in the National Student Survey, as an example, have to demonstrating the impact usability could have within HE? Maybe more fundamentally having a clearer idea of how you measure impact more generally could help clarify how the user experience is evidenced.


Usability by any other name…

I am guilty of it in this post, and I even started day two of the workshop with an admission of guilt: I would use the phrase usability without unpacking it. Worse, I used it as a synonym for a group of similar terms (user experience, user-centred design, human computer interaction).

However, this may well be one of the issues that contributes to a misunderstanding of usability, and confusion around the different terms. A number of the delegates felt it would be beneficial to ensure terms were well defined. If you’re communicating with non-experts, such as developers, you need to be sure they’re able to understand you and your requirements.

On reflection, I do wonder whether this is a reflection of usability as a research discipline. Is the real message that the user needs to go at the heart of everything the academy does; it needs to become truly user-centred. Does the concern for semantics get in the way of this goal?


Connected to the above is the difficulty of communicating with the members of your team or project. While you might be able to capture the requirements of your users, it is essential you’re able to then communicate these directly and precisely to your developer.

One potential answer is a very agile approach to development that sees the developer coding with the user(s). This was an approach that the ALUIAR project took at Southampton, and it worked well for the project.

Not always talking to the converted

One of the interesting aspects of the workshop was that we had a pretty good mix of professional UXers, researchers, institutional system people, librarians and learning technologists. However, most had a very good appreciation of the benefits and importance of UX to their institutional mission.

Indeed, a number of delegates made the point that it was important that we addressed the un-converted.

Usability is dead, long live usability

Finally, two points seem to provide interesting conclusions to the workshops discussions:

In its practical application within an HE environment, usability is closely meshed with other similar issues: impact; accessibility; sustainability. The aim is simply to make software easier for users.

Usability should be the driving principle behind projects within HE (especially in JISC funded ones); but this doesn’t that the only way to address this is through a usability programme. Rather, usability should pervade projects without defining them.

What’s next…?

The workshop was incredibly useful as a way to start thinking about how JISC might continue to help support usability practice within HE.

Indeed, it gave us a clear message that usability/accessibility is one area of the HE picture that is in real need of some focused activity. Torsten and I already have a few concrete ideas we’d like to start developing – if all goes well nthrough JISC-funded activities later this year.

Watch this space for more news!


Many thanks to the delegates and projects who made the workshop so successful and the discussions so rich. And to Addy Pope of Edina and the USED project for the use of his camera and pictures.