Communicating with Users in Higher Ed: Straight From the Source

(This was originally published on Optimal Partners’ blog.)

We recently interviewed and surveyed a group of students, faculty and university staff about their experiences with IT implementations, in an attempt to discover how end users in Higher Ed prefer to be communicated with. Responses were varied, but many were accompanied by suggestions for how IT teams could better inform their users about new system rollouts. Hopefully, the feedback we received will be enlightening about the Higher Ed IT user experience and about how to ensure a smooth transition to support for your next project.

Connecting with Students

As was expected, a majority of the students that we surveyed noted difficulties with the implementation of new Learning Management Systems and how those changes were communicated to them. The impact these systems had on the students’ lives ranged from mild annoyances to causing issues that resulted in missing assignments and unsatisfactory grades. In some cases, students mentioned that, despite using their preferred method of communication, their university’s IT departments still failed to convey the most important information about their new system effectively. Communicating a systems rollout to students may seem daunting at first, considering how different Higher Ed IT users can be, but many of the responses we received suggested solutions that may surprise you.

Contrary to popular belief, however, many of the students surveyed said that they prefered to be contacted by email.

As many professionals in Higher Ed will attest, it is very difficult to connect with students because of how many messages they receive every day. Contrary to popular belief, however, many of the students surveyed said that they preferred to be contacted by email, despite their inboxes becoming cluttered very quickly. Many also mentioned that emails are a great initial way to contact users, but that they should be backed up with more readily available sources of information. This suggests that project teams need to spend more time on their emails for students, while also providing more places to find information on system rollouts that are easily accessible.

Students suggested in-class announcements and on-campus events as the best ways to raise awareness about upcoming rollouts.

Many of the responses we received also mentioned that students prefer being contacted in-person about IT implementations. A student that does not check their email frequently will be much easier to connect with if information is displayed where they spend a majority of their time. Some suggestions included in-class announcements and on-campus events as the best ways to raise awareness about upcoming rollouts. Even faculty and university staff chimed in, suggesting that students would respond best to face-to-face announcements rather than by text or social media. These real-world interactions may be more difficult to coordinate for an IT project team, but they could be very useful in conjunction with other forms of communication.

In addition to suggesting email and in-person events, many students also noted that they wished their universities’ websites were better sources for the information they needed. One student’s school struggled to keep their website up to date, which resulted in misinformed users, while another had thorough training available soon after a system rollout, but failed to provide resources for transfer students coming in afterwards. Both problems could have been prevented if their websites had up-to-date information on the specific system implementations.

If our survey results are any indication, it seems that there isn’t one specific way to meet every student’s needs. Thankfully, there are a lot of different ways to connect with students, making it easier to devise a plan that works best for the majority of your student base. The initial push for information is key to getting users acquainted with your project, but it’s also important to make useful information readily available throughout the transition to support and soon afterwards, while being direct, transparent, and quick to respond to feedback.

Contacting Faculty & Staff

While our feedback from students was fairly similar across the board, the faculty we surveyed had drastically different experiences with IT implementations. One faculty member was very pleased with the communication and training provided to them and had very little to say about how project teams could improve. On the other hand, another faculty member cited that they had “never experienced a seamless IT system implementation.” It’s almost impossible to have a perfectly smooth implementation, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t still be our goal.

One university faculty member mentioned that they were frustrated with how little importance was placed on end-user preferences during system implementations. “IT staff can go through months of providing samples of new software for us to test out and rate our preferences, only to have budgetary considerations override our consensus on the best software platforms.” It can be very difficult to establish realistic expectations for your end product when you look for feedback from users, but there are precautions you can take to avoid a similar mistake. If you are asking for faculty preferences on a deliverable without any guarantee that it’s a possibility, you’re putting yourself in a lose-lose situation. Before you give them options for how they want something to work, make sure that it’s within your budget to provide once they decide that it’s the best option. There are many factors that go into the Higher Ed IT decision-making process, but it’s vitally important to keep the user’s perspective in focus when deciding how your project will affect their work.

“I can’t remember a time when I had an issue with our IT department”

On the other side of the coin, the university staff that we interviewed had mostly positive experiences with system rollouts, which wasn’t surprising, given that they are more frequently involved in IT implementations than any other type of end user. “I can’t remember a time when I had an issue with our IT department,” one mentioned in our interview. Despite not having many issues personally, most of the staff we talked to still had suggestions for how to improve the end user experience.

Interestingly, neither staff nor faculty seemed to have issues with how information was initially communicated to them. One staff member, however, did mention that it is incredibly important to convey the perks of switching to a new system or software, i.e. how useful a new system will be, to give users an incentive to learn how to use it. The correct information may be available to them, but if busy users (which is often the case in Higher Ed) don’t want to transition to new products, then they’ll be much less willing to learn. Change is often difficult, which is why it’s important to nip any negativity in the bud before it spreads by being transparent, helpful, and positive about the transition.

University IT departments should create flexible training programs to appeal to the different types of end users

The faculty and staff we interviewed seemed much more frustrated with how training for new systems was presented to them during rollouts. Many people noted that project teams often provide a one-size-fits-all approach to training programs, leaving the more technologically proficient individuals annoyed and the less tech savvy ones confused. The consensus seems to be that university IT departments should create flexible training programs to appeal to the different types of end users. These programs should allow users with a strong understanding of the product to finish their training early, and perhaps offer support to their less acclimated peers. Making extended training mandatory to users that already have a firm grasp of the system serves only to irritate and frustrate; any extended program should work towards providing additional assistance for those users that have struggled with the initial training.

Conversation is Key

Preparing Higher Ed end users for a systems rollout can be stressful; there are so many different types of users, each with their own level of technical proficiency, and preferences for how software should operate. Thankfully, it seems like they’re more than willing to express their concerns and suggestions for improvement, as well as their positive experiences. Needless to say, we were at least a little surprised by the results of our survey and interviews, but it’s those surprises that make user feedback so important. We often, whether intentionally or not, take things for granted in regards to how we communicate with end users, and it’s refreshing to have an open forum of ideas to help us circumvent those expectations.

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