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User experience reimagined

How ASU is leveraging technology to advance learning in higher ed

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August 24, 2023

User experience (UX) is a framework focused on the human experience surrounding a user’s interaction with a technology, service or business. Although ubiquitous among tech industries, 10 years ago, UX in higher education and even across the technology industry was far less common than it is today.

One of the first universities to accelerate UX within its workforce, Arizona State University has created a team solely focused on removing student friction and creating a seamless student experience. It’s only in the past few years, in big part due to lessons learned during the pandemic, that universities are prioritizing accessible and digital education.

The UX team within EdPlus at ASU, the university’s central unit supporting digital teaching and learning, has applied the premium lens of UX design to higher education, contributing to ASU’s goal to remain No. 1 in innovation.

The advancement of UX  has better aligned the university to the needs of learners, providing a mechanism to ensure every experience created is centered around the unique needs of each student.

“I don’t think the investment of design has traditionally been embedded into the framework of universities,” said Amanda Gulley, chief of UX at EdPlus at ASU. “We created one of the first design systems in higher education when design systems in the tech industry were first being introduced to scale startups or big tech firms. Because the university leans on EdPlus as an incubating unit and experts in digital learning, it allowed ASU to accelerate this work and break barriers from traditional higher education technology structures.”

EdPlus has undergone a complete transformation in which UX is a core pillar across the ASU enterprise, focused on removing student barriers and creating the best possible student experience. 

Delivering premium experiences

Embodying the charter of Arizona State University means delivering a premium learning experience, and that requires understanding and empathizing with students to uncover their needs, motivations and fears that drive their behaviors and decisions.

EdPlus leads UX for the university across more than 30 technologies and digital experiences, including ASU Online and Dreamscape Learn, as well as ASU admission applications and partnerships, such as Starbucks College Achievement Plan, Uber and ASU, Study Hall and Air University.

EdPlus has designed multidisciplinary teams across the unit that leverage UX methodologies in every technology initiative, and it has become a learner-first, data-driven unit that prioritizes the need to center all solutions around understanding who is being served and how they can be supported. 

In 2022, these student experiences have reached more than 10 million users.

“How do we think about the learner first and what is the issue that we are trying to solve?” Gulley said. “We have a lot of assumptions about what we think the issue is or what our student population wants, but how do we bring in UX early and often to iterate and experiment against these hypotheses? We have to come to the right decision and then continue to build a framework around it.”

During the beginning stages of exploring innovative ways to leverage technology, Jonathan Carroll, senior director of marketing technology at ASU Enterprise Partners, led the applied data science and technology (ADSAT) team at EdPlus.

“The applied data science and technology team enhances user experiences through user-centric technology and data science,” Caroll said. “To effectively serve individuals, organizations must know and understand their users. To achieve this on a large scale, organizations need to responsibly leverage technology that can improve user experiences based on collected data. The team at ASU facilitates the collection, enrichment, AI development, integration and activation of data to provide scalable applications and insights for various groups and organizations.”

Caroll and Gulley wanted to find ways to measure behavior across the ASU digital ecosystem. Through their collaboration, a marketing technology (martech) group was developed, and it continues to enhance ASU’s approach to UX.

Now rebranded as Data Catalytics and Action Lab (DCAL), the groundbreaking collaboration between Carroll and Gulley continues to transform the meaning of student-centered experiences. 

“DCAL is supporting the entire ASU enterprise,” Gulley said. “They’ve been able to take analytics and stitch it with other student datasets in ways that I have not seen at any other institution. This kind of sophistication is also an outcome of our partnership with Google, who are thought leaders and experts in this space. It is 100% unique to academia and, to some degree, unique in the field of technology.”

The data produced by the EdPlus data science team has accelerated a more comprehensive understanding of the university’s current and future student population and their needs, enabling UX and technology teams to focus on personalizing the student experience and designing technological support mechanisms and interventions that feel tailored to every student.

Having a data-centered culture allows EdPlus and ASU to make better decisions focused on understanding who ASU is serving, evaluating current experiences, and predicting and testing where the university needs to go in the future.

“Embracing the constant evolution of data-driven design is crucial for higher education institutions,” Carroll said. “To stay ahead, it is essential to establish a clear and comprehensive data strategy that isn't tied to any specific technology platform. This strategy must be all-encompassing, including student information systems, learning management systems, customer relationship management systems, web, martech and more. By taking proactive measures early on, institutions can benefit within an often unpredictable industry.”

Research-based experiences

Composed of various squads, EdPlus uses a variety of robust data-informed approaches to inform how ASU understands and engages with learners. Researchers, designers, engineers, data scientists, product, marketing, UX writers and operational teams, including more than 40 students and fellows, work together to create insights and testing frameworks to launch technologies across a multitude of interdisciplinary projects. 

Whether on websites, across platforms or through extended reality, UX enhances every learner interaction by connecting with audiences and eliminating points of friction. That call to innovate has resulted in new ways of engaging prospective students, new programs enhancing student learning and, ultimately, new paradigms for UX in higher education.

But EdPlus doesn’t stop there.

Leveraging UX requires delving into the student experience — exploring why a student is not thriving and focusing on mechanisms to improve the personal and educational barriers preventing them from succeeding.

Applying UX research practices allows the team to discover who they serve and how to best support them. It’s understanding the audience in order to design paths that not only guide students where they intend to go but also where they need to go.

“What makes us unique is a few things,” Gulley said. “One of them being we have a very robust approach to how we understand the student experience, and that is a data-informed approach, leveraging mixed methods.”

In 2022, the UX research team interviewed, surveyed or user-tested more than 3,300 prospective and current students to help guide future decisions around the student experience.

“We’re thinking not just how students engage with our content and the tools we create, but understanding their mental models and decisions that lead to personalized, omnichannel support mechanisms, uncovering new barriers we can solve for what we didn’t know before,” Gulley said.

Diving into those big UX questions begins with identifying the students. Today, more than ever, the snapshot of the typical college student defies description. With ASU’s large and diverse student population, providing a unique and personalized student experience is essential.

For Madison Delaney, lead UX researcher at EdPlus, it boiled down to establishing the core types of prospective learners ASU is trying to reach — an effort among UX research students and product managers to create a handful of “personas,” or profiles, encapsulating the most common characteristics among learners.

Identifying these personas through a UX lens meant including high-level demographics, like an age range and location, whether they have dependents, and what types of stressors might exist in their life outside of school. 

“That's really the goal of this persona work,” Delaney said. “It’s getting at the core of who the learners and students are, who we're talking to and who we're creating these digital experiences for.”

The persona of a community college transfer student has different motivations, concerns and responsibilities from the persona of a full-time professional returning to college after 20 or 30 years in the workforce. Yet both personas attend ASU, and they’re not the only ones. 

Beyond the innovation and prestige of the university, creating experiences that speak directly to learners — and meet them where they are — is the goal.

The focus is on each student, their story and their success.

“It’s not just ‘ASU is great and you should come to us,’ but ‘Here’s how ASU is going to help you achieve your goals,’” Delaney said. “We want to show every learner what we have available to them and how we’re going to help them succeed regardless of their personal journey.”

UX design has allowed ASU to deliver tomorrow’s higher ed today.

Understanding the deep problems each technology is trying to solve and bringing in the student voice and human psychology principles into the design of the solution will elevate how universities serve students and advance success for all.

“UX may have started six years ago as a team, but it’s now a culture and a way of thinking,” Gulley said. “The thread of UX is in every role across the organization (and) advocates for those we serve. It is deeply connected to our charter. It’s no longer the responsibility of some, but embedded into the fabric of what makes ASU and ASU Online a differentiated experience from any other university.”

Margot LaNoue contributed to this article.

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