May 2024

Student-centred research to build strong products

Building great products comes down to your ability to deliver value to your users. Truly excellent products find new ways to continually deliver this value over time, both to users and internally to the institution or business that has created them. 

Yet, the people building products often have very different priorities, needs and concerns to those of their end users. This is a challenge all product teams grapple with, though higher education brings it into especially stark relief. Each cohort of students brings new expectations, new challenges and vastly different experiences. 

Higher education brings a very particular set of challenges

Higher education is a particularly challenging context to build in. Universities are constantly tasked with meeting students' needs on tighter budgets, assessing the impact of new technologies and student expectations, and responding to an ever-changing policy context. 

As a result, digital offerings in higher education need to be especially focused - providing value to a substantial user base with very little room for waste. In this complexity, focusing on user needs helps create direction and clarity, ultimately creating excellent products that grow with their user base, deliver true value for institutions, and have a measurable, beneficial impact on services. 

The case for student-centred research

Where there is a significant difference in experience with the end user, big ambitions and constrained resources, the value of research is super-charged. More collaborative methods, where we co-design with users, and shorter cycles of iteration in design mean that we get to what is actually valuable faster, quicker and cheaper. 

Our tips to get started

There’s no need to feel overwhelmed - many of the ingredients for successful research sit well within the higher education wheelhouse! With a little fine-tuning for product purposes, you can rapidly begin building experiences with students, for students. 

1. You don’t have to start from scratch - you’re already doing it 

If you’re looking for user feedback - start with those who already get plenty of it. Successful products address unsolved problems that affect a significant number of users, and many of the people who support students are already well aware of those! 

Ahead of research, find time with those working closest to students already. They have a wealth of knowledge and can give valuable context to help you ask the right questions. They’ll also help you build something that alleviates their own pain points from interacting with students which, in turn, will make it easier for students to self-serve and do the basics for themselves before asking for help. 

  • Tap up your student support workers, student union representatives, and anyone who spends a good deal of time frontline with students in the domain your product is for.
  • Look for existing evidence to clue you into where problems may exist - whether that’s student satisfaction surveys, common complaints or metrics on the existing app/website. 

2. Get in the field to uncover true areas of opportunity

You’ll get invaluable insights from being within your users’ context. Walk around campus, visit the library, and go where the students go. The contextual setting is wherever you imagine your product being used and assuming it’s on their phones, that could be anywhere! The idea is to capture users’ actual behaviour as closely as possible to its normal state. This gives the best possible chance of building for their actual needs, rather than their ‘nice to haves’. Plenty of us encounter and deal with things daily that don’t work, and have ways of dealing with these without even noticing they could be easier. These are the interactions you most want to capture. They indicate this is a valuable task, and users are prepared to MacGyver a solution together. That’s a solution you could create! 

  • Get as close to natural behaviour as possible with non-invasive research methods such as contextual observation or diary studies as the team did for the University of Bath. 

3. Use student impact to prioritise and size the problem

Products don’t have to do everything. The question is: what can they do for your context that isn’t done elsewhere? Then, what problem would they solve that users would be willing, and keen, to use them? Finally, what would give the institution the most value; what metric, behaviour or goal would change? 

Once you’ve observed a decent number of students, their context and pain points, and the impact on services, you should have a good sense of where to start. Learning more about the impact on student experience, the number of students it impacts and the effect on services can help us cut through the myriad different priorities to understand where our product can make the biggest impact. 

  • Once you’ve identified problems, get a sense of the impact of solving them: number of students affected, severity, time spent on supporting queries and so forth. This gives us a ‘before’ to measure against the ‘after’, and a frame to assess the value of what we build. 

4. Co-design and iterate with users to get the most value

Co-design is an excellent form of research in cases where we have a gap in understanding and experience between those building a product, and those using it. Co-design is where you put the user (in this case students) at the heart of the design and delivery process and stay as close to them as possible throughout. 

This can be done in several ways; early on in the process it could be getting them to ideate or sketch out ideas or map out processes during interviews; later it might involve testing alphas and betas with a subset of users to determine what’s working and isn’t before rolling it out further. The benefits of this approach are short feedback loops - avoiding wasted time and resources - and feeling that we are working side-by-side with users to create products for them, with them. This helps us to continually de-risk the value of what we are building. It also means we’re constantly gathering important contextual insight to inform decisions in how we build the product or feature. 

5. Make student participation easy and rewarding

Knowing the benefits of student-centred research, how can we make it happen more often? Well, make it easy - and rewarding - to do! Students spend lots of time with one another, share experiences and talk - making them ideal for ‘word of mouth’ referral. When you get feedback and participation from students - make sure to identify opportunities to make it worth their while. This could be anything from highlighting iterations to the product based on their feedback, to incentivising reviews or participation with vouchers. It could even be sharing data or insights with students who may use it for their projects or development. Showing them that their voice and feedback is important is vital if we want to keep hearing it. 

  • Look for informal, organic opportunities and forums where students are already to get feedback on products and demonstrate the impact it’s already had. On our student app build for the University of Bath we sent our intrepid PM Milly to the freshers fair! 

To find out how Loomery can help your organisation make product progress, get in touch.

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