How do you future proof a traditional university in the age of digital learning?


The University of Washington Professional & Continuing Education (UWPCE) is part of UW Continuum College, it expands the educational impact of the University of Washington through courses and certificate programs aimed at the working professionals, job seekers and career changers. UWPCE has struggled to keep up with disruptors in the education industry that have been more effective in online marketing and promoting of their programs.

The Problem Statement

How can UW PCE be more competitive and effective in attracting and counseling prospective students in the landscape of continuing and professional education?

The Approach

I wanted to get the answer to the question:  “how do users make choices in choosing continuing education?”.  I opted for several research methods:

  • Competitive Analysis – Who were the competition? What did they do right, where did they have shortcomings? Through a competitive landscape we could find out the opportunity for UW.
  • Stakeholder Interviews – What were some of the roadblocks or challenges UW had internally to be more successful?
  • User Interviews – Were the assumptions that the stakeholders had correct? What were the major reasons for students to choose a course or program? Who were the students? What motivated them?
  • Search Terms analysis – What did the users look for on the UW PCE site? Were the words users put in the search bar aligning with the same taxonomy UW used? What assumption did users have about UW?

I started with a competitive landscape analysis and analyzed other schools, online universities and bootcamps. I conducted and led user interviews with stakeholders, students, former students and prospect students who contacted UW and who had either enrolled or had chosen other educational providers. The university was fiendly enough to get us in touch with some of those prospects and students. I wanted to find out why. I included program counselors in my interviews since they were on the front line of customer interactions, hoping to get even more insights.

The Insights

The search term analysis showed the keywords users looked for did not always match the content on the site. I already noticed that a lot of the information was buried deep in the site or wasn’t even present.

‘The competitive analysis showed a number of competitors in the field that were either traditional universities, bootcamps or online-only courses. All of the competitors have different ways of connecting to their audience, but none of them did connect to the industry, the audience and the stakeholders combined. It was this connecting alignment that would ultimately be the basis of the content strategy opportunity.

The big takeaway from the stakeholder interviews was that the disorganization and absence of governance regarding course information was making it hard to effectively market the content. In addition, the course information had a poor information architecture resulting in counselors helping prospective students to  navigate the website instead of giving quality advice.

From the (prospective) student interviews I learned that there were four areas that were the deciding factors for prospective students:

  1. Day and time of the classes – Weekdays, weekends, evenings
  2. Costs and financing
  3. Location of the classes – either close to work or close to home
  4. Perception of UW as an expensive and traditional university

The UX Strategy

The four main areas of concern for students became the pillars of the UX strategy, which were reflected in the persona documents I made. I used those persona documents in every meeting to remind the team and the client who our audience was. Strategic decisions were made by consulting the persona documents to gauge the impact of the decisions on those target users.

I also included a simplified experience journey  (as shown below)  in the presentation deck to the customer to identify easily where the real big pain points occurred and where and how the UX strategy would make a real difference. This simplified user journey was the result of a big mental model that came out of the interview analysis. I used this mental model later in the design phase for feature prioritization.

It was important to make the program and course pages the bread and butter of the website, since most people came directly to those pages from Google and we needed to inspire, delight and inform people.  In other words, those are the pages we had to get right. They became the earliest and most iterated pages and formed the framework of the design system.

The Execution

I supported the content strategists to create a more transparent and efficient way of sharing content information between the program creators, marketers and students. The content strategy addressed the problem of governance as much to create a single source of truth,

I lead several participatory design sessions with the internal team and the clients. The UX designs I created highlighted the information need we found from the discover sessions, so I put costs, time commitments, locations and online options front and center on the site. I was able to capture and added real student quotes and success stories to inspire prospective students to ‘follow their dreams’. Furthermore, I made sure students could see the time and money commitment to a program or course to address the user’s fear of a large commitment. 

View designs and artifacts in Invision

My Impact

My role was to lead the team in making sure the user’s needs were met. Not only did I tackle the user’s pain points but I also give the clients insights on how to future proof their programs. I held interviews with prospective and current students and made sure to interview the support counselors to know more about the customer interactions. I created certificate program wireframes from participating design sessions with the client. I worked closely with the content strategists, both on the client side and on the agency site to streamline the content flow and create ownership guidelines. I created user flows, wireframes, scenarios and did the complete site information architecture. I guided the visual designer and the developers in creating the most compelling and seamless experience.