Here's an interesting article titled “5 Signs of a Great User Experience” by Richard MacManus. While the article doesn’t directly address higher education, I think it does contain some useful insights that could improve the experience of incoming and returning college students.
1. Elegant UI: These days even brick and mortar universities need a strong online presence and a good start is a simple to navigate, pleasing to look at user interface. A surprising number of college and university websites lack an elegant UI. Too often they seem to be designed without consulting the end student user and are not intuitive with regard to content or navigation.
I think you can also argue that an elegant user interface should also describe the physical facilities of the college and here I don’t simply mean the lavish dorm rooms and student centers. More important are the people that interact with students in the admissions and financial aid offices which leads to point number two.
2. Addictive: As MacManus says in his article, “A nice design is one thing, but you also need to see value in it. It must either solve a problem for you, or be a pleasurable distraction.” This applies very well to the student’s experience with student services (perhaps the phrase should be a pleasurable interaction). Unfortunately, many students do not experience problem solving or pleasurable interaction with student services. Too often they experience, “I don’t do that. You need to see someone else in another department to help you with that.” Repeated iterations of this lead students from one office to another without accomplishing much of anything.
3. Fast Start: Most organizations seem to lack someone whose job it is to simplify procedures within the organization. To me it’s a bad sign of customer service if I am driven to ask “Who is in charge of simplifying things here?” There is no reason that applying and enrolling in college shouldn’t be a reasonably simple process. A large part of the reason the process is not simple is because no one is asking why things can’t be simpler. It’s odd that with such a focus on retention many colleges are not doing more to offer the incoming student a fast start to their learning experience. I can go into a bank or to a cell phone outlet and walk out within an hour with a new account or a new activated phone. Why can't a student walk into a college admissions office and receive the same efficient service.
4. Seamless: In the world of higher education a seamless experience would mean that it would be easy for a student to understand how each course they are taking will count towards their degree whether they remain at one institution for their entire career or transfer. It is now easier than ever to take courses from several different institutions through online offerings. While each university continues to offer unique courses it should still be possible to determine how these different courses will count for credit across university platforms. A centralized third-party website could be created where I can type in my home college and the course I am taking and be shown how this class will count at any other university in the database. It should also be possible to create a degree from a compilation of different courses taken at different colleges and universities. Student demand will drive this process but it would be wise for colleges and universities to get out in front of this and offer this service.
5. It Changes You: Surely the ultimate goal of education is to change the student not by simply filling them up with knowledge but by changing their outlook on life, offering them thinking and problem solving skills, and giving them a sense of community and belonging. Are these goals too lofty for the academy to aspire to anymore? I don’t think so, though they do seem to be getting lost among the worries about retention, assessment, learning outcomes, and creating student engagement. These all may be noble and pedagogically sound goals but they often seem to shift the attention away from what experience we can create for students.
I know many are reluctant to apply the "customer service model" to education and worry about the continuing encroachment of the profit motive into higher education. But, we don't have to adopt the customer service model entirely to recognize that we are trying to serve students and provide them with a positive experience when they walk through the door. Unless we are going to say we are not concerned with doing this it is worth putting some thought into what the students' experience is and how we can improve it.
Some companies focus on their customer service experience better than others. There's no reason why those of us in education can't glean some useful insights from these "best practices" and apply them to our institutions. I think we can do this without selling out to the worst practices of more commercial pursuits.