Episode 12: Service Design & Consequences

Episode 12: Service Design & Consequences
Season 1

 
 
00:00 / 35.32
 
1X

Ron Bronson joins Joel Goodman and Jon-Stephen Stansel to talk about how ongoing research leads to more compassionate and human design decisions in higher education content, websites, student services, and interactions. Ron also discusses what he calls Consequence Design and how it maps the hostility baked into human-centered and service design processes.

Episode 12: Service Design & Consequences
Season 1

 
 
00:00 / 35.32
 
1X

Ron Bronson joins Joel Goodman and Jon-Stephen Stansel to talk about how ongoing research leads to more compassionate and human design decisions in higher education content, websites, student services, and interactions. Ron also discusses what he calls Consequence Design and how it maps the hostility baked into human-centered and service design processes.

Service Design & Consequences Transcript

Joel Goodman
Welcome to the Thought Feeder podcast. I’m Joel Goodman, with me is Jon-Stephen Stansel. This is Episode 12, and we have a great guest with us, one of my good friends, Ron Bronson. If you don’t know him, I don’t know where you’ve been — well you’re probably new to the scene in the last couple of years, but you should know him in any case. Ron thanks for being here. We really appreciate it and we’re looking forward to talking with you.

Ron Bronson
Well, you know, as I haven’t seen a real life yet, so I was like this is gonna have to work in the Corona-era for me to hang out with him. And you know, you ever call, I’m always there. So, really excited to be here. I’ve been listening to your podcast a bit, and, of course, naturally astounded by the beautiful audio quality of your, of your startup podcast, but also the content’s been really good, too.

JG
No one ever says audio is king, you know, it’s always content.

RB
True, but you listen to nice podcasts and you’re like, I could listen to this! This is a good sound. But I knew better.

JG
So Ron for the folks that do not know who you are, what should they know about you?

RB
I… what do I do?

So prior to the last five years I spent a decade working across higher ed in a variety of roles, sort of broadly around digital strategy. And timely, the beginning of the time I was doing that, those things were sort of still emerging right?

JG
Yeah.

RB
As higher ed sort of discovered everything late, they’re like, “oh, digital strategy. Oh, what is the UX? Oh, Service Design — that sounds interesting.” As higher ed discovered these things, I was sort of always trying to get there to the front of the line in the middle of those roles. So, I’ve been all over the country inhabiting those roles, worked with all kinds of schools, big and small, and about five-ish, six years ago, headed towards working in sort of large scale digital transformation in government, so. I’m not in higher ed anymore. but at least some fond, fun times.

JG
And I mean, government, municipal, whatever, it’s similar. I mean, there’s still bureaucracy, there’s still…

RB
Totally yeah it translates, it definitely translates.

Jon-Stephen Stansel
I did my time with a little government as well, the Texas Department of Transportation. It’s very similar but it’s got subtle differences in the vibe.

RB
Mmhmm, definitely. There are some similarities, some big differences, which I like in both ways, but we’ll talk more about that, I’m sure.

JG
So one of the things that you’ve been talking a lot about both online, at conferences, non-higher ed related and even, you know even going back to when you were in higher ed, you touched on this in a lot of different ways, is the phenomenon — it’s not really a phenomenon — but the prevalence of hostile or “dark” patterns on the web in design and I’m wondering what are… well one, maybe just like give us an intro of what you see, how you would define it, but then also, what are some of your, I don’t want to say favorite but what are some of the ones that you think are the worst offenders, or you know make you chuckle at how bad they are sort of a thing, you know? Not in a happy way but, yeah.

RB
Right so I think the first caveat to this is and I say this every time I talk about these things now is we talk about like, sort of broadly around like UX anti-patterns or “dark” patterns as they’re called online. The caveat to this is that, using the term “dark” and talking about something bad, often perpetuates this idea that dark is bad, and so I try not to use the term dark patterns as much, but for the purposes of our audience who may have heard of these things I wanted to caveat that for folks don’t go out and start running around their offices like “dark patterns, darks patterns!” Like, maybe, maybe, maybe not. Maybe don’t do that. Do something else. But that being said, I’ve been talking about it a lot over the years and I think it’s evolved because when I first start talking about it, it was really around like sort of UI anti-patterns. Things like, you go on GoDaddy’s website, and you know a thing pops up and it wants you to buy a domain or something because you saw an ad. And this thing pops up and it tries to deceive you into buying five or six things you didn’t need because of the way the patterns designed. Or, more recently, something we’ve all probably dealt with, where you go you download an app you log into the app, and as soon as the app starts it’s like, “Do you love us? Give us five stars!” Why are you asking me to love you? I just met you.

And I have a tweet about it it’s like me just complaining about it constantly and then I update this tweet every once in a while and add things to it, it just makes me mad, it’s evolved from thinking about things like, I said, like UI anti-patterns and thinking more broadly about how sort of hostility and design — I gave a talk last year, Joel was there, and I, I mean I gave it all over the country but I gave one in Austin, which is why Joel was there. Joel doesn’t just follow me around America.

JG
Not often. [laughs]

RB
Though, it’d be a pretty funny thing if we did that. It’d be a really good pod — it’d be a separate podcast that you all are not here for. Just me and Joel eating food and playing Skee-ball all around the world. In any case…

[everyone laughs]

You brought me on, this is what you get!

Anyway, but thinking about how when you think of things like when you go to a train kiosk… So you’re in a big city and anybody who’s ever traveled to a big city, Chicago, New York, DC, Atlanta, and you go to one of those transit kiosks, and you try to get a ticket. Think of all the hostility designed in that.

Or self-checkout lanes. I like watching people in self-checkout lanes because I get glee from watching them get frustrated by them. Or folks who are like me who just like pop-pop-pop-pop and get out because we’re used to the UI. But watching like, who tested that? Who designed it? They probably didn’t. What’s good friction versus what’s bad friction? And so, one of the things that we don’t do enough is think about, when something’s not owned by somebody, when an aspect of the design process isn’t owned by somebody, inevitably, there are going to be things that get short-shrifted. And so anti-patterns are really just perpetuated things that as you think about different kinds of designs or different kinds of UI patterns, different kinds of product designs, somebody didn’t own that process.

And if you create enough of these kinds of things, even in the COVID-era, think of how initially all these supermarkets started adopting those crazy arrows, to tell you which way to go. And like, I don’t know who started that. Somebody did it once and then everyone copied it without thinking one thought of like does this actually work for what we’re trying to do? And I’m not saying it doesn’t work at all. Maybe it was tested and it totally works, but I’m thinking, these are the things I want folks, not just designers, but specifically around design to think about. Why are we doing this? Who does it impact? Is friction good or bad? Then to sort of go from there.

So that’s kind of been my sort of evolving rant. It went from me being mad about one thing to thinking more broadly about like how does this stuff all get ideated? How does it happen? How do we mitigate these challenges, early on?

JG
Yeah.

RB
And so that’s what honestly it would lead me to, after thinking about it for a long time, and I’ve given probably 20 talks on this the last two years… And again it’s been building, this talk has been building from me being like, “Gee, I wonder if someone else can solve this because it can’t be me.” Spoiler: nobody wants to think about this, or they’re thinking about it but thinking about it from different angles, you know? Like, companies like Airbnb, these companies are thinking about it from a safety and trust perspective, which is important, but I think that we’re about, like, micro-interactions here.

So anyway, it led me around thinking about, is there a way to own this? Is there a domain and sort of does it sort of have a place off of service design? Somewhere between like UX and service design, and earlier this year so I’ve thought about that and it’s like turns out I think this is just Consequence Design. And it’s not like people who are going to become Consequence Designers because that would be a terrible job title. But also hilarious. I think that that’s sort of where it leads us towards is giving it an overarching sort of theme to be able to then go from there.

J.S.
Excellent. And that kind of brings us to it. I’d like to hear more about Consequence Design and how you think it applies in various areas but before we continue… Do you like this podcast? Would you like to stop and give us a rating, a review?

[everyone laughs]

RB
Well, I’ve already given it a five-star rating, I mean, I’ve already done that. And I subscribe, you know, click here to subscribe? Did that already. Done it. And I don’t like subscribing to things, so you know if I subscribe to your podcast it’s really good.

JG
Dear listener, you heard it here first. Ron Bronson gives us five stars, and so should you.

RB
Endorsement. That’s it you can you can use that, you know? [chuckles]

JG
J.S. and I have been talking about how we need to press for more ratings. So yes, we’re gonna totally derail this thing in order to ask for your rating, because that is not in any way, a hostile or anti-pattern.

RB
Right, yeah, bringing people on the show, sit them down and say tell us all about you. Cool. Do you love us? Do you want to be friends with us like?

JG
Do you want to be friends?

RB
Do you want to be friends? It’s like, I just met you. No, I don’t want to be your friend. I have too many friends, you know?

JG
So one thing that I’m interested in is you’ve talked about this a little bit, I think we’ve had conversations about as well. I can’t remember if it was in one of your talks or it was just in something on social media but there’s a level of this it just goes into basic copywriting right? And that can apply to social media, that can apply to the microcopy that happens in interactions on websites, things like that but I’d really be interested in hearing your thoughts on where and how you see these anti-patterns and Consequence Design, playing out in different forms. And not necessarily just in web design but, you know, online in the way people craft their own messages, things like that. Where that shows up in our own daily habits.

RB
So it’s interesting, I think that you sort of piggyback on a thing that I’ve been thinking about which is that these are not just digital experiences where this is happening, right? It becomes part of our everyday lives. I have this, speaking of tweets, I have this picture I took years ago in a coffee shop, maybe a year ago in a coffee shop, where it was a hand dryer and somebody wrote these really detailed directions out for how to use the hand dryer. And I took a picture of it and I said, this person doesn’t know it but I wish we could hire them and make them a UXer because they’re already doing UX they don’t even know it. The microcopy was great, the directions were perfect, and it worked exactly how they said it was supposed to work. And they did that as an affordance because people were using this thing and weren’t able to do it, probably coming out and telling them… this wasn’t in the COVID-era, right? This is like last year. And that person deserves a medal.

So I think to answer your question, it, it plays out in everyday life because these are not just digital experiences. We take the things we see in digital experiences and then we sort of perpetuate these things in everyday life. We think, “Oh, well, this is the gold standard.” All of us that are higher ed, all of us had been in a meeting where somebody went on a website somewhere and was like can we just copy what they do?

JG
Yeah.

RB
And then we proceed to copy whatever Silicon Valley company — typically, in most cases, right — did the thing or for someone else’s bugaboo project that they found online somewhere. And now we’re perpetuating those same mistakes, those same menus, those same really bad IAs, burying content because somebody thought it was a good idea because they… “Well, how do we know better than Google does?” Oh, yeah, it works for Google but maybe it doesn’t work for what we’re trying to do. Have we thought about that? Have we done the research? So the risk is that people end up thinking that you know us working in the field that we know.

J.S.
Yeah, this applies to social media in so many regards is this kind of snowball effect of bad content. One person sees, I need to quit pick it on Canva but, a Canva designed image that’s an inspirational quote for #MotivationMonday, even though nobody ever clicks #MotivationMonday and searches the content on that hashtag. It’s not doing any good. It’s content for content’s sake, but somebody sees that from another university account and thinks, oh that’s what we need to do or I constantly say, you know, in meetings, our competitors should not be our role models. Just because other schools in the state are posting this sort of content, doesn’t mean we should be doing it too. It means that, hey, maybe they’re not doing the right thing and we have the opportunity to jump in and do something that helps us stand out or do the same thing but in a better way that fits our audience more so

RB
People go on Reddit and ask questions all the time on the UX subreddit — this is my new thing, is going on the UX subreddit and just ruining people’s lives — folks ask questions and they want you to do their homework for them. They’re like, “How do I do this thing? Give me a long explanation for why I should do User Acceptance testing.” And I’m like, I don’t know! I don’t know where you work! You wanna give me your salary to figure it out? But I think these are the things people need to think about is like, like, don’t just go to the source don’t just go to the experts. You figure out your use case, figure out your solution, figure out your problem, write copy and content to your audiences.

My current role, which I won’t discuss but you can Google it, I worked on a project with a very specific government audience. And it was like, internal folks, they were not external people at all. And so we made the decision pretty early on this initiative to write copy that was pretty dense, not because we thought that that was like a thing, you know, normally you’d want to use plain language, right? But in this case, the decision was made because we realized the audience of people who are really used to doing this a particular kind of way, they understand the subject matter expertise, and if you spend 30 man-hours rewriting everything that’s in this thing to make it more usable, you’re not going to make it usable for them because it won’t translate for what they actually need to be. You got to know your audience and once you understand that, you can design experiences or design solutions that work for that market. When you have a broader audience it’s a little bit different, but sometimes we have audiences that are you know that we can we can sort of understand and work to build solutions that work for them

J.S.
I think a lot of it comes down just back to respect for the other. So, what are some practices that designers and communicators can build into the ways they think about things and how we’re creating them, to make them more equitable?

RB
So I think, one, don’t treat them like they’re the other.

JG
Yeah.

RB
Don’t “otherize” people. I think that that’s it like it’s like, ooh, bringing it around, but I think it’s super important to understand that, while your audiences are not your friends, they could be your neighbors. The example I give is, this is a couple of years ago, kind of the first thing that really got me on this rant. It’s the most bizarre thing and I’m gonna tell you anyway, Joel’s already heard this, when I say it he’ll know.

The back of the Cheerios box — Cheerios is a gluten-free now, I’m celiac — they decided to go gluten-free. So the corporate story they told about this was that an old guy worked there for 30 years named Wilbur whatever the heck his name was, had a granddaughter who was celiac. So because of Wilbur’s dedication to Cheerios dot inc, dot club, they decided that they should figure out how to make Cheerios gluten-free. I thought to myself, instead of this being a heartwarming story to me, I thought, what the hell about everybody else who doesn’t have a grandfather that works at Cheerios dot club?! Like, what a scam it is that you gotta have somebody in corporate headquarters, to be able to get something done right, that solves for your your specific problem, this use case that, in this case, is pretty prevalent right? Ther’es tons of millions of people with celiac disease, who don’t even realize it.

So I think bringing it back around to your question about like the others. Going back to my, my favorite Reddit examples, people think research is like a nicety — like it’s a bonus. Oh and, of course, as a treat you get research. No! We should lead with it and do iterative research so you’re constantly testing things, and you’re constantly taking the time and building into, you know when you’re designing things. Whether it’s a really low fidelity thing or not, you’re getting this feedback from folks constantly so you’re able to figure out where you went right, where you went wrong. What’s working, what’s not working. Being willing to have your assumptions challenged. But too often though it’s not even folks who are necessarily individual contributors, it’s often like senior leadership who are like, sort of, mortified by the idea they could be wrong about everything, or in this case fine they’re not wrong about everything that’s wrong about this particular thing. And so, as a result, we’re like we don’t want to challenge so-and-so because you know highest paid most important person bla bla bla bla bla.

So, I think, relating to the higher ed audience, it’s a tough line to walk because there is this challenge. But in a post-COVID world, right, like everything is upended, doing that research, finding out how our individual stakeholders or our individual institutions, big, small school. What I do it 15,000 size state college is very different than what I do at a liberal arts college with 2000 students, you know? Or for a school that’s mostly an Ag school versus a school that’s more liberal arts, versus a school that’s more business, like whatever it is, like, we’re gonna have to target our messages in a much smarter way. Understand, how to, A., keep folks we have, right? Hopefully to bring new ones in, whatever model that is whether it’s online, whether it’s on campus, whether it’s this hybrid thing. And so I think that this reality should hopefully wake folks up to, we can’t just copy what they’re doing down the street. We can’t just do what our rivals are doing.

We need to really hone our message, we need to, you know, be unique with what we’re doing, what we’re offering, and then craft experiences and messaging around that. Design experiences, digitally, around that so that we’re able to create the engagement we want but also maintain what we have because things are going to get worse before they get better. And, you know, 1918 is everybody’s signpost for what used to happen but higher ed wasn’t like it is now in 1918, so you can’t look back to what they did 1918. Because what they did 1918 was not allow women, minorities to go to college so like, you know, we’re not, we’re not going backward, you know, despite some folks wanting to. So, it is what it is.

JG
Well, the struggle that I’ve had, as someone that owns an agency that does digital strategy for higher ed is just getting the realization that there does need to be budget put into doing research when you’re doing a redesign, but also thought of how you continue to test and continue to research and continue to try things out and make sure that things are working going into it. There’s still, after decades, this latent mindset that when you redesign and you launch the website, it’s done. And I don’t even think anyone really thinks that but there is an underlying assumption that the things that get changed are, Well cool we’re going to update this page content, we’re going to put a new homepage image or video up and we need to have a “dynamic thing” on the homepage which ends up being like an events feed or something and stuff that doesn’t cater to 90% of your audience, really.

And it’s a little bit dehumanizing honestly. You’re not paying attention to the real people that are interacting with your website or that are interested in your institution, interested in the product you sell, interested in the product you provide, or the service you provide, you’re just interested in your own internal opinions or the the groupthink that happens in your organization. And that, ah, yeah. It’s not a not a recipe for success going forward for sure.

RB
Well, it’s gonna cost you money. I think people don’t realize it’s costing you money. And you’re spending money to cost yourself more money by making bad decisions that you could fix if you were willing to be open to the possibility that you’re just wrong. Maybe all of us are wrong I’m not saying that oh, junior person is gonna have the right idea. Maybe they do. It’s just that by going and getting data said, figuring these things out and finding out, you know, finding out the hard answers is how you’re able to move things forward or stop where you are and pivot, you know before it’s too late.

JG
Yeah, and it’s these reports that are put out by different organizations or consultancies or whatever, there’s great information in those but they are not the end all be all because they’re not looking specifically at your audience, they’re not looking specifically at the prospective students or the parents or the current students or the customers or the users of your website, your web property, your product. I mean honestly with digital courses and stuff, I’d actually I think J.S. also mentioned this last week when we were talking about bringing you on, Ron, was what are your thoughts around how classes have had to go online and how universities have handled all of this with…. I mean they’re basically just taking a synchronous, lecture-based thing and turning it into a giant business meeting over video chat. Like that’s — it’s, you know, again like there isn’t there wasn’t thought… and to some extent like you have to leave affordance for the fact that there was not enough time for someone to put a real strategy in place, but you start researching as soon as you possibly can and you start testing things as soon as you can…

J.S.
And researching and testing. Not just looking at what other schools are doing because, basically, we hit the Zoom domino effect of like okay one school closed and they went to Zoom sessions and BOOM! Zoom Zoom Zoom Zoom Zoom Zoom Zoom, all the way down.

RB
They didn’t even use a different network! Like, they just all decided to use Zoom, like all of them. The private school I coach tennis at in my spare time, is also on Zoom and I’m like, “y’all know Skype exists?” I’m not saying you need to use it. I’m just saying like, there are other options.

JG
I mean I’ve had, like, you have a happy hour with a friend and it’s over Zoom. Like, what happened to a Google Hangout? What happened to a Skype call? What happened to FaceTime I mean like, there’s so much…

RB
Shoutout to Whereby over here like, “hello! Look at us! We rebranded!” Yes, yes indeed. You should sponsor this podcast.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. My thoughts are, I think it goes well. My actual thoughts are: The last thing higher ed needs is another highly paid person making decisions, but I would say that this is where centralization of digital strategy across organizations… I remember years ago I gave a talk at a school that will not be named. It’s quite large, in the big 10. And I remember somebody coming up to me afterwards, this is back when like, this was years before I thought I’d leave higher ed so this is like a long, this is like, I joke about like for people who are on the call who are like mid-career, early-career, like your career can take you places that you don’t realize you’re going to end up. And so you end up looking back and going, damn I didn’t know anything back then. But people thought I did! And that was what this is like. I mean I knew some things but, hoo, it was a different time. But anyway.

After this talk I gave, it was actually a really good talk, and this guy comes up to me and he’s like, “yeah I work at a Big-10 school. We’ve got like,” I forget the number, “like 100 different people on campus who have their own websites.” Basically like a hundred webmasters on campus, essentially, and there’s no central governance at all for this. My head exploded. And this is like six or seven years ago. This is still a thing! Schools are just not are not doing this. And again, the last thing you need is another person, highly paid and doesn’t know anything, but I do think that in a world where like a COVID happens, if you have a semblance of governance, if you have some kind of, fine, you don’t have a person in charge but you’ve got some coordination as an ad hoc leadership thing where somebody else takes charge for months at a time, be imaginative, I don’t care. The fact that we didn’t have that was really clear in this case because everybody was just sort of doing things. And the folks, making the decisions, maybe it’s an IT-driven decision. Most of us have worked in IT in some form or fashion, so we understand how IT decisions get made. It’s very different than digital strategy decisions or very different than making decisions that are web-first, or people-first, or user-centered.

And so I think you have to have that user-centered, in this case, student-centered, people-centered mindset around how you make these decisions. And the fact that we didn’t consider any of that and now, not only did we not consider it then, now we want to extend it into the fall and continue to do it the same way, without any modification, any adaptation.

I mean the real dereliction here is all these big vendors out here — shout to the vendors. Love y’all for all the free pens and the drinks over the years — but like, at the same time, Where is the creativity coming from them in terms of being able to spin up solutions? And I’m not talking about small vendors. But like, the point is is that there’s, there’s just there’s a vacuum here in terms of like, understanding how to serve audiences at a time that they really need that.

JG
Yeah.

RB
Like I’m not asking overworked people to make up new things. But I do think that it’s… the disservice here isn’t anything other than the students being left to figure out okay now what? Because yeah for most students it’s fine, but for the folks that are like a 1.7 GPA and now they’re telling you to go online, or home where you have an insecure WiFi. So you’re at McDonald’s, sitting outside of a McDonald’s doing your homework, to stay afloat, to keep your financial aid so you can go to school. Again, these are the user stories. These are the use cases. This is why service design is so important. This is why, to me, you know, we talk consequences? And Consequence Design is a part of thinking about the whole lifecycle of this. And we’re just, no one’s paid to do it, so nobody thinks about it other than maybe in an anecdote.

JG
The… ugh. There are so many things in there that I want to talk about. [laughs]

RB
It’s the Ron Bronson experience!

JG
And I love the Ron Bronson experience.

The biggest thing to me that that popped up, I mean, days after this, in my head, is just like what was once and probably still is called the digital divide, right? Your students come from very real variable geographic areas, they come from various socioeconomic standpoints, they come from different home situations. When we make the choice to force all students to learn online through something like Zoom, that is not a great app to like not a great piece of software from for one point, not something that’s native on every platform, not something that’s necessarily easy to use, isn’t necessarily accessible, definitely doesn’t have closed captioning built into it. And then, requiring students to have WiFi or, you know, to find WiFi, like you said having to sit outside of a McDonald’s and McDonald’s WiFi which is terrible.

J.S.
I mean we saw schools literally with parking lot WiFi like, “come park into our parking lot, the WiFi is on if you need it,” like. But hey, you know what? We’ve got Zoom backdrops, so…

JG
But what if you don’t live near campus? What if you’re out in the sticks because you have to go stay with your grandparents because your parents can’t afford to have you home. You’re staying with your grandparents out in the rural Midwest or something and you have that crappy satellite WiFi. Like, there’s just, there are so many variables? And I don’t know what schools… if you work at an institution that did research and is researching, I definitely want to talk to you. I think J.S. and I both would love to hear about what you’re doing and how you’re doing this and I think it’s something that’s important and helpful to the rest of the industry for sure, but there’re…

I don’t know of any, of any institutions that decided to start doing that research and dig in, to talk to their, their current students, and hear what’s going on. And it’s people like Liz [Gross] and Steve [App] and the team at Campus Sonar that are going out and having to get this information through social listening and social media monitoring versus us going right to the source and asking people directly asking our own students. That’s not necessarily bad, but the data that they collected should say, “Hey, go talk to your students!” You need to, like, it should be another flag for you to go out and actually start taking care of something like this.

RB
Yeah, yeah, I think you make a really valid point and I think that this actually, this conversation’s made me think that, made me realize how little information there is about iterative design research in general. Not just the like, what is it, but, but also like how do you do it, how does it work? How do you do it in a DIY way? Because I think people think of research — Joel, you know this, running an agency. J.S. certainly you know this at work — like people think research is labor-intensive, they think academic research! You need all these signatures and time and it’s laborious and… Yes, that. But they can also not do that.

JG
Yeah.

RB
They could also figure out how to create it for the time-space you have. And it’s again, using it for what you’re trying to use it for. Like we’re not trying to write a peer review paper here we’re trying to just get some feedback to be able to move forward on whatever we’re doing. But this has made me think that that there’s definitely more of a need for more of these conversations around this because I think people just don’t know how to do it in a way that that’s scalable for their situation.

JG
So Ron, having been out of higher ed for six… five or six years and working on a lot of other projects, far removed but projects is still affect the general population of people right? Like and higher ed isn’t any different. The stuff that we do affects general people like anything does. I’d love to hear, I don’t know, any observations that you’ve had or, when you’ve had a moment to think back to higher ed and think about it, and we’ve had conversations over the last couple years, what have you noticed that is the same, what things are getting better, and then maybe what kind of sectors or areas or industries could higher ed pay attention to, to improve what they’re doing to get that creative spark or to, you know, to maybe not have to rely on big tech companies to solve their problems for them?

RB
Well, I’d say that… I will be completely honest and say, the only reason I’ve spent any real time paying attention to higher ed, besides like our conversations or talking to friends, is because I have a teenager, who’s a rising sophomore in high school and so like, I’ve had to start looking at this stuff again and I’m like, oh geez, you all have not improved your websites at all in the time that I left. This is ridiculous. And also kind of hilarious. And so I feel like everything’s still the same in many ways. The sites still have terrible hamburger menus and, you know, sort of bury three and four layers of content, and it’s hard to find things, and I’m like, who is the audience for this main site, you know?

So I think that I’ve noticed, and was sort of surprised by, how everything’s gotten more cookie-cutter, I feel like. For a while, we were able to sort of be creative and try our own things a little bit. Schools were willing to be a little daring and try different things. I think there were a lot more agencies. There were a lot more smaller agencies that were proliferating the space at that time, you know, six years ago?

JG
Yeah.

RB
And so I feel like schools were willing to be more creative and I feel like now there’s sort of this McDonald’s-ization of designs of sites. And so even if you’re not being designed by whatever the big firms are these days, or if you’re doing it in-house, you’re still just copying the same patterns. And some level of that is good, I suppose, when you’re copying patterns that are already researched. But it’s bad when it’s like, I’m not sure how to find things on your site that supposedly you just worked on.

JG
Yeah.

RB
as far as where I think higher ed can learn, I feel like it’s less about industries that are doing it well and more about the tenets. I think the biggest thing that I found with being in higher ed versus leaving it — and part of the reason I knew I needed to leave was more I would go to events in higher ed and go to have discussions that were very higher ed-specific around digital, and the language wasn’t the same as what I was hearing in like the content strategy, UX product design spaces outside of higher ed. The language was different, the nomenclature was different, the things they were doing was different, approaches were different. So I’m thinking, higher ed isn’t that specific that you need to be that detached from what the regular world is doing. The beauty of having been in government for the last five years from state to local to federal is that, while there are certainly separate spaces, the knowledge is coming into us. It’s coming from the sectors of folks that are doing this work for the private sector from the open-source government space. So we’re getting best practices that are being employed by everybody else and we’re just bringing that to a space that desperately needs it. I think higher ed can learn from that.

So, learning from the civic tech space of like, how do we, you know, what’s a design system, right? And I know some schools are doing this, they’re like, learning how to implement some of these higher-order tenets, and then from there thinking about how to implement things that work at the scale that they’re at. That was probably the most fascinating difference when I left higher right and sort of joined the “real world,” was how different the conversations were and how I didn’t have to over-explain what I was doing because work translates no matter where I’m at and that’s nice, and I’d love higher ed to sort of join that wave of… Why doesn’t higher ed have product designers? Like you probably could use some at this point right?

JG
Yeah!

RB
End-to-end, full scale-like, you know, full-speed. Why not? More UXers doing that kind of work. The days of the webmaster, the webmaster was dead 10 years ago, really dead now. We’re still operating in that paradigm of sort of the single-source person single-person-of-truth managing all the things. Like governance is important but I think that that’s not the only piece of this. I think there are other facets that we need to adapt to, to be able to be nimble enough to, when a COVID happens, have an institution be able to flip on a dime. Because they understand containerization, they understand agile design and being able to sort of, “oh, we’re not on campus anymore? Cool. We can adapt because we’re already built for that. That resiliency is already there. We already work cross-functionally. We’re not in silos.”

That’s the biggest thing too, the other big thing is cross-functionality. It’s embedded organizationally. If I can build a cross-functional team in government, you surely can do it in higher ed! Like, come on. And I’m not talking about the federal government, I mean local government. I worked in a town of 60,000 and we built a cross-functional team. There’s no excuse for an institution to be able not to do that.

JG
I understand the silos thing. People talk about it a lot, they they mention it on the show and, you know, higher ed has them. Yes, it does. That doesn’t mean you can’t be an agent for change. That doesn’t mean you can’t reach into a silo next to you and make a friend or build a relationship there so that you can start working cross-functionally there. I’ve done it. I’ve done it at two universities. It does take work, but it’s something that makes your own life way easier and produces way better results.

Well, thank you so much for listening to Episode 12 of the Thought Feeder podcast. Special thanks to Ron Bronson for being on the show. Thanks, Ron, it was great having you.

RB
Seriously a pleasure keep doing it. Keep up the good work. It’s seriously a joy to get to be part of it.

JG
If you want to listen to more similar topics we’ve got Episode Seven that talks about how UX design is going to be the thing that saves higher ed, a small fragment of what we talked about today, and Episode Nine on higher and homogeneity, just to give you a little bit more context.

J.S.
We’ll see you next time.

JG
Thanks as always for listening to the Thought Feeder podcast, you can find us wherever you get your podcasts, and we would appreciate a follow, a subscribe, a rating, a review, whatever you can give us! We are @ThoughtFeedPod on Twitter, and you can also find us at thoughtfeederpod.com where all of the episodes are listed with links to every possible subscription service that we are on. Thanks again for listening.

Thought Feeder is hosted by Joel Goodman and Jon-Stephen Stansel and edited by Joel Goodman.

Thought Feeder is sponsored by University Insight.

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