Service design can improve things for students

Amatey Doku and Tim Churchill consider how new university projects, services and initiatives can put students at the centre

Amatey Doku is an HE Consultant at Moorhouse Consulting


Tim Churchill is Experience Design Manager at Moorhouse Consulting

Imagine the scene. Three months after the opening of a new “student hub” – and the university’s student liaison committee is presented with some bleak statistics.

Despite the record investment into a new student space which boasts a range of services and support, students just aren’t using the space. The rationale for investment was clear – traditionally students across the university sector have had to deal with a myriad of different support services across their institutions – more and more are developing hubs to bring them under one roof.

But the committee is confused – they know that the exact model has been successful at a number of universities, so why hasn’t it worked here?

Replace the “student hub” with any other student focused initiative or service, or the student experience in general, and this committee scene may be all too familiar. And the answer is likely to be simple – the service was not designed in a student centric way.

We may say that “students are at the heart of everything we do” but what does this mean in practice?

Stuck in the middle

Our institutions have not historically been structured to put students at the centre but we’ve seen real positive developments in recent years to address this – the growth of student experience teams and specialists, leads for student experience joining executive groups and better resourced students’ unions all show a commitment to put students at the heart of university decision making.

The impetus for action on student experience continues to grow – greater expectations from students, the continued focus on mental health and regulatory obligations relating to access and student success call for more innovative approaches.

Adopting a service design approach can improve the experiences of both students and staff by designing, aligning, and optimising a university’s operations to better support student journeys. Our experience with organisations suggests that universities would do well to approach this in four stages; discover, define, develop and deliver.

Generating insight

Using data to generate key insights into the student experience is an important starting point. In this “discover” phase, a range of approaches can be taken to understand student experience challenges. To take the student hub example, this could involve in-depth interviews or focus groups to better understand students’ motivations, perspectives, needs and behaviours in relation to using a space for support. Alongside this, pop ups on campus are known to work well – you can capture a wide range of views very quickly (particularly if your stall has free food!).

An output from this phase could be a current state student journey map – one that visually allows you to map the student experience, either in its entirety or for a particular service, and identify successes and pain-points of the existing experience. It’s worth remembering that there is unlikely to be a singular “student-journey” – student journey maps allow you to call out specific pain-points and challenges for different types and demographics of students.

Identifying areas to focus on

The data and insights from the “discover” phase should give a good basis to identify the priority areas to focus on to improve the student experience in the “define” phase. If you’re using this approach for the whole student experience, you might pick out 4 or 5 of the biggest pain-points for students, informed by the data and analysis.

Crucially, this means resources for improvements can be focused on areas where there is the strongest evidence that action is required. Working with students to identify those priority areas is critical to make sure that the university focuses on the areas of greatest need for them.

Exploring potential solutions

Once you’ve had the chance to define the key areas of focus for improving the experience, this next phase gives the opportunity to develop and generate potential solutions for tackling the areas identified.

As with all phases, it’s particularly important to ensure that students from a diverse range of backgrounds are included; the student experience solutions need to work for all students, particularly those from historically marginalised backgrounds. An output of this phase could be “Storyboarding”, a visual tool to illustrate future student experiences that can provoke debate and discussions about the merits or flaws of potential solutions.

Iterating solutions that work

In the final phase of this approach, you develop an iterative plan of the steps you need to take to address the student experience challenge. You can do this by piloting and testing new initiatives and approaches and ensuring that there are clear channels for both students, student reps and staff to give feedback about what’s working and what needs to be improved.

The service design approach requires time, resource and planning: a tough ask when resources are constrained. However, there are multiple benefits on offer –

  • Real in-depth insight into the current state of student experience; including successes and pain points
  • Buy in from students on new approaches or services, having been included at every stage

A structure for how the university can deliver an improved student-centred student experience – with existing inefficiencies identified and addressed and a clear blueprint and rationale to break down traditional institutional silos.

Using the service design approach provides a structured and proven approach to discovering, defining, developing and delivering improvements in the student experience. Therefore, the approach is valuable when considering student experience in furthering strategic ambitions around student wellbeing and equality, diversity and inclusion.

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