Education buying behaviour: What role does UX play?

Hannah Tempest, head of experience delivery at UX agency Nomensa, discusses the rising competition for consumer attention across the higher education sector

With competition on the rise for consumer attention across all sectors, including education, understanding purchasing behaviour and the psychology behind these decisions is more important than ever.

Imagine this – you’re searching for a new product and there’s very little differentiation between the brands. How do you make your decision? Customer experience has a greater impact than you’d believe, both in face-to-face and digital environments. Particularly as students from across the globe may be choosing the UK as their education destination, universities are facing tough competition to attract and convert candidates. This is why many, like Cambridge University, are looking to UX and CX for the answer.

The student’s perspective

Let’s start by putting yourself in the position of a modern student and placing the purchasing power in your hands. How would you choose your subject of study and the university where you’ll spend anywhere between three to six years enhancing your knowledge in this field? If course content is similar across varying institutions, rankings are on par and location isn’t a key consideration in your thought process, then the decision is very much based on consumer behaviour and psychology, and their interpretation of your organisation and its core values. However, some variables, including their communication channels, can be influenced by universities to manage perceptions and better showcase their offerings. The website is a key example of this, and it can have a direct impact on conversion rates whether the students are UK-based or applying from further afield. This is one of the reasons why may universities and colleges are more frequently reaching out to UX agencies in search of memorable user experiences.

Let me come back to my previous point. I mentioned international students specifically as they are undoubtedly important to universities, their income and the economy as a whole. In 2018/2019, government figures show that 485,645 international students came to the UK to pursue their qualifications, with 342,620 of those individuals coming from outside the EU. These students add £20 billion to the UK economy through income tax and National Insurance, so their importance doesn’t go unnoticed. Their attraction is arguably owed to the incredible reputation of the UK’s leading universities, but given the ongoing positive reputation of Russell Group universities in particular, what differentiates these institutions and why was the University College of London the most popular choice during this period? To answer that question, we must first understand that for those choosing their subject options from abroad, a physical visit may not always be achievable in the first instance. Many educators are starting to recognise this, with the initial customer experience of the brand typically being explored through its online platforms.

Decisions, decisions…

Study International recently reported that technology is playing an integral role in the decision-making process for students, with universities utilising webinars and virtual tools to help make this big decision easier, giving students a digital connection to the institution itself. With many operating remotely at present due to the coronavirus pandemic, these tools are proving more important than ever – especially in terms of communications. However, it’s not simply the initial attraction that makes technology so effective, but how it will be utilised once a student is on-campus, assisting in their learning journey. For example, consider whether any programmes, learning materials or content need to be accessed through this platform and the big picture, because your students will be approaching your digital platforms with this mindset, so it needs to be accessible to those of all abilities if you truly wish to attract a diverse range of talent.

Aside from aesthetics, does the website operate as it should, at speeds that adhere to the typically short attention spans of Gen Z? Famously, Gen Z has an attention of span of just eight seconds, so although your website may look aesthetically pleasing, if it takes longer than this to simply load, they’ll have likely switched off in search of a more efficient experience elsewhere. However, there also needs to be a greater balance between the traditionally static, brochure-led websites noted in the education sector, and a more engaging, dynamic redesign that truly captures the attention of the audience and differentiates you from your competitors.

Additionally, considering your medium and taking a mobile-first approach to UX is critical for the next generation of tech-savvy individuals. On average, research tells us that Gen Z use their smartphones for 15.4 hours per week, more than any other type of device, and in 2018, 58% of website visits came from a mobile device. Therefore, designing any platform without taking into account that the majority of university-based research is likely to be conducted through this device could be particularly problematic, especially when this will be the target demographic. Consider how your design and overall UX can be translated for mobile use, and if there are any elements of your website that need to be altered to create a streamlined mobile experience that keeps accessibility at the forefront.

First impressions matter

A website often delivers the initial introduction into educational institutions, and for this reason alone, you must deliver this experience in a way that reflects your organisation’s identity. Typically, websites in this sector follow a brochure-led approach to design which may be informative but does not necessarily engage and interact with your target audience (both the Gen Z students and their guardians who will undoubtedly influence the decision) in a way that’s going to pack clout when making the ‘purchasing’ decision to reach the end goal. After all, this platform needs to deliver practically, especially if it’s utilised during course programmes, and must also ensure that the user journey is clear from the moment a user lands on the site, keeping their behaviour and psychology at the forefront of design thinking.

Additionally, with the growing prominence of social media, you must ensure that the website and its experience validate the tone of voice you communicate and overarching message that you use across other communication channels – and offline comms should be considered in this too. You are creating for humans so it’s imperative that you work to understand those peering into your ‘shop window’ and humanise this technology in a consistent way that speaks to the modern generation.

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