It’s time for universities to get more ‘appy

University student mobile apps - the chances are if you don't have one you're strongly considering getting one or if you already have one you’re monitoring how it is performing and actively thinking about how you can make it better.

It's not an easy domain to master and many university web app owners are not experts in the field. You may have gotten one due to pressure from management and you might now be finding yourself desperate for it to perform better.

I attended the Future of Web Design conference in London on 28th April. It's a superb conference; I heard some insightful talks and personally, I got a lot out of it. (I have included a list of speakers at the end of the post with links to each speaker's Twitter account.)

The one I really want to talk about is "Designing for a 24 hour experience" by Jon Stetzen. Jon talked about considering user engagement in terms of a 24 hour, 360 degree experience where the app is embedded in the user's activities through a day or some process - could be air travel or checking your site's performance analytics or a student's university life cycle.

John made some shrewd points and I could see how they translated to university student apps. This blog will focus on how universities can become more ‘Appy and ultimately work towards making their apps more successful.

Know your users…and yourself

Your app should:

  • Connect with users on an emotional level to get them properly engaged
  • Create behaviors as well as solve problems
  • Anticipate user behavior and then influence it
  • Turn needs into wants

In his talk, Mr Stetzen talks about exploring your users and their day-to-day behaviours to find out how to engage with them to achieve these goals. As well as standard user research questions about user's specific goals and context, be sure to ask questions like "where is your mobile phone when you wake up?", "what is your first engagement with your device?", "where was the last place you had a really good idea"? Keep the questions open and unbiased.

They may seem like off-beat questions but engagement happens best when you know your users intimately so "who" your users are is important and those sorts of questions should allow you to gleam some rich information about them.

"Know thyself" too. The aphorism is true for your own app's identity too - "who" is it to its users? Engagement is a two-way exchange between your app and users so it's important to bear this in mind. This will be informed by your university’s brand, its value proposition, and where your app sits in realizing this. It will help identify your app's personality so you know how to pitch it to your users.

360 degree experience

Users use apps in a transient way - they pop in, do or find something and they pop back out. Often apps are used because of a "need" rather than a want. Turning the need into a want is key. Useful, engaging features based on your user research will help achieve this.

In terms of a 360 degree experience Mr Stetzen gave the example of Virgin Atlantic’s mobile app []. They successfully embed their app in the user’s entire end-to-end travel experience. Users do everything from browsing and booking flights to checking flight status to finally downloading their boarding pass. You can even check your flight club balance and you get a countdown to your flight.

These ideas translate into the university domain. Think about a student's life cycle at university.

Students will want to:

  • Register for a program
  • Find out about and enroll for courses
  • Pay fees
  • Find out about lecture times and locations
  • Get course materials - lecture slides, lab work
  • Submit assignments
  • Find out about exam times and locations

These are common features of student mobile apps. Your app should be embedded in their entire college experience. An interesting addition to the Virgin app is the countdown to a flight. Anything in a UI which a user considers to be incomplete creates psychological tension will continue to bring the user back to using the app. This could be replicated by a countdown to exams or assignment due dates to provide that tension and it could even help students in their academic efforts.

Other useful features could be allowing users to set up “today” desires like:

  • Reminders about lecture times 
  • What’s for lunch in the canteen
  • Computer lab availability 
  • Notifications about location-based activities on campus

These are all things that increase engagement and embed the app in the student experience. It requires some thought to consciously create that. You should have enough information to understand who your users are so you can provide this. The goal is to predict users' behaviour and guide their behaviours you want. Ultimately it's all about knowing your users and your app. You want users to engage on an emotional level; get to know who they are, what they do and what they want. Then use the apps features to fulfill these and to convert those needs into wants.

And all of this should make your university more ‘Appy!

Have a look here for some of the other talks which I attended.