I don’t have a Ph.D.
Heck, I don’t even have a masters’ degree. My B.A. in English is serving me fine and dandy working as a content strategist in higher education, and only partially because my concentration was on dystopian literature. Though I’m not a professor, I still find myself deeply connected to the mission of my institution. This is true for many not only in higher ed, but all kinds of public sector work.
The core of our mission in higher ed boils down to three things: research, teaching, and outreach. Generate the knowledge, pass on the knowledge, and apply the knowledge for the greater good. Through our work in content strategy (and all the other disciplines we wind up touching), we can serve this mission – no tenure required.
The University of Minnesota has a Carnegie Classification as an R1-VH institution, one of 108 in the country with a very high research output. While I feel this sometimes lends readier support for research in our projects, I haven’t yet found a college or university that wholly shies away from best practices and data-informed decision-making.
Working on the web can be mystifying to a lot of folks in academia, who often recognise it as something necessary but nebulous. Be the demystifying light in the darkness. Share results with administrators, invite skeptics to a usability session, and – most dauntingly – be open about failure and next steps. You can’t do your work in complete isolation; bringing your stakeholders in on the fact that you don’t just “make this stuff up.”
Unsure where to start with research? Steve Krug lays out simple, no-budget user testing you can do in 10 minutes. Erika Hall helps you avoid getting stuck in research mode, and know when you’ve got enough data to move forward.
“Oh no, we’re not like them. We’re different.” It’s not just the star-bellied Sneetches who set themselves apart to their detriment. Colleges and universities have much more in common than we’d like to admit. These similarities, however, drive a need to differentiate ourselves, as well as fierce competition for students, partnerships, and funding.
I often keep the words of one of my heroes, the late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, in mind: “We all do better when we all do better.” While our admissions directors might not share recruitment strategies, and our coaches won’t swap playbooks, there’s nothing forbidden about us reaching out to colleagues at other schools and talking shop.
So grab a coffee with someone from another school, or even better, someone from another part of campus. Share your victories or (likely easier to come up with) frustrations, and listen to theirs. You don’t have to solve every problem, or even start to fix one of them, but sharing ideas will help the whole place move forward.
A sneaky side bonus of this is fuel for a major motivator in higher ed: jealousy. Maybe the idea I pitched landed on deaf ears, but if I can subtly point out that one of our biggest rivals – University of Wisconsin – is working on something similar, I might just get a bit more interest!
My colleague and usability expert Nick Rosencrantz often tells a joke about how the safest place to be in a zombie apocalypse is a university campus – it will take at least three years for any changes to get there. Similarly, my boss calls the pace of our work “Higher Ed Dog Years” – something that would take one year in the private sector takes seven in ours.
The slow pace of higher ed is one of the most frequently-cited frustrations of people working in and with it. However, this pace can be seen as an asset, and we can use it to bring good work and new ideas to other industries.
When you’re not on commission, or beholden to this quarter’s sales, or in a feast-or-famine environment dependent on contracts, you can move slower. You can take the time to test something, you can spend the effort to really dig in to a question.
My team started to do preliminary work on our core site redesign about four years ago (a timeline which makes my private sector friends pale). Instead of rolling out a massive refresh at once, though, we split things up into chunks. First, we did user research and card sorting exercises to re-work some navigation items, and gave the content a complete overhaul. These changes all went live with the exact same design in place. Our internal users were able to get acquainted with the new content without reorienting to a new design.
With the content finished, our designer and developer began bringing together elements of our new site, which went through a few more rounds of testing in the usability lab. When the “new” site launched this summer, adjustment to the new look and behavior to the site was helped along by the fact that the content was functionally the same as it had been before.
I’ve told this story to folks in many industries, and while most of them don’t have the option of such an extended timeline, the practice of launching new content inside an old design first has helped a lot of them in situations where a client needs to see tangible results as soon as they can.
Get in on broader, cross-industry content strategy discussions whenever you can – there are great communities on Facebook, Twitter, and Slack, and local meet-ups for content strategy, UX, IA, and accessibility help connections and good ideas bloom.
It’s worth time to take a look at the mission of wherever you work and see how you fit into it, no matter your role.