12 years in higher education web and user experience management

Unlabelled venn diagram

Today I have started a new job. I am hugely excited about my new role (which I’ll describe below). But while I’m looking forward, I have also been reflecting, as this moment marks my first real move away from higher education.

First job at Scotland’s first university

In 2009 I got my first “proper” job after graduating from university. It was as a web editor at the University of St Andrews. I have worked in higher education ever since, but in three different institutions and a surprisingly wide variety of different departments.

Four of those different departments were at the University of St Andrews alone. I worked there for five years, but it seemed like I was always either in the middle of a restructure, or preparing for my next one.

To experience such choppy political waters so early in my career perhaps stood me in good stead for my future.

The first department I worked for was called Business Improvements. To a fresh-faced person new to the world of work, the department seemed like an odd mix: web developers, learning technologists, database operations, data protection officers, copyright specialists — and a slightly maverick team of change-makers called Lean.

Subsequently I have come to recognise Business Improvements as something akin to a change management and continuous improvement function. In my years at St Andrews, the Lean team became the Change unit, which has subsequently become Business Transformation.

I was lucky enough to work with that team quite a lot. Even though once or twice I felt like I was on the rough end of the change, it exposed me early on to some vital ideas about change management and making things work for business. That exposure to people who were real experts at delivering and managing change helped me weather some storms later on in my career.

As for my own work at St Andrews, my first few years were spent with the university’s web team. This was hugely valuable for my professional development. My senior colleagues, Steve Evans and Gareth Saunders, were generous in sharing their knowledge. They quickly pointed me in the direction of resources like Steve Krug’s book Don’t Make Me Think, and Jakob Nielsen’s usability newsletter. It was a firm foundation of my path to becoming a user experience specialist.

Moreover, that constant change I mentioned eventually saw me being seconded to Admissions, to lead a major project to redesign webpages aimed at prospective students, including major process improvements. Those improvements were so successful that a small team was built around me, and, following another shift to work with Corporate Communications, we began to implement our new approaches across the external-facing website.

I continue to be proud of this accomplishment. I proved to myself what I could achieve.

But the constant change eventually wore me down. I found myself becoming frustrated in my job, at the same time as planning a big change in my personal life.

Pastures new

In 2015 I decided to move to Edinburgh with my partner Alex so that we could build our future together. The job I found was with SRUC (Scotland’s Rural College). While it is a college, it also offers higher education study opportunities through partnerships with universities. But SRUC is firmly part of the college sector.

I had a prior suspicion that working in a college in Scotland at that time might be a challenge. The Scottish government heavily restructured the entire sector in 2012, and colleges have remained underfunded ever since.

My memory of SRUC is that it was full of friendly, hard-working people delivering quality work in challenging circumstances. A noticeable trend was the way overstretched people would leave, then not be replaced due to budget constraints, leading to more people being more overstretched.

Compounding this was the fact that the communications department of this rural-focused college tended not to see web or digital as a priority. I was the web manager. But I also felt like a web team of one, albeit with the support of a digital communications officer (who mixed web support with social media duties) and a part-time web developer from another department.

Despite the challenges, I still managed the odd achievement.

I had the great opportunity to speak at the higher education web management conference IWMW, about my experience of building new teams at St Andrews and SRUC.

In terms of the website, I made some content changes and managed a partial redesign of the course finder that led to a better-than-doubling of the number of people hitting the main “apply now” calls to action.

But ultimately I found the job too limiting. When my role threatened to become more focused on writing press releases rather than running the already under-resourced website, I knew it was definitely time to leave.

Full circle with the University of Edinburgh

Meanwhile, an incredible opportunity opened up at the University of Edinburgh with the Website and Communications section.

I’d already been following the team’s work with great interest. My manager was Neil Allison, whose presentations about user experience transformed the way I thought about it. So I was keen to work with his team.

The role was initially focused on content, which matched my skills well. But I was most keen to pursue user experience.

Luckily for me, the team’s attitude around professional development is very proactive. I was given ample opportunity to upskill by attending training sessions, going to conferences and getting directly involved in user experience projects.

Before long, user experience became a formal part of my role. Soon enough I was trusted to lead on the user experience strand of a major project, Learn Foundations, to improve the way people use the virtual learning environment to learn and teach. This work, which we came to view as service design as much as user experience, gained a lot of traction, and the project was a success.

Our work turned out to be fortuitous. It helped schools more easily move their teaching online when the coronavirus outbreak necessitated it.

Working in web, digital or user experience in higher education can sometimes feel marginal. Web folk like to think the website is critical. In reality, it is very far down the priority list in comparison to research, teaching and a host of other activities that are much more core to a university’s business.

But with the Learn Foundations project, I was able to use my user experience skills to make a direct impact on how the university teaches. It was immensely fulfilling to be able to have that sort of influence, far beyond the website and into virtual classrooms. I also had the privilege of speaking about Learn Foundations at the UCD Gathering conference.

In an unexpected turn of events, my manager Neil vacated his position to lead a new team in another part of the university. I was selected to become the user experience manager.

But it was a period of change in the section my team was part of. This meant that the user experience service wasn’t able to operate at the scale it had done when I first joined. I inherited a smaller team, and as part of the winds of change each of those remaining members ended up moving on.

Interestingly, I found myself building a new team (almost) from scratch for a third time in my career. That could be the subject of a future blog post where I can update my 2016 IWMW presentation.

Parallels across institutions

There have been a lot of spooky parallels between my times working at University of St Andrews and the University of Edinburgh. Both of those jobs had three clear phases.

They each began with a period of a couple of years spent finding my feet and learning rapidly. Then I had a chance to lead on a fulfilling and successful project.

Then, in both institutions, that success led to me being promoted. But both times I felt frustrated by the way this thrust me into an environment where it was somehow harder to make the case to continue doing the things I knew made those projects successful.

Part of that comes with the territory of being a manager. After all, it isn’t supposed to be an easy job. But after a while I found my energy reserves getting low. Or, to borrow an analogy from Steve Krug, my reservoir of goodwill ran out.

It’s interesting that I have lasted exactly the same amount of time at both universities I’ve worked for — 5½ years. It’s almost as if that’s as much as I will tolerate.

Dealing with organisational politics has itself been a huge learning experience, and it has definitely sharpened my thinking. But it can only take me so far, and it’s not really what I want to be learning about any more. I want to continue growing my skills in user experience, and that’s what makes my next step so exciting.

Joining User Vision

I’m excited to have started working with User Vision as a principal user experience consultant.

User experience can mean radically different things depending on who you talk to, and not everyone who claims to be an expert really is. But User Vision really understand what user experience needs to be about — and that is backed by their 22 years of solid experience dedicated to the field.

I’ve been following User Vision’s work for a good number of years, dropping in on their breakfast briefings and World Usability Day events. I’m delighted to be joining this team.

As this marks my first focused move beyond higher education, I’m looking forward to getting stuck into to projects with different sectors, different types of clients and a different variety of projects. I expect this role will help me keep growing in the way I want.

Want to be a user experience manager?

Meanwhile, if I haven’t put you off, my old position as user experience manager at the University of Edinburgh is now being advertised.

Got accessibility skills?

User Vision are also looking for people at all levels to join our accessibility team. View the User Vision careers page to find out about our accessibility jobs.


4 responses to “12 years in higher education web and user experience management”

  1. What a great summary of your career and seeing your path of spotting opportunities and building skills to suit your interest along the way. And of course I’m thrilled that the latest chapter finds you with User Vision! Looking forward to putting your skills to work on client and internal projects Duncan

  2. Thank you for your comment and for your kind words Chris. I’m looking forward to this latest chapter!

  3. Wow, congratulations on your new role! I remember sending you that link to the St Andrews job all those years ago when we were fellow bloggers, you’ve come such a long way! I was also lucky enough to have worked with the UV guys when I was at Careers Scotland and they did a brilliant job for us. Best of luck, Duncan,

  4. Vicky, it’s so great to hear from you! I think I’ve said to you before that I’m not sure I would have come across that job and applied for it unless you sent it to me. So thank you again for encouraging me and setting me off on the first big step of my career.

    And it’s great to hear that you have worked with User Vision as well, and that we did a good job! 😀

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.