Overcoming Cultural Legacy at the University of Dundee

Paul Boag

This week on the Boagworld Show we continue our season on building a user-centric culture by talking to Andrew Millar from the University of Dundee about how they established a UX culture from scratch.

This week’s show is sponsored by Balsamiq and FullStory.


Paul Boag: This week on the Boag World Show, we continue our season of building user-centric cultures by talking to Andrew Millar from the University of Dundee about how they established a UX culture from scratch.

Paul Boag: This show is supported by sponsors Fullstory and Balsamiq.

Paul Boag: Hello, and welcome to the Boag World show, the podcast about all aspects of digital design development and strategy. My name is Paul Boag, and joining me on this week's show, as always … I don't know why I say, "Joining me," like sometimes you don't.

Marcus Lillington: Well very, very occasionally I don't. But yeah, it's pretty much-

Paul Boag: Normally when you're on holiday somewhere.

Marcus Lillington: Yeah, and I've done that. Although I am actually going away again sneakily for a long weekend.

Paul Boag: Ooh, where are you going?

Marcus Lillington: Going to to Spain. Our friends … As you know from last week's show, I went away to the Caribbean-

Paul Boag: You see, now I … Do you know what? I don't care.

Marcus Lillington: You don't care, but I'm going to tell you anyway.

Paul Boag: But nobody cares, that's the point.

Marcus Lillington: No, they do. They do.

Paul Boag: The whole thing was that you doing this thought for the day would shut you up, but we just get straight into that and avoid all this kind of crap.

Marcus Lillington: Not going to talk now.

Paul Boag: Good. Right, well get on and do your thought for the day then.

Marcus Lillington: No, I'm going to talk about Spain.

Paul Boag: Alright, well in that case, I'm going to talk about my upcoming masterclass, because people are interested in that.

Marcus Lillington: I am, Paul.

Paul Boag: I'm doing a masterclass, did you know that?

Marcus Lillington: Yeah, yeah, I did know that and I'm very interested.

Paul Boag: You're going to have to pay for it. Don't think you're getting it for free, do you? What do you think I am, generous?

Marcus Lillington: I'm not interested, Paul, I was just saying it. I can't even remember what it's about. It's about conning people into stuff, isn't it? Something like that.

Paul Boag: No it's not. It's called, "Ethical Clicks." No, not Ethical Clicks, I've got the name wrong. "Encouraging Clicks – An Ethical Guide to Encouraging Action Without Alienating Users."

Paul Boag: And I'm really excited about it. It's the first time I've ever done anything like this, so it's like five hours worth of material, recorded in 32 individual videos, that's going to go up on Teachable, and it's going to have … It's going to be proper, it's going to have transcripts, and it's even going to have a quiz for each video. That's how professional like I am, kind of thing. So it could be really good.

Marcus Lillington: Is this quiz to prove that you've actually read it?

Paul Boag: Well, I don't know. They basically say, "It's good to do quizzes." So, I do a quiz. I think it's a way of … it's supposed to help you remember it anyway.

Marcus Lillington: [crosstalk 00:02:45]?

Paul Boag: You can pre-order this. This is why I bring it up, obviously, because it's a lot of work to produce this, and I'm really worried I'm going to get to the end of it and nobody's going to buy it. So I thought, I'll start selling it now.

Marcus Lillington: Good idea.

Paul Boag: Because then I get money now, rather than later. But I couldn't be bothered to create a Kickstarter campaign, because you know, that's far too much effort. And also I'm going to do it whether or not it sells, I've decided. I'm committed. Partly because Balsamiq, who's a sponsor on this show, is supporting me and helping me do it, which is really good.

Paul Boag: So, if you want to pre-order this or just find out more about it really, you can go to Boag.world/masterclass. There you go, so we've managed to avoid talking abour Marcus' holiday, and actually talk about something related to web design, although admittedly, it's just me selling shit at you.

Marcus Lillington: People would prefer to hear about Spain I'm sure.

Paul Boag: I'm sure they wouldn't What have you got for them Marcus? What's your thought for the day? I'm very excited by this, because last time I knew what you were going to do; this time I've no clue, so that's a bit of a disclaimer, basically. I'm saying to the listener, "If this is shit, it's not my fault because I don't know what you're going to talk about."

Marcus Lillington: Well, I've got quite a lot, a bit of a backlog, of blog posts that I've written over the last couple of years, [crosstalk 00:04:06] just went back and had a look at what I thought might be relevant, or might be interesting. Because of course nobody reads my posts, so I thought I'll do what you do, Paul, and rehash stuff.

Paul Boag: The trouble is I can't even deny that, it's absolutely true. Go on.

Marcus Lillington: So there you go. This particular … and it is kind of, they are just my thoughts so I guess they are thoughts for the day. This one came about from when we were pitching work for a law firm, probably three years ago now. And I basically-

Paul Boag: Is that how long ago it was that you last wrote a blog post? Is that what we're saying?

Marcus Lillington: No, no. I've gone back to the start, Paul.

Paul Boag: Oh, right.

Marcus Lillington: [inaudible 00:04:51] actually go through them. No, it's not totally true. I just thought this one was actually quite vaguely interesting. I know you said quite interesting, but only vaguely.

Marcus Lillington: Anyway, I started looking at the competition; people we were up against. And I started looking at what they were saying about their products and that kind of thing. And I thought, "It's not really true what you're saying." Basically, they were all claiming that they didn't lock their clients in at all, and basically yeah. All of their software was open source, that kind of thing. And it just got me thinking.

Marcus Lillington: Back to the start of the thinking was the fact that Headscape, way back in the mists of time, we developed our own proprietary concent management system, which I'm sure you can remember, Paul.

Paul Boag: I do.

Marcus Lillington: And at the time, back in the early naughties, most contact management systems were A, ridiculously expensive, six figures for a CMS, and really, really hard to use. They were crap, basically. And we decided, took it on ourselves that we could develop our own little CMS that would be really easy to use and we would just bung in with the development of websites.

Marcus Lillington: And it was great, basically, everyone loved it. But, there were certain things about it, certain things that didn't work as well as we would like them to, or there was new features that we wanted to add to it. And the way it had originally been built meant we had basically to start again.

Marcus Lillington: So we started again, we did another version of it, and it was a little bit more complicated but people still kind of loved it and continued to use it. Then … quite a lot of this obviously Paul, you're going to remember, but we had a client called NATS. We still have a client called NATS, we still work with them on various projects. And way back in 2010, I'm not even going and pronounce it, but the Icelandic volcano with the very, very silly name-

Paul Boag: Oh yeah.

Marcus Lillington: Blew its top and covered most of the Northern Hemisphere in clouds of dust, basically, if you remember. NATS stands for National Air Traffic Services, and the traffic to their site went from basically virtually nothing to everybody in the Northern Hemisphere in the space of about a day. And our poor little CMS couldn't handle it and fell over and never got back up again.

Marcus Lillington: And to be fair, probably virtually any contact management system would have behaved in exactly the same way. Long story short, it made us look at our little CMS in a very different way, and it made me start thinking about some of the promises I'd been making to clients at the time along the lines of, "Well you know, it's built in .NET," as this particular system was, so any other agency that works with .NET would be able to pick it up. Which is not a lie, they could do, but I started to realize that they probably never would because it would mean them learning loads of stuff.

Marcus Lillington: All these thoughts basically made us start looking at open source software, and we ended up going for Drupal. I'm not going to go into why we did that. We also did WordPress development too, but it's this idea of becoming part of a community that is massive. If you are open source, but nobody else is part of your community, then you may as well be proprietary. And that's the kind of thing that it took me a while to get to the bottom of, and I thought, "That's it, what clients are interested in is business continuity." They want to know that if you all get run over by a bus, they can go to somebody else. There's bound to be a little bit of upheaval, but they can give it to somebody else and that somebody else can carry on looking after their whatever it is. Website, in our case.

Marcus Lillington: So it's about ensuring that that kind of support, even thought you might not even know where they're going to go, but that support exists. It didn't exist for us way back then, and it didn't with these other suppliers to clients. So that's my thought for the day, it doesn't really matter if it's open source, it's just about how well supported it is.

Paul Boag: Yeah, absolutely. I mean obviously there are a lot of other aspects to selecting a CMS other than whether it's open source or not, open source and whether it's supported or not. But in terms of … I agree that it's about the community and it's about the business continuity isn't it?

Marcus Lillington: Yeah.

Paul Boag: Absolutely, totally agree to that. What I don't understand is how reviewing the other law firm websites had anything to do with that story.

Marcus Lillington: Reviewing the other potential suppliers, other agencies, yeah?

Paul Boag: Oh yes, I'm with you.

Marcus Lillington: Who offered stuff that they claimed was open source. Which it was open source, but if you looked around you thought, "Well, who else is working with this software." And I didn't know the honest answer, but wouldn't imagine it was many.

Paul Boag: I wasn't paying a lot of attention. I usually-

Marcus Lillington: Nice. I started talking and you wandered off.

Paul Boag: Exactly, exactly. I was actually searching through for the article actually, so I could include it in the show notes. So I wasn't completely ignoring you, it was just multitasking. Which, as we know, we're all great at. So that's good.

Marcus Lillington: I'm particularly good. I get better at it as I get older. Not. Not at all.

Paul Boag: I get better at everything as I get older, in my opinion really. And become-

Marcus Lillington: Yes, bring stronger.

Paul Boag: Yeah.

Marcus Lillington: Seeing things.

Paul Boag: Yeah.

Marcus Lillington: All of those stuff.

Paul Boag: And I've become more handsome as well.

Marcus Lillington: Well that's true Paul, if your pictures are anything to go by.

Paul Boag: Well I have had bits of me fixed, which has helped. I've whitened my teeth, but there you go.

Paul Boag: Anyway, right. Marcus' story was far too long obviously, and rambling, et cetera, so we'll move on quickly. This is my in-thing, efficiency. Do you know why I'm so efficient now about getting the podcast done? Because every minute-

Marcus Lillington: Because you've got too many other things to do.

Paul Boag: No, because seriously, every minute of audio costs me money in transcription. That's what it is, I'm too tight.

Marcus Lillington: Last week's 68 minute podcast might make you go a bit like …

Paul Boag: I know. That was something like $10 extra, those extra nine minutes or whatever it was. So yeah, move on. In fact, me just explaining that has probably cost me another dollar.

Paul Boag: Right, let's talk about our sponsors, because the sponsors give me money back, which is great. So we like that, so this bit is a profitable bit. As was obviously the massive big plug for the course at the beginning. Anyway, sorry, focus.

Paul Boag: Right, Fullstory. So Fullstory are supporting the rest of this season of the podcast. They would have taken the whole season, but someone snuck in with the first episode. Really love these guys, use their product all the time. It's in my view, the next generation of analytics really, and is simply the best analytics tool I've used personally.

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Paul Boag: It can detect every kind of event you can imagine. Clicks, swipes, scrolls, text, anything is instantly indexed and searchable. What's more than that, is it records all the sessions, so I'm going to talk more about why that's amazing in the coming weeks, and why it's useful. It also does no sampling, so Fullstory captures every single user session and every interaction in that session, which is just quite mind blowing if you think about it.

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Paul Boag: To find out more about that, go to Fullstory.com/boag.

Paul Boag: Okay, so this season of the podcast, we're talking about building a user experience culture, and everything that's involved in making that happen. Now, last week's show we were talking to Virgin Atlantic, and you couldn't help but come away really disliking Martin quite lot. Because … No, actually, he's a lovely guy, that's totally unfair. But, he is in quite an envious position, right? That he works in a company which kind of gets customer experience, and has got a kind of long track record of that.

Paul Boag: Today, we're going to talk to a guy called Andrew Millar, who works for the University of Dundee. Now, academia, higher education as a whole, doesn't have a kind of deep-rooted history in customer experience; they have never seen themselves as providing an experience to students or-

Marcus Lillington: Or having customers.

Paul Boag: Or having customers, yeah. But of course, since things have changed, certainly here in the UK because at one time, when I went to university, I didn't pay a penny. The government paid it, so as a result, they didn't see me as a customer. Of course, these days people are paying tuition fees and stuff like that, so today's students see themselves as customers. But the institutions are catching up.

Paul Boag: So it's really interesting to talk to Andrew about his experience of making that transition. So, over to Andrew.

Paul Boag: It's great to have you on the show, Andrew. Thank you for joining us.

Andrew Millar: Thank you for having me.

Paul Boag: It almost feels like deja vu, like we've already recorded half of this one.

Andrew Millar: Funny that, isn't it?

Paul Boag: It's strange how these things work out. So I thought a good starting point would be if maybe you would give us a little bit of background on the history of your time at the University of Dundee, a little bit about your role, how things are changing, that kind of stuff. So, tell us a little bit about what's been going on.

Andrew Millar: Okay, I've got a kind of long history with the university. I actually did my degree here, back in 1999 is when I started, which is … jings, that's almost 20 years ago. My word. I still feel like a young person, that's bad.

Andrew Millar: I started off as a web administrator, as the job titles were back then, and I was really just kind of keeping one website, or one set of web pages I suppose, up to date for the careers service. I stayed there for a couple of years, and then went out to some of the big colleges as their kind of senior developer. Stayed there for a couple of years. And then about two, three years ago, the university went through one of these big restructures, and we decided that we didn't want teams and schools anymore, teams and colleges, and we pulled everybody together and I was given the job of heading that all up.

Andrew Millar: So my official title now is Head of Web Services, which essentially just means the buck stops with me as far as web goes.

Paul Boag: So no pressure then.

Andrew Millar: No pressure, no. But it's a brilliant place to work. As I say, it kind of feels like home these days. But it's one of these kind of exciting places that I've had chances to go and work elsewhere, kind of in commercial type areas, but the stuff that universities do, you kind of feel a wee bit proud to be part of that in some small fashion.

Andrew Millar: So yeah, I'm kind of Dundee through and through.

Paul Boag: So the last couple of years must have been fairly interesting for you, to suddenly have the role of leading a team. And you've managed to bring about quite a lot of change in that period. Tell people what you're up to at the moment, what's been going on.

Andrew Millar: Yeah. So, two and a bit years ago, we pulled together all the web teams. So there's people in schools, people in IT, people in admissions. And not that we didn't like each other in the past, but we didn't like each other in the past.

Paul Boag: Yeah, fair enough.

Andrew Millar: So we kind of pulled them together, all in one team. We then restructured that team, because really at the start we were a team by name only so we had to kind of restructure and figure out actually how that was going to work.

Andrew Millar: So we restructured the team, and then we had to start building a case for completely redoing the entire website. So we were given funding probably about July last year, big massive investment bids, to basically rip everything out and replace it. Build it from the ground up. And that was kind of looking at infrastructure, that was looking at content, that was looking at design. It's basically looking at the whole piece of web.

Andrew Millar: So yeah, it's a very big and scary project, and we've just started the next process of looking at tendering for the infrastructure side of things. So things are starting to move really quickly and really fast.

Paul Boag: But you've already done a fair amount before even you've looked at the infrastructure side of things. You've been doing a lot of [inaudible 00:19:50] builds and prototyping and all of those kinds of stuff. And I'm kind of quite interested in the journey that you've been on, because universities haven't traditionally seen themselves as even providing a service to customers. Even the idea of customers is quite alien, isn't it to universities. And so, this season of the podcast is about providing a great … building a user experience culture, and I feel like considering the starting point that you came from, you've been able to make some pretty good in-roads into that.

Paul Boag: Do you think that there is a change coming about at the University of Dundee? And do you think that that historical lack of customer service is problematic? What's your opinion on that kind of thing?

Andrew Millar: Yeah, I think universities in the past had this viewpoint that they were kind of like ivory towers, and that it was almost a privilege to come to university and … I mean, when I came to Dundee it wasn't hugely like that, but there was still an element of, "You should feel privileged to be here, and you take what you're given." And even at that time, the idea of students having an idea or wanting to push back on things they felt that weren't perhaps quite right … not that it didn't happen, but it wasn't as big as it is nowadays.

Andrew Millar: But I think that the big changes that's been happening in the sector, certainly in terms of all the funding, you know we have a lot of people coming to university but the funding arrangements are changing. We've got these fees coming in, there's opportunities for universities to make an awful lot more cash and develop an awful lot faster. And that's kind of generated this sudden look at, "We actually kind of need to take this stuff seriously."

Andrew Millar: And then, now students are consumers they have a choice, they have a … I mean, there's a lot of courses that are unique to certain institutions, but broadly speaking there's a lot of stuff that's perhaps mirrored in different places. So you have that choice, whereas in the past you perhaps didn't, and that's really starting to make universities wake up and go, "Jings, this world is changing round about us, we kind of need to figure all this out."

Andrew Millar: And I would say from Dundee's point of view, we've actually been really lucky. So we did this big restructure, and you can see restructures as being these bad things, and things that are just going to be an annoyance, and it's going to throw the baby out of the bath water. But actually for Dundee, it was this fantastic time of change that just created this culture of change that we could then latch onto.

Andrew Millar: So the web, we've been able to do stuff now that we would never have been able to do five, six, ten years ago. Just because that whole culture is changing round about us, people are starting to wake up to it.

Paul Boag: So you effectively used the disruption that went on anyway with the kind of organization-wide change to introduce some new processes in thinking? Is that what you're getting at?

Andrew Millar: Essentially yeah, it's a time when you can just latch onto these things, and people are so busy going, "I don't know what's going on," Or, "We need to find answers to this." If you can give a confident and coherent argument as to how to do it, people start to tend to kind of listen to you and go, "Oh, actually, maybe this is the way to do things."

Andrew Millar: So yeah, we were able to start to put a lot of stuff in place; we were able to push back quite strongly. The university management group gave us really strong steer as to what they wanted us to focus on, so we had the mandate to go, "Right, this is what we're focusing on, and that stuff? Yes it's important, but actually in the grand scheme of things, we're going to leave that til later on." It allowed us to prioritize much more than we'd ever done before.

Paul Boag: Getting that clear vision of where you need to be taking things is really important in any organization. The team that gave you that clear mandate, did you feed into that ideas of where you should be going? Or did it primarily come from them?

Andrew Millar: It kind of primarily came from them due to … I mean, Dundee was going through a kind of financial crisis I suppose, much like a lot of universities, and we were having to focus on the core issues. So we had very clear direction from them to say, "Forget about the rest of the stuff, this is what we need you to focus on, and this is what we need you to make improvements on."

Andrew Millar: And we actually were able to spend a long time just focusing on one or two areas that gave us larger returns of investment, rather than spreading us very thinly across … you know, and just basically chasing our tails.

Paul Boag: And that's a problem you see so … I see so many in so many different digital teams across so many sectors. That trying to do too much with too little, and it inevitably causes problems, so that's where getting a kind of set of prioritized goals is so good.

Paul Boag: I mean, you're painting a very positive picture really, of change beginning to happen. But I'm kind of quite interested in also the challenges that you faced. Especially around the area of getting colleagues and stakeholders and management to think about your digital future in terms of the user, and what the user wants, rather than necessarily what the organizational objective is. Have you come across any challenges in that area?

Andrew Millar: Yeah, I mean I would have said that, certainly for Dundee and probably lots of places, you never set out to have a bad experience for people. And you don't wake up on a Monday morning and go, "Right, I've got ten students that I'm looking at, I'm going make their life miserable." Well, generally speaking.

Paul Boag: There may be some students that that's justified for, yeah.

Andrew Millar: [crosstalk 00:26:15] Monday morning. But I think that the trouble is that we have difficulty understanding what a good experience actually is.

Paul Boag: Yeah [inaudible 00:26:30].

Andrew Millar: And for a lot of people, they've been here for so long, and been doing the same thing, and working in a broken way, that actually changing that mindset or being able to see that actually we could make this better, is just a hard thing for them to comprehend. And I think the challenge that we've had is just trying to get them to change that thinking.

Andrew Millar: So I mean, one example might be, on our forms on our website, we're just going to ask for loads and loads and loads of information so that we have a brilliant picture of who you are, so that when it comes to you actually asking the question, we can give you an answer straight away. And the idea of, well actually, maybe somebody only wants to put their email address and the question in without having to fill out massive amounts of forms, it's kind of up to us to kind of deal with all that stuff in the background.

Andrew Millar: So it's about changing these ideas, and kind of in some ways, they way we've done that is we've kind of done it under the wire and kind of A/B tested things, and actually gone in and said, "Look," you know. One of the examples was during the clearing process last year. Clearing for universities is a time when all students have their exam results, and perhaps they've done better, perhaps they've done worse, but it's a time when they can change university or pick up university courses.

Andrew Millar: And we kind of thought, "Well I think we can make this process better by taking over the home page, funneling people through," and there was a bit of resistance to it, like, "That's a bit unusual, we don't know quite what happens." But we went and did it anyway for people coming from England. So the Scottish people couldn't actually see what was going on on the website, we did it for England only.

Andrew Millar: And we were able to increase the conversion rate by I think about 60%. People getting from A to B.

Paul Boag: Brilliant.

Andrew Millar: Or something similar. So using that data, people then started to go, "Well actually, maybe we should do something more. Maybe we should do a bit here, and a bit there." But it's getting that understanding of what a good experience for the person is, and sometimes a good experience for the user is, doesn't always necessarily match to what's a good business process for people.

Paul Boag: Yeah, yeah.

Andrew Millar: And I think some of the places are so squeezed for resource that the idea of changing something, that potentially makes it harder for them, or introduces any barriers, is just this, "No, no. We'll just keep it the same. We'll just do it as we've always done it." Regardless of how many more applications you could bring in, or how much easier you could make the whole process.

Andrew Millar: So I think for me, that's the thing that's the hardest thing to change.

Paul Boag: So, I mean just picking up on that clearing example, your decision to do that just for English students, was that a kind of compromise of, "Well let's try it for English students. If it works for them, then we can roll it out for everybody." Was that the kind of logic?

Andrew Millar: There was a kind of business logic behind that as well, so it's to do with the funding model. Scottish students are paid via the Scottish government, so we have a kind of minimal fee that we get from them. What we call rUK, or Rest of UK students, we can charge the full fee for that. So financially, they're a very attractive option for us. Or a very attractive audience for us.

Paul Boag: Yeah, I see.

Andrew Millar: So that's kind of the reason why we went for that.

Paul Boag: How did you persuade … bearing in mind that's one of your more attractive audiences, how did you persuade people to allow you … you said you've experienced some resistance in terms of taking that approach, and you said, "And we just did it anyway." What did you do to persuade people that that was okay? Or did you just take an arbitrary decision?

Andrew Millar: There are two things. I think you have to build up the trust of your line managers first of all, so that when you come with these crazy ideas, they don't immediately go, "That's …" you know, they don't immediately shut you down, or are at least willing to hear you out. We then created mock ups of what this would look like, so that they could actually physically see what would happen.

Andrew Millar: We then said, "We're not going to do all the traffic. We'll do 50% of the traffic." So, 50% of people are getting what's already there, 50% are getting the new stuff. And we'll monitor it on almost a kind of hourly, maybe half day basis, so that if it does look like things are going pear shaped, we'll switch it off. And we can do that very quickly.

Paul Boag: Love it.

Andrew Millar: So by the time you're getting that real-time data coming in, and you can see the conversions either way … I mean, I was feeding back on I think it was maybe a two-hourly basis to people to say, "Look, this is what we're seeing, this is what the old site was seeing, this is what the new site was seeing." They actually went, "Oh, actually, could we increase that traffic? Or could we …" You know? So they were actually getting engaged with it as well.

Andrew Millar: And it was a test for us. We'd done a few A/B tests before that, kind of relatively low-risk things but just to check the methodology and just to show the results. But I think if they didn't have that trust in us to start with, that would have been a much harder sell.

Andrew Millar: My direct line manager, she completely gets what we're trying to do and is a big champion for us. Her line manager, he sits [inaudible 00:32:30] university executive, and he's also a champion for us, but is a bit more risk averse in some respects just because he has that larger responsibility. He's trying to keep things going.

Andrew Millar: So, if you can try and show them the data, and try and give them the impression that this is not a high risk thing, this is completely under our control. We can switch this off, we can do stuff, we can do it very, very quickly. I think a lot of people's mindsets are still focused on print, and that you need a five week lead time, and once it's printed that's it done and it can't be changed. Actually getting that into their heads that we are in complete control of this and we can tweak as much as we want based on the data that's come back for us.

Paul Boag: I think that's an absolutely superb case study that you've just given there, about changing culture and introducing different thinking. Because you prototyped a little bit there, you showed them what better could look like, which excites them and as you were saying earlier, people have a real problem picturing that. Then, you did some smaller A/B tests on other things in order to build a bit of trust and show them the process. Then you only sent it out to a small percentage of users and you gave them realtime feedback, both of which reduces the risk from their point of view and gives them a sense of control.

Paul Boag: I think it's just a genius move, the way you did that. I think it's very, very good indeed.

Paul Boag: Is there other things that you've done that you found have helped to shift that culture and that thinking a little bit?

Andrew Millar: Yeah. One of the things that we did last year, it was kind of following on from work with you, actually. We started to look at these top task sessions. And essentially, we tried to get as many people as possible, and we did pop-up stalls, we booked events, we went and we did lectures. We basically made ourselves a nuisance around campus to try and get as many people on board as possible.

Andrew Millar: And we asked them a single question, "What is the problem you are trying to solve?" And it's quite interesting. Now, we're hearing that phrase coming back at us.

Paul Boag: Oh good.

Andrew Millar: Not necessarily in digital web meetings, but in other thinkings in the university. So, the nice thing about that question, "What is the problem you are trying to solve?" Is it focuses their minds on the problem, rather than what they perceive the solution to be.

Andrew Millar: One of the problems we've had in the past is that we have lots of people thinking that they are web experts, or they're hobbyists, or whatever it is, they've had experience in web before. And they will come up with the solutions for us, and they say, "Right, this is what you do." And in the past, we've just gone, "Right okay, we'll implement that regardless of how we're going to do that." But this, "What is the problem you're trying to solve?" Focuses their minds, doesn't get into the solutions, they don't need to worry about that, that's for us to worry about once we know what the problems are.

Andrew Millar: So they were brilliant. We've had hundreds of people engaging with that, either through the stalls, or through online submissions. And that also gave us the direction of travel, or it gave us the body of evidence to say to senior management, "This is the direction of travel that we think we need to go in." And that there's actually too much here to try and retrofit, we need to start again.

Andrew Millar: And that gave us just more evidence for that argument. The top task sessions have been excellent. One of the things we've been doing this year, which has been brilliant, is design scripts.

Paul Boag: Oh good, tell us about that and how that's worked.

Andrew Millar: These are brilliant. I think this came from the likes of Google and Lego and a lot of the big companies are now doing them. Essentially, it's this kind of period of condensed thinking around a specific problem. So the stuff that came out of the top task, we started to see common themes, common big problems that we kind of needed to fix. So what we did, was … and I think it's a five day process, normally, that you need to get engaged for all five days. We thought, "We're never going to manage that," so we managed to condense it into three days, but actually the time that we need people there, just two days.

Andrew Millar: So essentially what we've done, is we've got them booked fortnightly up until Christmas on a range of subjects, and we've invited people along. So we've had academics, we've had some students, we've had people from professional services. And they all come together and we focus on a single solution.

Andrew Millar: So we spend the morning looking at the problem, understanding the problem, we've done a whole pile of research up until that point, and we present that to them to say, "Look, this is what we see the problems being." We look at perhaps how other people are doing this, some good ideas. We then generate conversations round about that to say, "Is this what you see? Is this what we see? How do you think this could be better?"

Andrew Millar: And then in the afternoon session, we actually get them prototyping. So we do things called crazy eights, which is basically a big A3 sheet folded into eight pieces, and they have eight minutes to do eight different solutions to the problems. So it's very rough and very ready. We then put it up on the wall and we get each person to feed back and say what their thinking was on this.

Andrew Millar: And it's been a really excellent way of getting buy-in across the community, because they come in and they start to understand what our thinking is. They start to understand our methodologies. They start to understand why we're being so passionate about this, and actually they start to feel a bit of ownership of it as well.

Andrew Millar: So coming out of that, we have a prototype. And it's basically written up on a whiteboard, or a bit of paper, as to some rough ideas. Our designer and UX manager then get together on the next day and they prototype a more high fidelity solution. And then on the third day, that goes out and it gets tested. So we again, go and make ourselves a nuisance across campus and set up a TV screen, say, "This is what we're doing, what do you think of it? What's your feedback?"

Andrew Millar: We also use things like Marvel that allows us to get comments. So we send that out, and we've been trying to make it as widely available as possible. Actually, the whole web project, we've been saying, "If you want to be engaged, you can be as engaged as you want. Here's all our thinking, here's all our research, here's all the data sets that we're working with."

Andrew Millar: So really, there's no reason for somebody to come back to us later on and say, "I didn't know about this." Or, "I had no opportunity to engage in this." But the Design Sprints have been brilliant, and we've now got other departments coming to us and working in the Design Sprints, so that they can understand it and then take that back to their own areas, and start to implement that-

Paul Boag: That is brilliant. When you start to see other teams going, "Can I do what you have done?" You know that you're on the right track, and you're beginning to win people over. I think that's hugely encouraging.

Paul Boag: And also, I like the way that you've managed to make the design sprint a little bit more practical in the real world, because like you say, getting five days with people in a lot of situations is pretty much impossible.

Paul Boag: So, after you've done the testing and you've validated the prototype, do you then take it back and show it to the people that were involved in the initial session? And tell them how it went?

Andrew Millar: Yeah, so we send the prototypes back out to them, so they're really the first people seeing the prototypes before we take it out to the general community. So they'll feed back on us. It's interesting, we've kind of evolved the process because I think the first couple of sessions people thought, "Right, I'm designing the final solution." And then the prototypes come out, and the prototypes have to then kind of work in the wider design governance frameworks. The brand guidelines and whatever else. And people have gone, "Well this isn't quite what we agreed."

Andrew Millar: So, what we've had to try and emphasize is, look, this is about getting ideas. This is about generating possibilities, trying to get a direction of travel, trying to get you engaged in what we're doing so that you know how things are going to go. But broadly speaking, everybody's been quite enthused about it, and trying to think about how they'd actually do it for their own areas.

Paul Boag: That's good. So, we've talked about usability testing that you've been doing, we've talked about top task work that you've been doing, is there other forms of research that you do to better understand user needs? I mean, in some ways with a university it's relatively easy, because you've got people that weren't long ago your target audience, actually on site with you. So I imagine that kind of helps, but I just was interested in your research process.

Andrew Millar: Yeah, essentially the best way is just getting out and speaking to people, and actually starting to understand their pain points, and actually starting to put ourselves in their position as well and go through what they're going through. So I mean, things like matriculation, or when they register for their courses at the start of term. We've gone along to that and we've basically gone with a big bag of sweets. Because they have to stand in big long queues while they go through this.

Andrew Millar: So we just start talking to them, and we start asking them about things, we start to get them to fill out quick forms on iPads. We're about to start doing stuff at open days, which again will be kind of taking stuff and testing it and getting their feedback. We basically just try to go and speak to as many people as possible.

Andrew Millar: As we develop pages on the current site, we also do a lot of co-writing. So this is about, actually, we try and go and speak to the academics, and the people who are trying to sell their courses, and actually develop the stuff with them as they go through it. And then trying to get their target audiences for the course pages to go, "What do you think of this? What do you think of that?" To get that back again.

Andrew Millar: Actually, on the co-writing, one of the things we've found really effective is taking a microphone recorder, and just get them to talk about their course. Because what we've found is that they are very passionate about their course until they try to type it on a keyboard. And then the academic brutality comes in, and you suddenly get this 3000 treaties about whatever else, and you think, "That's no use to man nor beast."

Andrew Millar: So it's about actually, what we've tried to do is not be too hard nosed about, "These are our processes and our policies," and whatever else, but focus more on, "Right okay, that didn't work. We need to try something different." And we've really tried to promote the idea of, "This might not work, but at least we're trying it," and actually allowing people to try stuff, and if it doesn't work, we'll pull it, and we'll change it, and we'll tweak it. And it doesn't need to be set in stone. And once you give people that freedom, they then start to relax a bit, and they then start to be more open to trying different things.

Andrew Millar: But yeah, just getting out and speaking to people. We've done card sorts, we've done user stories, we've recorded people on the site. A classic one was we went and tested the prospectus request form, and it said at the top, "We will only post to UK addresses." And then it came to the country drop down for putting your address in, and the only country that wasn't there was UK. And it was one of these things that … And we needed to get a body of evidence to actually change that, and eventually we got a kind of senior manager saying, "Go and request a prospectus please." And we had people coming back, we recorder their faces, and their comments. And they were saying things like, "You feel stupid. I feel like it should be there. But no."And then they were bouncing around the form.

Andrew Millar: And once you actually started to take those videos back to senior management to go, "Right, okay, here's how your users are reacting." Suddenly, they go, "Oh my word, what on Earth is going on here?" And you then get the buy-in to then get to change this.

Paul Boag: Talking of senior management, have you had any scenarios where they've kind of swooped in further down the line and basically said, "Well I don't care what the research says, you're going to do this anyway," or have they been pretty good, generally speaking?

Andrew Millar: Generally speaking, and I can't applaud them highly enough for this, they've generally said, "You're the experts, this is why we're paying you. Go and do your job." In fact, we tried to set up a governance group the other week, just to ratify policies and procedures, and the kind of feeling was, "Are you sure you want a governance group? Could you not just make this decision yourself?"

Paul Boag: Wow.

Andrew Millar: Which is fantastic now. The flip side of that is, we kind of need a governance group so that we have the buy-in from … you know, the official sign-off on policies and procedures that we need. But that's a great situation to be in. There are one or two … You will always get people who will disagree with you or try to push back, or whatever else. Generally what we've found best is getting those people in to work with us, showing them the data.

Andrew Millar: I think the biggest kind of, "Aha!" Moment for me, the biggest kind of light bulb moment for me was when I started to be on all these more senior committees. Started to see the level of information you have to deal with on a daily basis, and then went, "These guys don't need a five page essay from me on why we need to do stuff." They just need to know the hard facts, now, so they can make a quick decision on it.

Andrew Millar: And we've really tried to use data quite strongly to make that case for change. I mean very early on, I went in to the senior team and said, "Look, we have half a million web pages across all our domains. All our Dundee.ac.uk domains at the moment. If I put one person on that, to look at every page just for ten minutes to decide whether it's correct, up to date, is required, it's going to take me 53 years to get through it. And when they went, "Oh jings, we can't spend 53 years getting the website right," yes. This is why we need to do something fairly drastic. And then we had people putting up their hands and going, "How can we help you with this?"

Andrew Millar: So I've tried as much as possible to be on their side and to understand it form their point of view, give them the information that they need. But also, you need to go into these meetings confident in your own abilities. In fact, you don't need to be confident in your abilities, you just need to appear confident in your abilities. If you say anything with enough confidence people, not that they'll believe you straight away, but they will have more peace about trusting that you know what you're doing.

Andrew Millar: So largely speaking, we've not had a huge amount of problems. I think having our director sitting on that senior level has helped get that voice across, and also we've kind of built up a reputation for delivering things on a regular basis and improving things, and changing the way we do things. So they are seeing that they've not just spent all this money and then nothing's happening for 12 months.

Paul Boag: I think that is such an important thing, that people can see progress, can see change. It makes such a difference. And also, the other thing that you said there which I think is a really god takeaway, is that it sounds like you've put almost as much effort into understanding your stakeholders and your colleagues and management as you have in to understanding your users. Things like you were saying, where they don't need a five page document, they need something very concise and to the point.

Paul Boag: And I do think taking the time to understand those people that we work alongside and who's buy-in we need is such an important part of it.

Andrew Millar: Exactly. I mean, these guys have got the weight of the institution on their shoulders, and you see the papers they get to these meetings every week and I feel heart sorry for the decisions that they're going to make. So I'm not going to make life harder for them, I'm going to try and make life as easy as possible for them to say, "Yes, go ahead and do it."

Paul Boag: Absolutely. One last question before we wrap up, which is how do you see the user experience at Dundee, and then, broader speaking in higher education as a whole evolving over the coming years? Do you anticipate big changes in your sector and at your institution?

Andrew Millar: I think so. I can't see this not becoming a big thing. I mean, the rise of things like league tables. I mean, you can argue whether league tables are a true reflection of a university and the service that it provides, but certainly in an international context, it's one of these things that's increasingly used to promote us.

Andrew Millar: So I can't see things like user experience not becoming a big thing, and at Dundee, we're already seeing it, as I said, we're seeing starting to talk about the user. We're seeing people turn around in meetings and saying, "Have you spoken to a user yet?"

Paul Boag: That's brilliant.

Andrew Millar: Without any prompting from us.

Paul Boag: Wow, that's like the kind of … yeah, the Nirvana, the Holy Grail of any user experience person, is when colleagues start saying, "Have you spoken to users?" Perfect.

Andrew Millar: Yeah, so I think … I mean it's brilliant. I think the danger that we have, is that we have pockets of that happening. So, everybody's asking users and they're getting their own little bubble of user experience. What we really need to do as a university, is look at that customer journey from enquirer, right through to alumni, and go, "Right, how does everybody feed into that customer journey?" And once you wrap those things to that customer journey, you then start to see the gaps, or the problems, or the bottlenecks. And you can then start to fix those things.

Andrew Millar: I think that's the next big challenge, for certainly us as a university, and certainly for the sector; to look at this seriously. In some ways, this focusing on a digital thing is actually hampering efforts to properly focus on user experience.

Paul Boag: Yeah, I can imagine that.

Andrew Millar: Because it's almost like when web came in, "That's the IT guys that do that. I don't need to worry about that, because that's the IT guys that do that." And I think we're in a slight danger of going, "This is a digital thing, so it's nothing to do with admissions, or student services, or library, or …" You know, "That's you guys."

Andrew Millar: We need to get this seen as a whole institution thing, and do it from start to finish. And everybody has some role to play in that user experience. You would hope that it's eventually feeding into some kind of digital solution rather than anything else, but it needs to be about that customer first. Focus. Rather than too much about the digital first, because that somewhat hampers our user experience.

Paul Boag: Absolutely. Wonderful, I think that's a great note to end on. The one last thing I wanted to ask you, is I've got a vague memory that you're actually blogging this journey and sharing different things that you're doing along the way. Is there a website people can check out to follow what you're doing if they want to know more?

Andrew Millar: Yeah, we have a team blog. So it's blog.dundee.ac.uk/web. And we're trying to use that. We put the stuff up on a kind of weekly basis, to say, "This is what we're involved in, here's the stuff coming from Design Sprints, here's the other stuff that we're involved in." Just so that we're being as open and transparent as possible, and we're getting a lot of good feedback from other institutions as well, looking at that.

Andrew Millar: We had St Andrews University coming to some of our Design Sprints as well.

Paul Boag: Good to know.

Andrew Millar: This is one of the nice things about university sector, is we all kind of collaborate on things and help each other out, so no, it's good.

Paul Boag: Wonderful, okay. Well, talking of which, I will see you very soon I imagine, at IWMW, which is one of the big conferences in higher education in July I think it is, isn't it? So until then, thank you very much.

Andrew Millar: Thanks, Paul.

Paul Boag: Alright, so there you go. Andrew has done, in my opinion, the impossible at the University of Dundee. He really has made such a difference there. I don't know … have you met Andrew, Marcus? Do you know him?

Marcus Lillington: I have met him on at least two occasions.

Paul Boag: Oh, there you go.

Marcus Lillington: Probably more. I couldn't help notice, and felt very sorry for you that you said you had to start again with the recording.

Paul Boag: Oh yeah, that's always a nightmare.

Marcus Lillington: That's hideous.

Paul Boag: Yeah. It was actually alright-

Marcus Lillington: And a couple of things … sorry, carry on Paul.

Paul Boag: I was just going to say it was actually alright. We went in a slightly different direction, so that's fair enough. Sorry, you were going to say a couple of things. Go for it.

Marcus Lillington: Yeah, a couple of things just sort of came out of that which I thought were interesting. And it's this kind of realization that they've got testers on tap. It's kind of like, I'd never even thought of it like that, and it is. They can literally just walk out of the door and go, "What do you think of this?" And it's real, proper end-user stuff, and it's like … So that was a bit of a revelation.

Paul Boag: I mean, there are some limitations to that. For example, people quite quickly become institutionalized.

Marcus Lillington: That's true, they stop being prospectives, don't they. But you can ask them, "Put yourself in the position of when you were researching universities." But it's not like asking me.

Paul Boag: No.

Marcus Lillington: Or-

Paul Boag: And also of course, you've got the advantage that they run regular open days, where prospective students are coming along, so they can do that kind of thing. Also, I guess it's harder to, because they've got multiple audiences, and some of those audiences are peers at other universities, or grant enabling bodies or business, and those ones are harder. But certainly, to get prospective … or students is really easy. Which is lovely.

Marcus Lillington: And the other one was using a general restructure to kind of push through your new [crosstalk 00:56:48] transformation thing. It's like, hey, that's a good. That happens all the time in any large company, institution and organization or whatever. They're always restructuring, so I thought that was great.

Marcus Lillington: And finally, I loved the fact that he was trying to empathize with senior management, rather than moan about them. Because everybody else moans about, "I never get … no one listens to me." Blah blah blah. And I thought well, if you approach things like Andrew did, then you're more likely to get stuff done.

Paul Boag: Yeah, absolutely. He's a very smart guy, I mean, he's had an incredible mentor supporting him and helping him through the process.

Marcus Lillington: He's been on the show before anyway, he was on the show to talk about depression.

Paul Boag: Was he? Yes, so he was, when we did the lightening talks. Yeah, absolutely. So I mean, quite incredible guy, really, really impressed at what he's managed to achieve at the University of Dundee.

Paul Boag: Alright, let's talk about our second sponsor, which is Balsamiq, that are my favorite supporter at the moment because they seem to be helping me with everything, which is lovely. But they could help you too, dear listener. Did you notice the way I transitioned so well there? That was almost smooth.

Marcus Lillington: With [inaudible 00:58:01] Paul professional Boag.

Paul Boag: I know, right?

Marcus Lillington: That's your middle name.

Paul Boag: Exactly. So, Balsamiq can help you with prototyping. They've been around forever, so talk to anybody who has been a digital designer for any length of time in any field, and they've probably already heard of Balsamiq.

Paul Boag: I've used it a lot, but I have to confess that over time I actually stopped using it. I ended up doing my prototyping in tools like Sketch, combined with something like InVision, or that kind of thing, which I think a lot of designers do. And that's great for designers and fine, because those are tools that they know and are familiar with. But what about other people? What about project managers? Product managers? Business owners? Consultants? Programmers?

Paul Boag: These are the kind of people that should also be engaged and involved in the prototyping exercise, that we should be listening to their opinions and they've got something to say in doing it. Yet, a lot of these tools are actually like a barrier that keeps them out, and allows designers to keep control of it. They're the ones sitting in front of the computer in the meeting, doing the prototyping.

Paul Boag: And actually, what Balsamiq want to do, is make prototyping accessible to everybody. That all of these kinds of people, that a developer can do prototyping as well, that they can express their ideas visually, and they're very much about democratizing the design process and allowing non-designers to participate in it. Because let's be honest, non-designers can have good ideas just as much as designers can.

Paul Boag: Sure, designers have got more experience, sure, their hit rate is going to be higher. But that doesn't mean other people can't have good ideas as well. Not only that, even if all that anybody else does is express bad ideas, at least you'll be clearer about what those ideas are, because you can visually see them, because it's really hard to explain this stuff. And drawing it on papers, a lot of people lack confidence drawing that kind of stuff, and it's so much easier just to drag and drop stuff around.

Paul Boag: Also, with Balsamiq cloud, you can collaborate remotely on this stuff, which makes a big difference as well.

Paul Boag: So there you go, I really love the way Balsamiq are going, which is they're focusing on that non-designer market and trying to democratize the design process, and allow anybody to take part in it.

Paul Boag: You can get a 30 day free trial, and you can get three months for free of using Balsamiq cloud, using the code, balsamiqboag. Right? So, get your 30 days for free. If you then decide to sign up, you go in and enter your billing information, and there will be an opportunity then to add in the code balsamiqboag. And that will give you the first three months absolutely free of charge.

Paul Boag: You can find out more about that by going to balsamiq.cloud.

Paul Boag: Alright, so that's pretty much it for this show. Marcus, back to you for your joke.

Marcus Lillington: For my fifteen minute joke.

Paul Boag: Just to cost me money, yeah.

Marcus Lillington: I ought to look up one really long one, one … anyway, this is not a long one, it's a very short one. But, Paul, you're going to have to concentrate.

Paul Boag: Oh dear, alright.

Marcus Lillington: Alright?

Paul Boag: Yeah.

Marcus Lillington: Otherwise it might take you a while to get it. It might not, you might get it straight away. Anyway, it's from Paul [Vandendool 01:01:38].

Paul Boag: Oh yeah.

Marcus Lillington: People who can't distinguish between etymology and entomology bug me in ways I can't put into words.

Paul Boag: I do get that, fortunately. Do you know what? If you don't know those terms, then it doesn't matter how much you concentrate.

Marcus Lillington: It's quite … Yeah.

Paul Boag: I suppose you could infer it, couldn't you? I suppose.

Marcus Lillington: But I thought that was very clever, and I don't do clever. So there you go.

Paul Boag: That wasn't an appropriate joke for us. Oh well, never mind.

Marcus Lillington: Please send me more jokes.

Paul Boag: Yes, and you can either send them by email Marcus at marcus@boagworld.com, or join the slack channel, because there's a whole channel dedicated to jokes, by going to boagworld.com/slacking, I think it is.

Paul Boag: Alright, so that's it for this week, thank you very much for joining us, and speak to you again soon.

Thanks to Janusz Baczynsk from Shutterstock for allowing me to use this image.