July 1, 2020

How Can We Keep Student Services Human in an Increasingly Automated World?

Designing Experiences

By Allison Yu

Rapid adoption of technological advancements and innovations to respond to the current context of COVID-19 has led to ever-shifting speculations about people’s role in this complex social fabric. Automated services now provide more agency and empowerment for users to get services they want when they want it. Harvard Business Review found that 81% of customers averaged across all industries try to take care of a problem themselves before reaching out to a live representative. We are transitioning from “please serve me right now!” to “I can serve myself right now!” and from “please tell me what I need to know” to “I can find this out on my own.” More than 6 in 10 U.S. consumers say that their go-to channel for informational questions is a self-serve tool such as a website, mobile app, or voice response system. Self-service platforms have taken the human out of the equation,  while empowering individuals to solve problems on their own.

In higher education, a majority of institutions have migrated their classes to fully online delivery with the support of technologies such as videoconferencing and integrated Learning Management Systems. Similarly, restaurants are testing new technologies such as Automats and apps to allow self-ordering, which minimize the amount of service touchpoints between customer and staff to virtually zero.

In every industry, especially higher education, it will be up to not only service designers, but also everyone who’s involved in service delivery (think: professors, teaching and learning centers, administrators, staff, etc.) to find those opportunities to impart a human connection in the service delivery… even when services increasingly are becoming more reliant on self-service systems.

Where does this leave services that still rely on face-to-face interaction?

No matter how automated services may be in the future, we believe services are, at the core, human-centered because services will always need to be tailored to the human’s complex, emotional, and unpredictable nature as long as services are meant to serve people.

Services within a service delivery system can be generally categorized into four service tiers, which we cover in our webinar on Delivering Support Services Online:

  • Informational: Providing users with information that helps them make decisions and meet objectives
  • Transactional: Requesting information or data from users to complete a process or service
  • Consultative: Assessment and advising on personal and academic matters
  • Experiential: Programming and events in group settings where users may be interacting

These service tiers enable a more seamless user experience: user needs can be distinguished based on the amount of time and knowledge needed to address the issue, which allows service providers to efficiently allocate resources and ensure that each student is getting the right help.

There will always be moments in automated service delivery that require the human touch. Warm and empathetic and undoubtedly real.

In our most recent Student Experience Snapshot that takes the pulse of students during COVID-19, we found that the shift to accessing student services online has affected students’ intent to access services online in the future positively and negatively in equal measure. 28% of students say they are more likely to use online student services in the future and 28% say they are less likely.

Imagine a student goes to a Student Success Center, designed to co-locate student services (e.g., registration, financial aid, billing) all in a centralized location for ease and convenience. The student is failing classes, falling behind on tuition payments, and is struggling to keep up with their part time job. 

Their first interaction is a kiosk. The student tries to navigate the kiosk for an answer to their worries but is limited to a handful of preprogrammed options. There’s no one around to help the user troubleshoot. What should they choose when the complexity of their problem is woven through many facets of their student experience?  Their financial aid check didn’t get processed correctly, which puts their account on hold, which prevents them from registering for a much needed class. With stress already piled on, the student is discouraged and is alienated even further.

The problem with this service design was that it failed to keep the human connection. If your service model integrates digital or automated services partially or completely, it is still paramount to uphold key service design principles that keep the human at the center. By creating a shared service philosophy and guiding principles, staff have the flexibility to be creative and adaptable when solving unique problems, while still delivering consistent, empathetic, and impactful services.

  • Empathy: By designing a service model using an empathetic mindset, we can approach complex problems through the understanding of people’s inevitable frustrations, their stress, their ease, and delight. This understanding helps anticipate future users’ needs in an ever-shifting context.
  • Creative thinking: Keeping an open mind allows us to abstract beyond given inputs and frameworks, allowing for adaptability and flexibility. Because machines don’t yet have the faculty for genuine creative thinking, human service providers are crucial in providing an innovative and truly tailored approach to problem-solving.
  • Flexibility: Plan with flexibility in mind. For example, because of COVID-19, many institutions, such as the University of Montana, have transitioned their academic, career, and financial advising services online. Service providers will have to continuously adapt their services to these online delivery models and reflect on how they can still deliver effective support in a shifting dynamic with students. None of us can predict the future, but we can certainly make informed decisions based on projections data and future user journeys.

While keeping these design principles in mind, we’ve learned from many projects, including University of Virginia’s Total Advising, that when we think with an empathetic, creative, and flexible mindset while designing future service models, we can often spot the key moments where students might fall through the cracks.

From our qualitative user engagement and quantitative research with UVA students, staff, and faculty, we learned that:

  • Students need help knowing what services are available to them and how to navigate the network of services
  • Services need to be located in a convenient location at convenient times, following a “push” model of services, rather than “pull” (i.e. making the services easily accessible and visible to students)
  • Students value personal and organic relationships with advisors, where that personal connection can sometimes supersede the relationship with their assigned advisor

So now, from our key learnings on both best practices and common student needs, let’s  reimagine the services offered at the Student Success Center. 

In fact, look at the University of Minnesota’s One Stop. In the One Stop center, the first touchpoint a student sees is a “HELPING U” front desk. This person welcomes visitors and students, and can answer a range of navigational and tactical questions. They form the human connection from the start.

UMN’s One Stop Service Point Credit: Frank Guittard

The self-service kiosk becomes the second touchpoint in the model. This kiosk merely asks for a single swipe of the student’s ID, and asks the student which area their question surrounds from a short list so they can enter the queue. Totally manageable. It parses out questions to two paths: providing answers to simple questions with preprogrammed responses. Or it automatically puts the person in a digital queue to speak with a staff member, which is visibly displayed on a TV screen.

A student using the self-service kiosk at the University of Minnesota One Stop

Compared to the first scenario, this integrated service model strongly cultivates the human-connection. Students are aware of the service hub as a centralized place where they can address a wide range of needs. The front desk interaction creates an already welcoming environment and already filters questions appropriate for the kiosk.

Strong communication channels (e.g., a seamless referral processes, a centralized communication tool, central data repository) ensure that no one falls through the cracks. In person-to-machine communication, an open channel ensures that complex problems can be marshaled to the right service tier (informative, transactional, consultative) . The kiosk addresses a suitable level of service for the complexity of the user’s questions (e.g. simple check-in or basic questions). It allows a real person, who has emotional intelligence and creativity, to support the student in more intricate problems that may require adaptation and flexibility. This hybrid model automatically queues the student in a visual line: this both mitigates waiting frustrations but also lets a student know that they are acknowledged and amongst peers.

And above all, this service model imparts the human touch when most crucial.

A service provider at One Stop is in close proximity to the self-service kiosk, ready to answer complex (sometimes emotional) questions

No one can resolutely say where services will be going in the future, especially when we’re planning during unprecedented times. Service designers will continuously have to adapt, test, and learn as technology shapes what a successful service model looks like. We can certainly use this time as a learning experience: we can be intentional with the changes we’re making now so that we can be flexible and adaptable when we come back to campus and apply what we’ve learned.

Service designers and service providers should use the guiding principles as a lens to find the nuggets of opportunities to define their own space in the future of automated services. Luckily for them, every service touchpoint serves as a data point in a vast constellation of shining opportunities.

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