Product design

Education Workflow Automation: How to Design a Solution for Universities


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If you ever had any contact with universities, you know how bureaucratized these institutions are. The reason for this is not just mean administrators. There are many state regulations that don't allow to just “simplify” the processes. While we can’t impact the laws much, there is something that we can do to diminish the exhausting effect of bureaucracy: automate some manual processes.

As a UI/UX design agency, we are all about simplifying workflows. Edtech with its large amount of data was a challenge to us. However, our experience was positive and we’d like to share some thoughts on automation and education here.

Why is edtech so hot?

Education industry has been on the rise since… Well, a long time ago. And then 2020 came with new demands for distance learning and education in general: in times of crisis, people feel the need to take on new things to stay afloat.

There is no surprise that edtech startups started mushrooming during the pandemic.In 2020, these startups raised three times more in the financing rounds compared to 2019.

$ raised by edtech 2012 ($0.4bn) - 2020 ($11bn)
Image credit:

The industry has become more attractive to investors. If we take a look at the last week’s news on Techcrunch, we see education startups raising more than $10 million funding. Here are some examples: StudyFree, Educate Online, Edukoya

The majority of edtech startups seem to be software for e-learning, but there are plenty of products with a different focus, such as education workflow automation. For instance, our client Enroly, a product specialized in CAS (Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies), visa, and arrival process of international students, raised £1.5 million in 2021.

These are some of the reasons why the world has turned its head to products related to education. However, the need for education automation surged even before the pandemic. Education industry has its own problems that need digital solutions. Let's take a look at them.

(Some) Challenges of higher education industry 

Lack of students

In recent years, universities experience a steady decline in the number of enrolments. A survey from Inside Higher Ed states that “admissions officers were very worried about filling their classes this year and most did not fill their classes by the traditional May 1 date for the following fall’s class”.

What are the reasons? People start valuing higher degrees less, they are not willing to go into debt for that, foreign universities enter into competition for the students worldwide, and overall demographics are not very optimistic. Many universities struggle to meet their enrollment goals.

“Marketization” of education

The phenomenon of so-called “student-consumer” is not new to higher education. Since the very dawn of European universities, professors appeared to seem more like a service provider rather than a mentor.

Nowadays, students are becoming more demanding again. Also, more and more private universities and colleges appear, and they have to prioritize income to survive. Government-funded universities have to compete with private ones, and all that under constant cuts in funding. In these conditions, it becomes hard to keep the same levels of quality and attract enough students.

New education formats

Nowadays, universities are not only competing with each other. Their competitors are also online schools, degree and non-degree, private coaches and mentors, and foreign universities that are keen on having students from all over the world.

Traditional universities are slow to adapt to the demands of the lifelong learning trend. Not only because they often don’t have extra funding, but also because being official institutions, they are tied with bureaucracy. All the processes take a lot of time.

Managers spend on administrative tasks 8 hours per week (on average)
Image credit: Formstack

According to the Formstack report (majority of respondents work in education), 25% of managers spend half of their working time on administrative tasks. The same report states that 62% of business administrators already use workflow automation tools, but there is surely space for more automation.

But what is workflow automation exactly? Simply put, it's an automated algorithm that gets work done instead of manual tasks. Let's say you want to buy a product, but it appears   not to be in stock. With workflow automation the system automatically sends an email to the address you've entered when the product is back in stock instead of the sales manager calling you directly.

The same example can be applied to a university: when a student sends a request about a program when the call is not open yet, an automated process would be to notify them when the next round starts.

Workflow automation systems not only save managers time, but also resources. For example, our client Enroly helped the University of Greenwich implement the automation software in their workflow, which helped the institution retain   an estimated revenue in excess of £3 million for the academic year.

Education automation workflow. Where to start?

Universities are highly complex structures with thousands of processes. Some of them can be automated, while many can not (and should not). Don’t try to solve all the problems with one product. To succeed, pick a clear focus.

  1. Study and evaluate what is already there: databases, document management systems, manual and automated processes, and such.
  2. Analyze the findings and prioritize: workflows that occupy most time and resources; workflows that are used more often and by many people; workflows that cause the biggest problems and need optimization.
  3. Conduct deeper research on priority workflows: talk to users, build a customer journey map, find the most challenging moments, define objectives.
  4. Build a roadmap.

After that, you will realize what the process of development will be like and what resources you will need. Developing workflow solutions for education, just like any other product, goes with design thinking. However, there are a few aspects that are worth a special mention.

1. Security

Typically we don’t think of universities as the most likely target for hacker attacks, but they happen indeed. In 2021, a ransomware attack hit a university in Spain. Even though the university is public, there was no other option left but to pay the ransom.

Accidents related to security hit hard on reputation. SmarterSelect, for instance, thought  it's fine to store personal data of about 1.2 million students on Google docs, until the data got leaked. What this teaches us is that security should be the priority for every industry, be it banking, education, or fintech.

2. Compliance

To develop software for higher education facilities, you can’t just follow the same steps of any other product. There are many legal laws that regulate the work of education. Failing to comply with them would lead to the product being absolutely useless for universities, no matter how functional and usable it is.

Let's look at Enroly as an example: after occupying the UK market quite fast, they can’t just go out there and offer their services to the Australian and New Zealand market. They have to find out the regulations and make necessary adjustments for the product to fit a different bureaucratic system.

3. User experience

There may be various reasons why the design of software made for universities is so user-unfriendly, but let’s just face the fact: usability is quite low, from the apps that administrators use, to the systems made for students and even websites.

Whenever I need to find an example of a messy, hard-to-understand website, all I have to do is to google some university pages. This method never fails: in a matter of minutes, I find a perfect illustration of perplexing structure, abounding information, and overwhelming layout. Go and try when you don't believe me, but I warned you.

In big institutions, such as universities, people who make purchase decisions are often not the ones that will use the product in their daily work. Often, a product has to be attractive to the decision-maker, and actual user experience becomes less of a priority. However, the Formstack research we referred to previously, found that “ease-of-use” is almost twice as challenging as price in the process of adoption of workflow automation tools.

Education Workflow Automation adoption challenges

As a UI/UX design agency, we always promote usability as the cornerstone of product design. However, it is not only about making users happy. When the usage of a product is easy, it makes people complete tasks faster and ultimately leads to better productivity. That is something that should motivate those decision-makers to buy products with good UX design.

So, what makes a good education automation workflow design?

Let’s take a look at Enroly once again and how our company helped them improve user experience. This is a story of how small changes make a big difference.

Some of the most annoying things for users are when we need to find an item in a long drop-down menu (I  already have chills down my spine from the thought that one day I’ll have to scroll 60 years down to insert my birthdate). 

In the case of Enroly, it was a list of filters, long and devastating. To make it easier for users to find the thing they need, we grouped the items by meaning. (Also, we added a calendar date entry instead of the drop-down list, as you will see later).

Education Workflow Automation design Enroly - before redesign
Education Workflow Automation design Enroly - after redesign

Note the little three-dots buttons at the right. They are a great life hack when you want to make a screen less clogged with information. In this case, they save two clicks of opening/closing a card for editing. Now all the actions can be done without leaving the list.

In the updated version, we added colored tags that mark the most important - student status. All these small changes work for the main objective of the workflow automation platform: reducing the time spent on repetitive actions.

Education Workflow Automation design Enroly


Final thoughts

Edtech has been growing fast. I have been doing my Bachelor’s degree when there was very little automation. In just a few years, when at my Master’s, it became common for universities to use digital systems where each student could do (almost) all the administrative requests. In my first university, the administration lady was the real ruler of the faculty. In the second one, I can’t even recall their name because I barely ever saw that person. So many things could be done online, at any time.

It’s amazing to see how much time and effort software can save for education workers and students. We want more workflow automation for universities, and we want it to be user-friendly, finally. If you have an awesome edtech SaaS product and want it to have a superior user experience, contact us!

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