New Product Development Requires Significant CollaborationRob Thompson | Director of Academic and Core Applications, Wayne State University
The following interview is with Rob Thompson and Daren Hubbard of Wayne State University. Thompson and Hubbard spearheaded the development and rollout of Wayne State’s Academica, a single sign-on portal that allows institution-wide stakeholders access to the university’s various systems and services. In this interview, Thompson and Hubbard discuss the value of Academica, and explain how their team is managing change around the campus-wide rollout that’s currently taking place.
1. Why did your team decide to develop the Academica portal?
Rob Thompson (RT): Several years ago on our campus, we started to hear a lot of complaints from students about a lack of mobile support in our legacy portal system. We also sought to try to enhance some of the availability problems during peak periods. Fundamentally, we just had a communication problem on campus. Students would complain that the communication was one way.
At the time we took a look at what was available in the market to find out if there was something that would fit our needs or if there was some innovation happening in that area. We really just found that we were going to take a chance and do something innovative and try something new, rethink what a portal should look like, and that’s kind of how the whole thing started.
2. Why create the portal in-house rather than turn to a vendor?
Daren Hubbard (DH): One of the big things we started to realize early on in the investigation and evaluation period, before we started to develop, was that there were not any revolutionary or even good fits out there at the time. Our primary reason for going down this road was to both increase availably and to cut to the core functions of what we thought a portal should provide to a campus. To really focus in on communication, possibly offering a way to have two-way communication and then also having increased visibility and scalability for those peak times when everyone needs to do transactional business.
The portals that were available commercially really were just rehashed versions of what we were already running and we didn’t feel that they really met our needs as well as we could meet our needs if we were able to develop from scratch. We took some of the more popular communication constructs and really distilled down the essence of what a portal needed to do in terms of providing access into our administrative systems. We merged those things together and Academica was born.
3. Wayne State’s goal is to roll out the Academica portal for cross-campus use through this semester. What have been some of the biggest challenges to getting campus-wide buy in for the new portal?
RT: Some of the biggest challenges that we’ve faced so far in getting buy-in is getting the faculty to mainly understand that the can still do their business with Wayne State. They can still manage grades, all that kind of stuff; it really is just an added component of social networking. We’ve been including all our customers in the beta rollout from the very beginning. We created a feedback stream, which is really just a way to allow two-way communication within the platform. As part of the platform, we embedded into it a feedback mechanism that let the development team gather insight into problems that users were experiencing, featured suggestions, bug fixes and so on. That’s really been integral to keeping our finger on the pulse of what it is that our customers are thinking about, and the problems they’re having with the tool.
DH: Another thing we’re doing is closely tracking metrics and usage within the system to measure adoption rates and really see how people are using it. We allow people to switch back and forth between portals. We’re measuring statistics like how many people start to use Academica and never use the old one again, how many people use it and then switch back, and then we’re developing surveys for the people who end up switching back to the old portal, asking them why they ended up switching back.
We wanted to make the interface as intuitive as possible. We’re engaging experts internally and externally to help us to make sure that your first experience with the portal is something that’s going to make you want to stay.
4. What are the steps you take once someone decides to go back to bring them back into the Academica portal once again?
DH: We’ve been actively engaging with our beta testing community. They provide us valuable feedback and we’ve been taking that directly and feeding it to developers so that they can address some of those concerns. We’ve have people who are maybe not necessarily the most enthusiastic users but at least they’ll be on the platform and they’ll be able to still get their work done without impediment.
RT: We decided to listen to all of the feedback, we’re going to address all of it and evaluate it thoughtfully and we’re doing so with the full knowledge that change always invokes some individuals to try to block that change or complain about that change because it is change. What I asked the team to do is separate the constructive criticism from the non-constructive and take that constructive criticism very seriously when thinking about where we’re going with the product and so far that approach is going really well.
5.Are you taking cues from big change operations—like Facebook and Twitter—to give yourselves a little more confidence in the change you’re putting on?
RT: Absolutely. If you take a look at complaints over a long time period, those are the ones you know are problems that have to be addressed. If you have the same sorts of problems being talked about a month after the launch and it’s coming from multiple directions and not just from a single group of people, then you know you’ve got something that really needs to be addressed and changed. Some part of it is also just a gut feeling for when you’re ready to launch. That is a critical time, right when you launch it. If you don’t hit the mark right there, you have the potential for it to sink really fast.
DH: We’ve been pretty flexible on our beta and our crossover strategy to accommodate that very situation where we will have people using the system. We have a fair percentage of our campus using it currently and we’ve been really closely monitoring that feedback.
6. Is there anything you’d like to add about the development of the academic portal and some of the ins and outs of change management around rolling the program out to the entire campus?
RT: Managing change like that, it’s important not to think about just the product and the users but also documentation and all of the links that are out there that have to be modified for a simultaneous beta with another system. It’s really just being open and honest. Generally if you keep everyone in the loop, they’re usually very receptive.
This interview has been edited for length.
Author Perspective: Administrator