Widen participation with empathetic content

ContentEd 2018 sponsors, Domain 7, reflects on creating an empathetic approach for widening participation and accessibility.


The widening participation conversation is growing louder and more urgent. This spring, the Higher Education Policy Institute’s (HEPI) report on widening access to university in the UK warned that, while great strides have been made in increasing access for disadvantaged students, significant weaknesses remain, with the access gap remaining “stubbornly wide at many of the most selective institutions”.

UK institutions are not alone in wrestling with the challenge of access and participation. In recent years, Canadian universities have undertaken significant efforts to increase indigenous student enrolment, and US universities are looking at ways to bridge the growing education gap caused by increasing income inequality.

It’s a thorny question, and one that can generate both a lot of suggestions (the HEPI report alone lists 35) and some cringeworthy missteps. But it’s an essential question that must be addressed now.


Expanding the accessibility conversation

When our team undertakes a higher ed project, we place accessibility high on our list of priorities. In the higher ed sector, accessibility is an ethical mandate as well as a business objective: build a “bare minimum” site in terms of accessibility and you risk losing the interest of a considerable percentage of the population. The UN puts the figure at 20% – a considerable miss in an age of declining prospective student numbers.

But you also fail to deliver on higher ed’s mission: to empower, equip, and open doors. As Pamela Agar, who has worked at Pickle Jar Communications and as Digital Lead at Imperial College London told us, “We don’t know where the next Stephen Hawking is going to come from. The world must welcome brilliant minds to the table. Accessibility must take the lead.”

Widening participation is an extension of the accessibility conversation. It’s arguably a more nuanced challenge than making the correct, accessible, visual design decisions – but it’s just as important to get right.


Content that says “you belong here”

Imagine a first-generation prospective student googling their higher ed options and visiting your site for the first time. Visualise the images, stories, and messages they encounter: within moments they’ve formed a subconscious impression of whether or not they belong at your institution, and whether or not this institution will equip them to realise their goals.

Approaching this user experience with an empathetic lens allows us to intentionally craft content that speaks to their concerns and proactively address the barriers that underrepresented groups encounter. And in the same way that accessibility efforts improve the user experience for all users, more empathetic content development methods can also result in more compelling content for all audiences.


Using design methods to understand your audience

To create resonant and relevant content, try bringing design research tools to the content process. There will help you to listen to your audience and understand their journey intimately. You may start with an audience survey to uncover overall patterns. While surveys can give you quantitative data and important clues, you’ll want more nuanced methods such as interviews with current and prospective students to dig deeper into what you’re seeing. This tool is simple but powerful. Talking to individuals within the demographic provides qualitative insights that can substantially shift your content. Go into these interviews with both a carefully crafted set of questions and an openness to where the conversation takes you.

It’s helpful to pair interviews with a content-focused usability study, where you ask your subject to complete a task on your site and share their impressions of the content. What do the images, messages, and resources they encounter communicate to them? What would they expect or hope to see? Is there something missing or setting the wrong tone?

Combine these insights to create an experience map, documenting your audience’s journey through search, discovery, decision-making, enrolment, and student experience, highlighting the places where they interact with your content. This comprehensive map allows you to identify touchpoints in the journey that make or break their experiences. You can then craft content that addresses those moments sensitively.


Co-create and collaborate

We find it helpful to continue to invite our audience’s perspective into the process of content strategy and creation over time in order to refine our approach. On a recent project for at-risk youth, we decided to bring drafted content to a focus group to understand if we were hitting the mark. The detailed feedback the youth shared with us shifted some of the final artwork, and resulted in more deeply authentic content.

Achieving this type of authenticity is especially important when it comes to questions of culture and identity. At a recent university focus group, a recruitment officer pointed out the common misstep that institutions make in posting stereotypical “indigenous” content and assuming they’ve spoken to this group’s experience. Inviting community members to co-create content can help avoid these types of well-intentioned misfires.

What would it look like to open a space for contributors from underrepresented backgrounds to share their stories? Would they have ideas for which narratives they want to see celebrated, or what services could be more holistically incorporated into top-level content? Collaboratively designing content can provide deeply relevant experiences.

The question of widening participation and increasing access is one that we must tackle patiently and persistently. No one approach will offer the complete answer. But applying empathetic design methods to the challenge can be a helpful tool in the work of building a more equitable future.


Domain 7  sponsored ContentEd 2018. If you’re interested in sponsoring our next conference, you can find out more over in our sponsor section.

If you’d like to further your knowledge of content strategy, you can find out more about ContentEd, book a ticket to our next conference or submit a proposal to speak. 

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