UCL - London’s ‘Global University’ - improves employee experience with user-led design and low-code

Gary Flood Profile picture for user gflood January 12, 2023
Zensar subsidiary Foolproof helps end user frustration with a previously overly complex HR application access at UCL

An image of the UCL campus in London
(Image sourced via UCL )

One of the world’s most prestigious centers of higher education, University College London (UCL), says a completely new approach to HR services has revolutionized the employee experience of 3,000 internal teaching and admin staff and managers.

The university has built an entirely new mobile app front end, created by Foolproof, the UK-headquartered product and service design arm of an India-based IT services firm, Zensar.

This new front end has turned managing core HR and administrative activities from the time-consuming and onerous set of steps that had been alienating staff, to a much smoother process. The key functions include booking annual leave and the updating of personal details,

UCL’s Head of Digital Experience, Samantha Fanning says:

I had a meeting with our senior academic administrator to walk him through the new app. While I was talking, he had logged in, updated his address details, and changed something to do with his bank while I was talking to him - all in 30 seconds.

I also have people who I bump into in the corridor who’ll say, ‘I love it so much,’ and that this is just the nicest thing that UCL has ever produced for them.’

Part of the reason for this enthusiasm is how unpopular users had found working with the University’s previous HR platform.

Fanning states that an “expensive and incredibly gruelling implementation” process had created a situation where users were very turned off.

Fanning says that UCL’s IT team always strives to prioritize stakeholder needs for all projects, but the implementation of the platform had ended up with too much functionality being dictated by what she calls ‘the edge cases.’

She explains:

All the little personal admin things that you need to be able to do super, super quick were taking an inordinate amount of time - we ended up producing internal videos to show people how to use them. And this very clunky beast of a thing was even harder to use via VPN, when we all had to go remote during lockdown.

The system was often just too complex, she says - a situation made very clear when a new Provost joined in January 2021 from Sydney University and was soon asking her why it was so difficult to enter the most basic personal details into the database.

She says:

On the one hand he was seeing how easy it was to do things on GOV.UK in one place, but he couldn’t get all his tax details worked out with our system.

At the same time, a new CIO came on board who was also saying, ‘Guys, there are better ways we can do this.’ So suddenly, we had very senior people saying: "Here's a mandate to think a little bit outside the box.”

This mandate, she says, quickly led to engagement with a digital experience specialist team she felt offered the emphasis on the better user experience that had been missing.

The task she gave the new supplier was to create something that would make staff’s lives easier. She says:

All the elements and functionality of the old HR system had to be exposed in a new digital channel with a user-friendly experience, so that the users can use it more effectively, but we can also use the data that gets generated out of this to make better changes to the system so there's even more adaptability and increased usability.

Our vision is that all digital experiences at UCL should be beautifully simple, accessible and intuitive and that all UCL teams have access to the tools, assets and support they need to build simple, accessible and intuitive interfaces, apps and websites.

A savvy use of low-code

Specifically, a new common internal UCL web app platform was envisaged, one users could access on mobile, desktop and tablet for HR needs, and which would support both tasks - but could also cater for bespoke user needs in a less cumbersome way than before.

A useful early decision that helped, she says, was taking advantage of the OutSystems low code tool that was already being used in-house at the institution.

That tool exposes all the data to the new online channels being offered, she says - emphasising that “not a single line” of the old system has needed to have changed, as the new front end is a completely separate layer. 

This layer works via API access to the existing backend and other sources to enable a range of new functionality within the new front end.

As mentioned, user reaction has been very positive. This mainly comes down to time saved, so far. Booking leave could take a user at least five, but often 20 minutes, to do - especially if they had to connect by VPN - and even longer if the user needs to employ a screen reader. This is now down to 30 seconds. 

Desk booking, as more people return to office, has also been introduced, and is now so simple on the app that people can do it on the train coming. Improvements, she sums up as:

What used to take our people a dial-up connection and several screens to get through now can be done in three clicks.

In terms of next steps, she says,

We're giving you better ways to do things so that access to the big enterprise systems becomes something only expert users will ever have to do.

Our ambition is that this tool becomes the user-friendly route into all kinds of systems of record at UCL, and the identity, look and feel of this new staff app is becoming the framework for every other staff-based transaction that we plan to do.

Already identified as the next process in the app will be extending work carried out at the prototyping stage on digital identity, she concludes.

A grey colored placeholder image