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Demystifying university application through user-centred design

Quick Facts

About the Client

The University of West London (UWL) has a reputation for high-quality education closely linked to employment. The university celebrates 98% of their graduates entering employment or further study within six months of graduating (HESA data, July 2018).

UWL is also ranked as a top 50 university in the UK, in the prestigious Guardian University Guide 2019. Most recently, the University jumped 31 places in the The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide 2020, to 52nd in the UK.

UWL strive to equip students with the academic knowledge and practical skills required to succeed in their chosen careers. Their successes are underpinned by dynamic growth following a major investment of £150m across three campus sites.

Business Challenge

In an increasingly competitive higher education environment, UWL required an engaging website, capable of communicating their wide range of available opportunities. They had identified that a high proportion of the target cohorts are the first of their family to attend university. As such, they needed the university website to be welcoming and guide prospective students through the application process.

After investing in a world-class campus, UWL have placed great emphasis on a digital alignment. Specifically, using digital to reflect the stature of their academic accolades in an outstanding, memorable way.

We had a challenging deadline ahead of the new student recruitment cycle so we worked closely with the university’s digital team. This was to create an intensive project roadmap which enabled us to achieve the first phase in the long-term digital strategy of this prominent university. The primary goals were to:

  • Increase successful student applications
  • Promote and grow the institution's diverse student base
  • Grow the reputation of the university
  • Develop strong partnerships with businesses 

Discovery: User Research and Business Analysis

We set out to build a deep understanding of the unique user groups visiting the UWL website through an in-depth discovery process. This enabled us to create a design that conveys the opportunities available at UWL in a way that resonates with users. To do so, our discovery included:

  • User Interviews
  • Stakeholder interviews
  • Experience Mapping
  • Personas
  • Business and Competitor Analysis
  • Data evaluation and presentation

We conducted interviews with prospective students and stakeholders at the university. The guided interviews were based on a framework of open-ended questions, exploring interviewee’s motivations, frustrations and goals.

We also facilitated a number of experience mapping workshops with UWL stakeholders. The outcomes allowed us to better understand specific user groups and how they choose and apply to universities.

The research gave us the detailed information we needed to design a successful user experience. The identified features enable UWL to meet and surpass their business goals.

Information Architecture

Our UX team reviewed the website and identified the search structure heavily reflected the organisational structure. University websites by their nature have a significant amount of content. Therefore, to reduce stress and increase applications it was paramount that we ensured this content reflected users mental models instead.

We employed two information architecture research methods, Tree Testing and Card Sorting. The tests enabled us to better understand the mental models of the website’s audience. We could then ensure it was reflected in the navigation. Both techniques use real website users, who are asked to complete a number of simple tasks within an online tool. We then further validated this with a cross-comparison of data from Google Analytics.

uwl-ia-1 UWL Information Architecture Testing 

 

We used the data from tests of the old navigation to benchmark the proposed new structure. We found an increase of 71% in success rates, ultimately validating the solution and confirming we were improving the experience for users.

Accessibility by Default: Enabling access for all

Drupal sets the standard for accessibility across the web from keyboard navigation to WCAG approved contrast ratios. The university is dedicated to their responsibilities towards the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) and the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (SENDA). This meant that a key requirement for the website was that it met the WCAG AA 2.1 standard for web accessibility.

MockUp 1 Light Grey Accessibility contrasts

Duplication of Effort

A key finding from stakeholder interviews revealed back-office inefficiencies. This included a high quantity of duplication of effort when maintaining the website content.

The university has a commitment to publishing legally compliant content across the UWL website. This was particularly relevant to statistics that needed to be regularly updated. Site managers previously had to manually update a statistic everywhere it appeared on the site, often in dozens of places. We designed the content management system to store this information in a centralised database of statistics. The database houses all of the university’s facts and statistics found on multiple pages of the website.

CTI_UWL_Case-Study-1

By housing key content in one place a content editor can edit the source once. The change is then displayed across the entire site. This significantly increased the efficiency of content management and maintenance of key content.

Prototype Testing: Gaining design insight and validation

From the discovery, we had a deep understanding of the university and its audiences. This informed solutions that were captured into wireframes prototypes. We then confirmed our research was correctly translated into the final design by conducting two rounds of usability testing.


Wireframes were created and then made into clickable prototypes which enabled users to undertake basic interactions with them. Our testing consisted of 1-hour sessions with 11 of prospective students. During these sessions, we asked participants to undertake a series of basic tasks. We asked them to “think out loud” as they browsed to provide additional insight into their experience.

Our tests uncovered a number of findings. For example friction areas, such as the placement of video content distracting from the course overview. As a result, we revised the content hierarchy to prioritise valuable features.

 

UWL Testing In Action

 

The resulting findings validated that the proposed designs accurately interpret our research findings. We undertook usability testing at this stage to mitigate any risk of investing in the development of a solution that isn’t appropriate for users. By validating our designs we enabled stakeholder buy-in across the board and reduced any subjective misunderstanding.

MockUp 6 Blue

Homepage

The homepage attained for 65% of total visits to the UWL website. We aimed to help potential students reach the information required as quickly as possible. A key goal for the client was to help students reach course pages faster. We implemented the following changes to make this possible:

  • Gave greater prominence to the course search bar
  • Implemented an informed content hierarchy
  • Optimised the page for mobile users
  • And many more changes crucially informed by user testing 

MockUp 2 White

UWL Home Page After Vs Before

Course Pages

We prioritised the course pages for the majority of UX advancements. Most students land on the website from Google search results, directly onto a subject course page. Previous research identified the opportunity to provide more relevant content further up the page. Therefore, we gave prime real estate on the page to the university’s major selling points. Key facts and figures including course fees and UCAS points are pulled forward through quick view modules. This improved the ‘scanability’ of the page.

We merged course variations into one URL to reduce duplicate content which can negatively impact search engine ranking. The change allows all course variants to be viewed from a single URL with varying parameters or query strings. We added filtering options at the top of each page, users can pull forward the most relevant information for their search.

MockUp 3 Blue

 

“Entry requirements are quite bold and clear… (there is) relevant information for mature applicants like me... Fees are nice and bold”

Prototype tester

 

Our changes made finding content much faster and less confusing. This significantly improved the chances of a successful visit and click through to UCAS or application.

Results

Through a rigorous research process, we have defined strategic, creative and UX parameters for the future of the UWL website. Whilst hosting and supporting the legacy Drupal 7 website, we are now in progress developing an improved Drupal 8 platform.

This research-led Drupal solution breaks down the stereotypical assumptions that university websites are confusing or elitist. Presenting a vast quantity of pertinent content, the new UWL course pages enable an uninitiated user to make a well-informed decision.

This project was also selected to be showcased at Drupal London where the team were able to share our industry-leading approach to accessibility in User Experience.

 

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