The Office for Students
Helping students make the right choices about higher education with Discover Uni
The Office for Students is the independent regulator of higher education in England. Their mission is to work with higher education providers to make sure that prospective students succeed. In conjunction with regulators from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland the OfS runs Discover Uni, an official source of information about higher education for the UK.
In early 2022, Loomery was appointed as their retained research and design partner to improve the user experience of the website, and to refresh its visual style. Their internal team had already identified a number of priority journeys that needed attention.
Over the first year of our partnership we spent time with students, teachers and careers advisors to identify opportunities to improve the website, we rapidly designed and tested new experiences, and delivered production-ready designs for the OfS’s engineering team.
Project in numbers
of the site redesigned during our work in 2022
interviews with students, teachers and careers advisors
Understanding the Discover Uni user
Discover Uni serves multiple audiences, helping students through one of the most complex decisions they will make in their lives whilst also providing information to the teachers, advisors, parents and carers who support them. We began our engagement by diving deeply into these different user types, building an understanding of their needs and behaviours regarding the site. We combined qualitative data gathered from interviewing prospective students with a review of previous research studies and existing site analytics.
Alongside demographic differences, we found that the student’s position in their application has a big say in how they behave on the site. From initially considering higher education, through researching and shortlisting options, down to finally making decisions; each context requires a unique support system, and different information to be provided. In addition we discovered that there’s a broad spectrum of how proactive potential students are. This strongly influences how much additional guidance is required to effectively convey the information the students need.
Our initial research let us map out the moments where we could have an impact, and prioritise areas where the site could better help students.
Refreshing the visual style of the site
Our brief included refreshing the visual style of the site to create a modern, inviting design that unified the interface with a consistent visual language. To achieve this, we began by building a component library of reusable UI patterns and establishing a clear typographic scale to ensure consistency across all new design work.
To make the site more engaging, we developed a new, vibrant colour palette that was fully accessible according to WGAC guidelines. We used this palette to create bespoke graphics that draw attention to key areas of the site.
The original Discover Uni site was text and data heavy, which could be intimidating for some users. To address this, we incorporated more imagery to create a welcoming look and feel that would appeal to the diverse range of users that use the website.
Targeted redesign and user testing features for students
We consistently heard from students at an early stage in their journey that the ‘course search’ box could be daunting, as they were often still exploring whether they wanted to go into higher education, and if so, what their options were. Students didn’t need a search box, they needed possibilities they recognised.
Working with the Discover Uni team we prototyped a ‘subject guide’ feature, which let users browse through categories of courses, find out more about them and understand what careers they could lead onto. Working in close collaboration with the content experts at the OfS we created multiple low fidelity prototypes and an exercise for our research participants to help prioritise the information they wanted to see.
Through our lean user testing approach we were quickly able to incorporate an appealing design language, and an effective scheme for prioritising information, efficiently leading to high fidelity website variants based on these findings.
Making home, navigation and search work for a diverse audience
In addition to the subject guides feature, we identified that the homepage and navigation weren’t serving the diverse user group as well as they could, nor expressing the full value of Discover Uni at first viewing. As the primary journey for most users, the search bar and subsequent results worked well for some users, but not those in the early stages of decision making. As a site built by a changing team over a number of years it had also suffered from incremental tinkering, without a holistic review or update.
The user contexts provided the perfect lens to understand the competing priorities for the homepage, nav and search journey. By combining data gathered from collaborative workshops with user research, we developed a relative priority order for different use cases, resulting in a reweighting of the importance of various items on the page. This provided a clear brief, from which our designers developed multiple possible solutions to test.
At the same time, we rethought search, adding multiple search ‘modes’ to the existing course search. In future, users will be able to search by location, course, subject and institution, better serving their diverse information needs.
Rethinking how we serve teachers, advisors and parents
The website already provided a range of exceptional resources for those who support students in their decisions, but there was an ambition to do more, particularly because this audience doesn’t churn each year unlike the core user group.
To address this the OfS team lead a series of focus groups with representatives of Uni Connect, an important programme focused on widening access and participation in higher education. Through these sessions we identified some of the biggest gaps in the provision of existing information, and opportunities for sharing these resources more widely.
As a result of these conversations we kicked off the design of a ‘Resource Hub’ for this audience. By applying our rapid iteration approach, we ended up with a feature which helped this critical audience quickly find the most helpful resources to support students in different situations.
We tested these designs and early content ideas with teachers and careers advisors, adjusting them daily based on the feedback we received. This work also led to a rethink of the design of the core content pages for students.
We covered a huge amount of ground in 2022, redesigning the majority of the pages on the site, which are now in development. We’re working closely with the OfS engineering team to bring these new aspects of the experience to fruition in 2023, and we have big plans for further improvements to the site.
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