The University of Exeter

Rethinking the experience for students starting university during COVID

Services
Research
Digital strategy
Concepting
Service design
Tech stack
React JS
AWS Amplify
Contentful
Industry
Education
See it live
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The brief

The University of Exeter is one of the top-ranked higher education institutions in the UK, welcoming 8,000 new students to their beautiful campus at the start of each new academic year.

However, with the UK in varying degrees of lockdown and face-to-face socialising and teaching limited, it became clear that much of the first term of the 20/21 year would be experienced online. This shift risked a diminished experience for new students and consequently a costly increase in deferrals or dropouts.

In addition, there was recognition that the existing digital experience, especially for new students, was fragmented, inconsistent and at times confusing. The University was looking for a partner to help them rapidly decide how and where to make improvements in this experience, and deliver them before a new cohort of students arrived.

Project summary

Over the summer a small team of specialists from Loomery spoke to incoming and current students, prototyped eight viable concepts for improving the experience and delivered a ‘New Students' Guide’ website to make it easy for students to find the information they needed as they began on their journey at Exeter.

Project in numbers

200

Students involved in the research

3

Weeks of development to deliver the first version

90%

Of new students used the website in the first month

"My faith has been restored in the ability of a good team to deliver a technical solution to budget, on time and beyond the expectation of the original brief."

— Ian Blenkharn, Director of Student Experience

Understanding students’ needs

The initial priority was to understand the needs of these incoming students and to identify where the University’s websites and apps were meeting students’ needs and where there were gaps.

Over the summer a small team of specialists from Loomery collected input from over 200 incoming and current students to understand what would matter the most in September.

Synthesising the challenge

The research helped us identify and prioritise the pain points of incoming students. Critically it also enabled us to reframe the challenge early in the process, identifying that by addressing the challenges and anxieties of the highest risk students we would create a better experience for all students. We consequently focused our recruitment on these groups of students.

We summarised our findings as a series of problem statements, prioritising these based on number of people impacted, severity, effectiveness of current solutions and suitability for digital solutions. This led us to focus on three problem areas relating to how students find the right information, build relationships and access support at the start of their academic career.

Exploring solutions with students

Taking the problem statements as a brief, we kicked off a series of remote co-creation workshops with groups of current and future students and staff to elicit solution ideas. We took the best of these, developed them into prototypes and tested them with students, iterating them each day based on the feedback we heard.

The concepts we tested ranged from services to match like-minded students looking for societies and events to attend, to a chatbot that helped you find the right university support service through a series of questions.

Converging on a single concept

After two weeks of testing prototypes the Loomery and Exeter team coalesced around a bundling of ideas - a guide for new students which showed the key information students needed in their early days, linked out to other key resources and gave a clear checklist of the tasks they needed to get done in each time period.

We then tested multiple variants of this idea with students and what we learned helped us define a clear product proposition and information architecture brief.

Designing for speed and flexibility

Shifting into delivery mode our team rapidly increased the fidelity of the designs, resolving top priority user experience questions with daily user testing and focusing on ensuring the site met the highest levels of accessibility rating.

In parallel, we scoped the technical requirements for the site, focusing on the need to deliver at pace and for the site to be highly scalable. We selected ReactJS for the front-end, AWS Amplify for hosting, and Contentful CMS to drive the content on the site because all three enabled us to deliver high quality functionality at lightning speed.

Delivering before results day

We had a first version of the site up and running, and usable for testing with students by the end of the first week of development. This enabled us to test the live product almost every day of development, constantly releasing improvements to our test environment and increasing confidence in the site.

After just three weeks of development we were ready to launch the first version of the site, a week ahead of our targeted deadline of A level results day. In the following three weeks we released three more iterations of the site, improving filtering options, adding content and adding clearer categorisation.

Conclusion

Over those first three weeks the site was used by over 7,000 students, of an incoming cohort of 8,000. With around 25% of those, our targeted group of more vulnerable students, returning an average of three times.

“An evidence based approach to stop us wasting time building sites which don’t work for our users: music to my ears!"

— Ed Creed, Head of Digital