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Future student online experiences

Future student online experiences

Sharing the work of the Prospective Student Web Content Team

Introducing the team, our priorities and processes – December events write up

During the early part of December, we ran a series of events to engage with the student recruitment and website management communities. In this post I’ve pulled together slides, video and a write up of what I said.

About the sessions

We ran three sessions (one at Kings Buildings, two on Central Campus) which generated a lot of interest and around 90 colleagues attending.

Read an outline of the session in my blog post promoting the events

At each session, I presented for roughly 30 minutes followed by time for questions and answers. In the second half, I ran a workshop activity to get a feel for staff priorities for our work. At each session, some of the team joined me to help run the workshops and meet some of the colleagues they’ll be providing services to.

I’ll talk more about the outcomes of the workshops in a future blog, and detail how we’ll use this insight to run a survey which can bring more staff views into our prioritisation process.

But in this post,  I want to focus on the presentation which covers:

  • How we are structured and how we will operate
  • What our initial priorities are for improving website experiences
  • How we will involve colleagues to build a process of continuous improvement.

What I cover in this post

This post is pretty long, so here’s an overview should you want to skip ahead…

  • Slides and video footage
  • About the team
  • Our goal
  • How we’ll achieve our goal
  • How I think about websites
  • Understanding top tasks is critical
  • Measuring effectiveness through top tasks
  • Utilising the Scottish Approach to Service Design
  • An agile approach to continuous improvement
  • Steering priorities transparently
  • ‘Funnelling’ priorities into the agile development process
  • Priorities for the Team
    • Short term to end February 2020
    • Medium term to end July 2020
    • Long term service delivery

The presentation: introducing the team and our current priorities



Prospective Student Web Content Team – University of Edinburgh intro session from Neil Allison

A transcript (of sorts)

While I’m not transcribing what I say in the video word-for-word, the rest of this post is a representative accompaniment to the slide deck.

About the team

The establishment of this new team in Communications and Marketing has come about through the work of the Service Excellence Programme’s Student Recruitment and Admissions strand.

Everyone in the team is on open ended contracts, which means there is a genuine opportunity here to operate on a basis of delivering continuous improvement. I’ll explain what this continuous improvement process looks like later on in this post.

As head of the team, I work to Niall Bradley (Director of Marketing) and for this academic year, I’m also delivering a project to Service Excellence.

See the full list of team members on the Communications and Marketing website

Our goal

I’m setting the team up to operate in a way that’s centred around the user (as you might expect from someone who previously set up and ran the User Experience Service in Information Services), and as such our goal is centred around the user too. Note we’re talking about website experiences, not websites…

To deliver effective, efficient and satisfying prospective student website experiences

Indeed we probably shouldn’t even be talking about website experiences, as it’s only one among several platforms for digital engagement. But it’ll do for now.

To be able to deliver great prospective student experiences, we also need to provide great services for the enquirer who then chooses not to apply.

And likewise for our colleagues who provide the direct interface with enquirers and applicants. Great staff experiences are just as important.

How we’ll achieve our goal

Continuous learning, open communication and strong collaborative relationships are fundamental to great experiences. My focus in these first months has been very much on team culture and how we work.

These activities and behaviours are key:

  • Researching, co-designing, sharing – with students & subject matter experts
  • Learning, evolving and iteratively improving – our practices, our services
  • Evidencing our decisions and working in the open
  • Working closely with IS Website & Comms to deliver future web services
  • Management of the Degree Finders, working towards a new future state

How I think about websites

For me, the concept of what a website is for is critical. Lack of clarity here is at the core of our, and many other organisations’ challenges in this area.

Delivering great online experiences can only be achieved by understanding existing experiences, and aligning around a coherent, evidenced and most importantly user-centred vision for the future.

The website shouldn’t exist as a thing to be fixed or optimised. If it were possible for us to function without a website – with students nontheless having great experiences of interacting with the University, and with the University achieving its goals in a cost effective manner – you’d have to question why we even had one.

But the fact is, for the past twenty years and for a few years into the foreseeable future, the website has been a fundamental element of delivering the student experience in a cost-effective manner. Students expect to be able to learn about studying at Edinburgh whenever they want via devices they use daily. And the University wants to impart this information as effectively and efficiently as possible.

But who’s to say what the student experience of the future – even five years or so – might look like? Why shouldn’t I be able to ask my virtual assistant whether I should apply to student at Edinburgh?

So, our website is simply a means to deliver a service (or rather a range of services) to our students. In the past we delivered these services by other means, and in the future we undoubtably do it differently too.

But what doesn’t change is that we want to influence student behaviour. We want to influence them in ways that are beneficial to them (like making the strongest application possible or deciding not to apply because Edinburgh isn’t right for them), and beneficial to us (like not asking us questions that they should be able to answer more quickly for themselves and not making a weak application that we must spend time processing only to reject).

The website is a tool to change student behaviours, making them more successful in what they need to do and reducing behaviours that are costly to the University.

Understanding top tasks is critical

I’ve talked about the importance of top tasks before, and have practiced the research technique many times over the years at the University.

Read my post about top task management on the Website and Communications blog

The greatest return on investment in digital service management comes from optimising user experiences for top tasks

Fortunately we’ve got some robust and recent data around prospective student top tasks, from a piece of research undertaken for us in 2018 by the Edinburgh User Experience Consultancy User Vision. The top task survey they did for us captured the priorities of over 2000 students and their advisors.

As ever, a small number of tasks were disproportionately important to prospective students:

  • The top 4 tasks accounted for 25% of all votes
  • The top 9 tasks accounted for over 50% of all votes
  • The top task was more popular than the bottom 19 tasks

In their report, User Vision highlighted that ‘Tuition fee costs’ and ‘Entry requirement’ emerged as joint super tasks across many different prospective student audiences and geographies, gaining as many votes as the bottom 28 tasks.


Pie chart illustrating top task distribution, as detailed in the article

Four tasks accounted for around a quarter of all votes: entry requirements; tuition fees and costs; University rankings; and financial support and funding opportunities.


We’ll be sharing further blog posts early in 2020 which goes into more detail about the top tasks for each target audience, and making the full User Vision report available to University staff.

Measuring website effectiveness through top tasks

So how we gauge the effectiveness and impact of our work is to look at how well students can do the things they need to do and the things we want them to do. It’s not about how many pages get visited, or a bounce rate, or any number of statistics we can glean from Google Analytics.

Whenever I’ve worked with a school or department to improve their website, I’ve advocated a scorecard approach to appraise its effectiveness. I summarised this in a presentation I’ve given many times over the past six years: How to get a grip of your website (and then keep hold).

Read ‘How to get a grip of your website’ blog post and slides on the Website and Communications blog

And this approach is exactly how I’m intending to improve student experiences across the whole University web estate.

The scorecard approach is taken from an excellent article by Lou Rosenfeld – Stop Redesigning And Start Tuning Your Site Instead – on the Smashing Magazine website

Matrix by Lou Rosenfeld prioritises top tasks by rows containing target audience and columns by organisational and user priority

Lou Rosenfeld’s matrix from his ‘Stop redesigning…’ article with annotation against each column by me. (Note that the audiences listed in the rows will be different to those shown in this illustration.)



So we have the user priorities column from our top task data.

What I need is business priorities to go with this, and a means to integrate the two. During the sessions at which I gave the presentation this blog post is based on, I also ran workshops. The single question I posed for each group was ‘What are the most important user behaviours you would like to change?’. For some groups, the focus was on prospective students, and for other groups, the focus was on colleagues.

I’ll write up and share the learnings from these workshops shortly. I will also be issuing a survey early in 2020 to get a larger sample of staff priorities which will give us another column for our matrix.

I will outline how we harmonise user and business priorities below in the section about steering our continuous development process.

Utilising the Scottish Approach to Service Design

As I’ve mentioned, I believe the website fundamentally is here to facilitate service delivery that meets both user and business needs. Adopting a service design mindset is so important to this.

The Scottish Government has been working in this area for a while now, and generating some really important materials that we can benefit from. In their recent publication, the Scottish Approach to Service Design, they outline how solving user problems (for them citizens, for us students) comes down to meeting their (sometimes complex) needs. If we assign responsibility for meeting those needs to a range of agencies who don’t work to a common goal, then we deliver disjointed experiences.

In my slides I talked through a University-flavoured version of what the Government’s Office of the Chief Designer says in the section about ‘Why we need a new approach’.

Why we need a new approach to designing public sector services, part of the Scottish Approach to Service Design


Designing with, not for, is the basis of our approach.

The Scottish Approach to Service Design

This philosophy is fundamental to our approach too, and I will be actively seeking involvement of staff and students through our research and design activities that will deliver the effective, efficient and satisfying website experiences we need.

An agile approach to continuous improvement

So, having talked about what we intend to do and why, we need to talk about the ‘how’.

We are adopting an agile approach to fixing student problems, with better content design practices as our foundation.

Agile is a methodology used originally in software development and has been around for about 15 years now. But as a means to organise a team and deliver improvement it can be applied across other disciplines.

Adopting this approach means that we are able to deliver prioritised, continuous improvements through short bursts of activity for faster impact and learning.

So instead of  building a new website and going for a ‘big bang’ approach (with all the risk and complexity that that entails) we will focus on areas of the website in most need of attention and deliver measured improvements here first. We’ll see incremental change and improvement on a month-by-month basis.

As well as delivering improvements more quickly, we are feeding evidence and insight back into the decision-making process. This means we can learn and evolve as we go and avoid costly initiatives that don’t deliver the value to the business or to the user that we need.

Working iteratively also means we are better able to adjust to evolving business and user needs in a timely fashion.

Steering priorities transparently

To steer and ratify what the team works on, on an ongoing basis, I’m working with Niall Bradley to establish steering groups.

We will have 3 operational steering groups who will work with me to set to-do lists for the team based on priorities for:

  • Prospective undergraduates, widening participation candidates and visiting students
  • Prospective postgraduate taught masters students, including those studying online
  • Prospective postgraduate research students

Meeting quarterly, these groups will bring together expertise from:

  • Student Recruitment and Admissions functions in schools and colleges
  • Central Student Recruitment & Admissions, and Communications & Marketing
  • Service Excellence initiatives around Student Enquiry management and Programme & Course Information Management

These three to-do lists need to be turned into one master list that sets out our priorities month-to-month. To achieve this, I’ll be working with an executive steering group who will help me align activities with the University’s strategy for 2030. This group will include senior representation from:

  • Recruitment and Admissions functions at College level
  • Central Student Recruitment and Admissions
  • Marketing
  • Edinburgh Global

Members of this group will also have responsibility to report into University-wide governance functions for student recruitment and admissions, and website management.

‘Funneling’ priorities into the agile development process

The following diagram pulls all this together. It’s based on the Agile Scrum methodology.

Scrum methodology website

Version of the scrum agile development methodology used by the team, described in the article

We are using a methodology derived from Scrum agile to deliver continuous website improvement for prospective students


The process outlined in the diagram:

  1. Three steering groups (as detailed above) prioritise user needs against operational business priorities. They’ll meet with me on a quarterly basis for progress updates and an opportunity to reorganise priorities relating to desired student behaviours for their respective target audience(s). These priority lists will always be available for University staff to review.
  2. The executive group ratifies a single backlog that I will maintain, in line with strategic priorities driven from the University Strategy 2030. Again, this process will happen on a quarterly basis. This master priority list will always be available for University staff to review.
  3. The Prospective Student Web Content Team agrees tasks for attention with subject matter experts & services within the area of focus, based on evidenced user need and operational feasibility.
  4. The Prospective Student Web Content Team then works on time-boxed tasks with direct involvement of subject matter experts, University services & students as appropriate. Each cycle of activity (commonly known as a sprint) will last two weeks.
  5. At the end of each sprint, progress is reviewed and lessons learned. The work done leads to one or more of the following actions:
    • Features get released. A ‘feature’ could be new functionality or content for the website,  the removal and simplification of content, the development of standards and guidance for web publishers, the distribution of user insight, or any other tangible output that delivers value.
    • Ongoing work that feeds into next sprint. Sometimes larger tasks will be broken down into sub-tasks that can be achieved in a two week window. As such, other sub-tasks may need to be done in a subsquent sprint before a feature can be released.
    • Issues are sufficiently addressed to prompt reprioritisation. While all user or business issues relating to a student or staff behaviour may not be tackled in a time period, it’s possible that improvements in a particular area are sufficient to warrant moving the Team’s attention on to new areas in greater need of attention. These decisions would be made on a quarterly basis through the steering process.

Priorities for the Team

While the steering process is being set up and trialled over the course of spring 2020, it’s important that the Team has priorities to work upon. On the basis of the user research done to date, plus early informal consultation with staff, I’ve set out priorities for the team through to summer 2020. Once the steering function is established, these priorities will change.

We will always publish a 3, 6 and 12 month view of our priorities. Of course, the further into the future we predict our activities, the less accurate our predictions will be. However, by being open in this way, we can facilitate dialogue and plan in user research and business analysis that will inform and validate assumptions around user behaviour and the likely impact of particular solution ideas.

Short term activity (to end of February 2020)

  • Deliver early sprints as proof of concept
  • Identify members for steering and governance groups
  • Recruit outstanding team members
  • Areas of delivery (for PGT):
    • Fees and cost of study
    • Website search results
    • Funding opportunities

Medium term activity (to end of July 2020)

  • Fully operational steering and governance functions
  • Team fully in place and working partnerships with key services
  • Responsibility matrix for business-critical student content
  • Communities of practice established
  • Deliver enhancements for all levels of study
    • Fees and cost of study
    • Funding opportunities
    • Entry requirements
    • University rankings

Long term service delivery

  • Continuous improvement as business-as-usual
  • Ongoing cycle of user research and business review
  • Operational and strategic alignment with Programme & Course Information Management and Student Enquiry Teams
  • Future state for provision of programme content for prospective students research, consultation and co-design

Let us know what you think. Any questions?

Whether or not you managed to attend a session, I’d be really interested in your thoughts.

Leave a comment on the page, or drop me an email.

Neil Allison’s contact details

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