University websites are failing to click with prospective students – our detailed white paper includes latest industry insights and our recommendations for improvement.
The executive summary from the white paper can be found below.
The 2011 BIS Whitepaper ‘Students at the Heart of the System’ raised many challenges. As a user experience design agency with a deep footprint in the education sector, the particular emphasis on the importance of the ‘student experience’ caught our attention. This was a challenge that we could rise to. In this white paper we describe how we approached that challenge, what we have discovered and what we believe are the insights, actions and interventions that the Higher Education (HE) sector should better understand and put in place. Our starting point is the belief that accelerated by the recent significant rise in fees, the future undergraduate experience of choosing and ‘buying’ courses in the HE market is evolving rapidly. In particular, that the selection of, application for, and funding of higher education requires more complex, uncertain, time-pressured and stressful decisions from students who are very aware that the quality of their decisions will have a long, perhaps life-long impact in terms of debt and opportunity. As specialists in the digital arena, we believe that established and emerging tools in the online retail sector offers significant opportunity to enhance and streamline the student’s experience. Tools that would be taken for granted by a student interacting with a major e-tailer such as Amazon or eBay. Although an unpopular characterisation amongst some HE establishments, we would position the role of the student confronted with these large, weighty decisions at the outset of their higher education career as that of ‘consumers’. But consumers who are largely in their late-teens, making a purchasing decision that, (notwithstanding a mortgage), may be the largest personal investment decision they ever make. Given this, we set out to investigate the student experience of course selection, application and funding in detail. We are in the business of gaining user insight and translating this into business and consumer value. And this is precisely what we did and report on here. Our findings confirmed that:
- Students see the option to pursue higher education as a consumer decision.
- The student experience of preparing to study at university can be categorised as a three phase process of Selection, Application and Tracking.
- The information available to support students is best presented in an architecture that corresponds to these phases.
- During the selection phase, students make high level consumer decisions aimed to identify the best value for money courses and institutions.
- There are large gaps in available decision-making support during these phases. The lack of information leads to ill-informed and consequently poor student decision-making.
- Particularly notable information gaps were associated with comparison of institutions and course options during the selection phase, together with a poor presentation of information on university websites.
- There is a clear opportunity for established e-commerce best practices, established digital design patterns (e.g. comparison tools, shortlists and peer and other review types) and UI elements (e.g. case studies, modular tabs and hero imagery) to better support the student experience at critical points and phases in the selection, application and tracking process.
- A clear understanding, and delivery of services along the channels that students use to access online tools is important, as is increasing expectation for seamless multi-channel experiences. Our research has established that students access the online primarily through mobile and tablet (36%), laptop (32%), desktop (26%) and games console (6%).
- Following implementation we believe our findings and associated recommendations will deliver great value to the student population, however:
- An equal beneficiary will be those higher education establishments who embrace the tools that are now offered to the more prosaic digital consumer and adopt and adapt these background to empower their future undergraduates to make the right decision, be it in favour of their establishment or another.
- As the market becomes more transparent and comparisons become easier and clearer, support and provision of such tools will become a hygiene-like necessity for an institution to be a player in the game.
- Finally, intermediating organizations such as the Student Loans Company, UCAS and Exam Boards will also wish to play their role, aggregating, informing and supporting as necessary in the emerging digital, educational landscape.
Research design hypotheses
We held three design hypotheses concerning the student experience:
- That students could be better supported online by the higher education sector;
- That students increasingly view the process of preparing to study at university as a critical consumer-driven decision;
- That established e-commerce/consumer-driven design patterns and tools can be applied to the education sector to increase support at key decision points and provide a better student experience during the university submissions process.