The client was an early-stage founder who participated and graduated from Founder Institute, the world’s premier pre-seed accelerator, in London.
The client’s start-up idea was a student recruitment tool to help UK universities achieved their recruitment targets while improving prospective students’ course finding experience.
The client wanted to validate both the problem they were trying to solve as well as develop conceptual designs of the potential solution.
To familiarize myself with the UK higher education sector, I initially read HESA’s (Higher Education Student Data) 2018 published data and the Augar report on post 18-education in England, commissioned by Theresa May. In summary I learned the following key facts:
In addition, I conducted a competitor analysis to learn how existing players are currently helping UK universities with their student recruitment needs.
There are a number of companies operating course finding platforms with the biggest (in terms of course listings) being Studyportals — a platform that curates thousands of masters programmes from all over the world, allowing prospects to easily compare and even directly apply to certain programmes.
I also came across a firm called Unibuddy which is solving the problem differently — by using its technology like a plug-in that can be embedded on university websites to allow prospects to sign up and chat with current student ambassadors whilst universities collect leads and country insights.
While this research provided me and the client with a good overview regarding the sector’s size, trends and constraints, we also needed to gain first-hand insight into both students’ and universities’ needs and pain points, to ensure I design a product that works for both parties.
By attending university campuses in London and reaching out via LinkedIn and email, I was able to interview 4 final year undergraduate students and 3 recruiters each from a low, mid and top tier university respectively.
Because the interviews with university recruiters were explorative in nature, meaning I was trying to obtain a better understanding of their everyday work lives and how they generally recruit students, I used affinity mapping to help identify patterns of themes in the interview data.
I took quotes and notes from the interviews, grouped them according to their similarities, creating themes on Post-it notes as I went along. I later reviewed and refined these themes in an iterative process, until the data within themes was coherent, and the themes were distinctive enough from each other.
Organising my interview notes in this way helped me synthesize my findings into three key themes:
As a result of the interviews, I was able to better understand both students’ and university recruiters’ goals and frustrations, which I illustrated in the below user personas.
I also created an experience map for the student persona shown above, which essentially walks through the typical journey a prospective student takes to find a masters course of their choice and therefore helps to highlight any areas for improvement.
To conclude the research phase, I reframed the problem statement to reflect what I had learned so far:
How Might We make graduate student recruitment more targeted and in a way that helps prospects find the right university course for them?
During the ideation process, I drafted and quickly paper sketched several ways I could try to solve the newly reframed problem, including a website that matches prospects with existing students and alumni of their target courses.
But keeping in mind all the insights gained from my research, I knew that the final solution, would need to help universities, the paying customers, more proactively reach out to and engage with prospects.
That’s what led to a course finding platform which the client initially referred to as “Uni Search” — A platform that simplifies the journey prospects go through to find the right course by processing user generated profiles to recommend suitable options, as well as enabling advanced search capabilities to easily compare courses. At the same time, universities gain valuable data insights to prospects’ online behaviour, such as courses they are looking at or are interested in, and can therefore be more efficient and effective in generating and converting more qualified leads.
Because user research took significantly longer than expected, specifically with university recruiters, and the fact that the client really wanted to present some high-quality concept designs at demo day which was approaching very soon, user testing of the low-fidelity wireframes was fairly limited with little feedback to iterate upon.
While we scheduled a workshop with several members of a top-tier university’s student recruitment team, it was post demo day and hence delivery date. In a perfect world, I would have sketched and tested the paper designs earlier in the process starting with students, iterating based on their feedback and on-going interviews with university recruiters.
Designed high fidelity screens highlighting the key features of the platform that would help address the problem statement uncovered in the research phase.
Easy to compare course catalogue
A clean, simple course catalogue that makes it easy to compare and narrow down the options using relevant filters.
Consistent course layout and information
Maintaining a consistent layout across course listings, makes it easy to digest the information. The option to also shortlist courses helps avoid bookmarking multiple websites and/or excessive note taking.
Universities can make evidence-based recruitment and marketing decisions using insights gained from analysing unique, rich data sets, and sharing them across departments and teams.
Student content management
Universities and/or departments can set themselves apart from the competition by curating topic-related blog articles written by current students and/or alumni.
Universities can tailor their communication and recruitment efforts to prospects that fit match the most from an academic, financial, and personal aspect.
Outcomes and Learnings
Using all the deliverables from this project, the client gave a successful presentation to a panel of seasoned entrepreneurs and investors at Founder Institute’s Demo Day. However, the client was aware that the designs of the end product are subject to usability tests and subsequent iterations.
One of the biggest challenges I faced with this project, was that the client had already conducted some research mainly in the form of surveys. However, they were poorly designed with errors such as introducing both the problem and solution, and asking leading and close-ended questions. As such the feedback was highly skewed and merely restated what the client wanted to hear. Despite this, the client was reluctant to undertake user research and wanted to move straight to designing the concept they had in mind.
To overcome this, I first acknowledged the work they had done and then set up a brief training session with them to communicate how I could add the most value for them by following a structured approach, all within the timeline we had. This involved creating a simple deck explaining what user-centred design is, what the difference between UX and UI is, the value of doing user research and finally proposed a user-centric approach we should follow.
This was crucial for the project as it helped address their concerns and hence better manage expectations regarding the process, deliverables and ways of working.