Doing things better: relaunching our online Undergraduate Prospectus

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Our current online Undergraduate Prospectus launched back in February, after a year's worth of hard and rewarding work. From that time there were two key aspects of the project that gained us huge successes, which I will be outlining in this post.

Focus Group sessions

Something that we'd started with the redesign of our homepage, we continued and enhanced with the revamp of the prospectus. I cannot understate the value in carrying out this activity. Suspend your cynicism that this is a vapid, marketing focused (well, it is but actually it's more consumer focused) assumption affirming, lip service to finding out your user's needs. This is the only time you gather qualitative data from your target group. Otherwise you're mostly guessing.

I mentioned affirming assumptions. That's actually a good thing. Our Esteemed Designer wasn't sure about the pink highlighter circling around the Apply button, but when we took it to our first focus group at a nearby school we were pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm and positive reception. This was a group of Gifted and Talented young people in year 12, very much amongst our target demographic. They felt that our colourful design was right for 16-17 year olds and not "dull like other universities, who treat us like we're 30".

The colourful design is right for us as 16-17 year olds and not dull like others, who treat us like we're in our 30s

Another session a few weeks later (this time with around 60 students - a logistical triumph!) repeated this sentiment: that the colours and the pink highlighter on Apply resonated with them.

What's interesting is that we could easily have ditched that design element. Because we didn't feel sure, or our stakeholders in their 40-50s might have objected. The feedback from the focus groups gave us the confidence, and the evidence, that it was The Right Thing To Do.

This was the first time I'd personally been involved in running a focus group and interacted directly with our "clients". Having feedback that what you're doing is good, is deeply rewarding. Since then I've also been involved in running focus group sessions for the School of Management website. I hope to be involved in more of these.

The Play Framework

This point is on the technical implementation of the prospectus, but one worth stating. Up until now we would be using some heavyweight, enterprise level software frameworks to build our systems with: Struts 2, Spring and Hibernate. The very same toolset that blue-chip companies will use. But in being so heavyweight for a small team of developers it means, excuse the pun, a lot of weightlifting to get small things done. For example we would have to do a lot of work on configuration and setup to support the features we want to build. This was a burden that got in the way of achieving the goal of building the actual feature. And would also be hard to maintain.

We had plenty of experience to go by that lead us to this conclusion, like building the previous prospectus with this toolset.

Before starting this project last year we were assessing a new Java web-app development framework called Play. Our first reaction was that it felt a lot like Ruby on Rails, but this is no surprise as Rails espouses "convention over configuration" and Play is simply following good conventions.

The main things we love about Play are:

    The focus we can place on building features compared to our previous working practises
    The plugin system where commonly required features are already implemented which you can (ahem!) plug in.
    But mostly it's the rapid deployment during development.

The traditional workflow for Java requires an intermediary compilation step and you have to sit there while you wait for it to finish. With Play you simply refresh your browser as soon as you've saved your file.

These two aspects of the the online Undergraduate Prospectus project have helped to make it the success it is now. Play made getting something up and running quicker than we have in the past - by allowing us to not burn time on startup costs. Running the focus groups has ensured that we are delivering to our prospective students what they desire and require. Two ingredients we'll be using again in future projects.

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