Building a new Course Search

Posted in: Beta, Content design, Course Publisher, Design, Development, User research

Our new Course Search is now live. It has been built from scratch to meet the needs of prospective students.

The new pages have been designed to make it easy to find courses and learn about them. Course Search works on mobile devices and is optimised so that it plays well with search engines.

For the first time, academic departments can explain their courses by combining words, pictures and videos, helping to inspire future students.

The new Course Search required a unique collaborative effort. In this first post, I'll explain how the University worked together to deliver the project in record time. In the next post, we'll explore how we worked with a local digital agency to deliver the author interface.

Origins of Course Search

Course Search began life over three and a half years ago. The idea was to create a single source of truth for our courses using structured content - allowing information to be reused online and in print.

Building Course Search

The Course Search is one of the most complicated tools the team has ever had to design and build.

It was clear from the start the team would need to adopt a radically different approach to delivery to make sure that we met the ambitious deadline of early June.

Design, development and content would need to start work at the same time. This required the team to learn its way forward, carrying out small scale tests to reduce risk - helping us to make sure that the product we were building was the right one.

Modelling Course Search

Course Search Entity Relationship (ER) diagram
Course Search Entity Relationship (ER) diagram

The team has a lot of experience structuring content. However, Course Search is the most complex content model we have ever had to create.

Content models identify fields, the field format and the relationships between different fieldsets. This lets authors input information accurately so that the output is predictable wherever it is published. Course models also help developers make sure that databases are structured correctly.

At first, we worked in Excel, but we soon found that the content was too complicated to model using a spreadsheet. As a result, Iris, one of our developers, suggested we use JDL-Studio. This allowed us to see the relationship between different parts of the model.

Developing the UX

Very early on in the project, it was immediately apparent we’d have to rethink the current design of the website.

As we worked on the design, it was clear the Information Architecture (IA) would not work on mobile. We also experienced challenges with the complexity of the information that we needed to present to prospective students.

To overcome these problems, Dan and Tegan, our UX designers, created a bold new look and feel that relocated the site navigation, introduced new elements, simplified the layout and better reflected the University.

To help make sure that the information hierarchy was correct, the team looked at the results from user research carried out with prospective students on an earlier prototype in 2016.

Entry requirements

The UX designers also worked closely with David Howells, Head of Undergraduate Admissions, and his team, to make sure that the layout of the new ‘Entry requirements’ section would be easy to understand.

The 'Entry requirements' section went through multiple iterations as the team developed a better understanding of what information prospective students needed to know.

Testing the new look and feel

UsabilityHub screenshot
UsabilityHub screenshot

Working with Takashi, our Business Analyst, we carried out a desirability test to assess the emotional response of individuals to the new look and feel.

Using the paid-for user research tool UsabilityHub, the new design was tested with 100 people of university age, including young adults from the UK as well as other parts of the world - this was the largest user research session the Digital team has ever carried out.

As part of the desirability test, 50 percent of users were shown a version of the Course Search using our site's current look and feel, the other 50 percent were shown the new look and feel.

People were asked to rate the page on:

  • how modern it felt
  • how sophisticated it was
  • how professional it felt

Both designs elicited near identical emotional responses with one important difference: individuals who saw the new look and feel only left positive comments in the free text field; those who saw the current look and feel also left negative comments.

As a result, we took the decision to pause work on the current look and feel and make the switch to a new design - the team will roll out the new look and feel to the rest of the website over the summer.

Keeping the design in sync with the content model

One of the biggest challenges the team faced was the pace of delivery and how to keep the content model, content and design in sync.

The team normally builds the frontend and backend at the same time, which allows the developers and designers to make small changes. However, because the author interface had to be outsourced, the content model needed to be completed first.

As a result, before the model was shared, each field had to be checked to make sure the content would be correctly captured and output.

Course Search field map
Course Search field map


As the HTML templates didn’t exist, the simplest way to do this was to mock-up a course page using the actual content. The team then broke the page down into component parts and checked that these were represented in the model.

This process required the team to check over 150 fields.

Creating the content

As the backend wouldn’t be available for at least a month, the team had to rethink its whole content production process.

As a result, the content team began work on capturing the content using Word templates that matched the content model. This required the team to repurpose content from our old digital prospectus and an online content repository built to deliver the new print prospectus for the 2018/19 cohort.

The idea was that when the backend was completed the content could be copied and pasted into the new tool - reducing the time it would take to go live.

The approach paid off. Over 422 documents were created to support this process. It took less than 10 days for the Digital team, working closely with the Faculties, to move the content from static documents to the new editing tool.

As part of this process, the team had to watch 3 hours of videos to source quotes for the new case study element. We also had to source over 200 new images, which needed to be resized, edited and uploaded to Flickr.

We also had to review almost 200 courses, proofreading an estimated 500,000 words and checking nearly 10,000 links in the process. The pages were then fact checked with departmental Admissions Tutors.

Shipping Course Search

On 14 June, one day before the University’s first Open Day of the year, the new Course Search went live. It is a testament to the hard work and dedication from all those involved - thank you.

User research with real prospective students

One day later, the team carried out guerrilla user research at our Open day to validate the findings from the first desirability test.

As part of the process, we asked individuals to navigate to the entry requirements. Some were concerned about its location on the page.

Out of the 40 people that took part in the research, 37 people were able to navigate to the entry requirements successfully. 23 people scrolled, 14 people used the in-page navigation.

This is the largest on-site user research session we have ever carried out.

Although the findings validated our hypothesis that people would be able to find entry requirements easily, we identified some improvements that will help us to make the new Course Search even better.

What happens next

Mock-up of Course Search results page
Course Search results page

Over the coming weeks, the team will continue to work on the new Course Search. Next week we'll make improvements to navigation and search.

In July, we'll add a new landing page and search results function. We are also adding our taught postgraduate courses to the tool, meaning for the first time ever prospective students will be able to search for courses from a single location.

In September, we’ll improve the contact hours information we provide to prospective students.

Well also continue to monitor the Course Search analytics. In the last week, the new tool has performed significantly better than its predecessor. Users are more engaged - they are spending more time on pages and are less likely to leave the site.


Posted in: Beta, Content design, Course Publisher, Design, Development, User research

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