Who are we?
We are an operational, agile and responsive student support service. The Content and UX team within Business and Online Student Support (BOSS) are a team of Content designers, UX designers, Web administrators and Project coordinators. We are UX professionals who specialise in student support.
We have over a decade of experience working as a team to develop solutions to better meet student needs and expectations. We are responsible for the content, UX and day to day continual improvement of the online student Help Centre. We also provide a bridge between the ‘business’ and technical aspects, managing and prioritising development backlogs. Over the last eight years we have worked with Web Happens, an external web development company to create a bespoke service that is agile and adaptive to the ever changing OU.
We work as part of the wider BOSS team to deliver a comprehensive 360 degree suite of multi-channel, brand and legislative compliant digital student support solutions. The specific focus is on student self-service content and proactive communications. Within Academic Services we work closely with colleagues in the SRSCs to reduce failure demand and encourage students to self-serve information and advice. This reduces contact time with advisers, which frees them up to deal with more complicated guidance aspects of student support.
We have led on content and UX strategy within the unit and have run many workshops across the OU to spread the word about User Centred Design. Our long-term experience places us in a unique place to be able to detail requirements for a platform to enable ongoing continuous improvement and to deliver new digital student support initiatives.
The team of ten, led by Guy Carberry, consists of Content Designers, UX Designers and Content & UX Coordinators.
What is the Help Centre?
The Help Centre is a highly accessible, responsive and fast website. It is the premier hub of personalised online self-service student support and contact information. You’ll find it at https://help.open.ac.uk
It contains the widest range of student support content at the Open University, catering to students looking for support with any aspect of study.
It also presents students with personalised contact information – tutors, SSTs and other support team contact details across phone, email, webchat, forum and snail mail.
It is a publishing platform that brings content to the fore. The design aesthetic is clean, crisp and uncluttered. Unlike many other websites it reduces visual noise, multiple columns of distracting interface in favour of a pure content view.
For the techies, it is underpinned by some of the most cutting-edge web technologies in the OU. It pioneered the use of ‘headless CMS’ (Prismic), elastic search (Algolia) and is built on the Laravel PHP framework. The agile DevOps approach enables rapid deployment and release management. Security and performance are monitored by a suite of cloud based tools and automated testing alerts the team to issues that may require attention.
What is content?
In publishing, art, and communication, content is the information and experiences that are directed toward an end-user or audience. Content is “something that is to be expressed through some medium, as speech, writing or any of various arts”. Content can be delivered via many different media including the Internet, cinema, television, radio, smartphones, audio CDs, books, e-books, magazines, and live events, such as speeches, conferences, and stage performances.
In the context of the Help Centre, ‘Content’ refers to anything that appears on any webpage in the Help Centre website. Every page is content and every page has been designed by Content Designers in the team.
Content is the words, pictures, photos, illustrations, diagrams, videos, audio recordings, animations, interactive activities, link lists, calls to action, tables, forms, buttons, words that appear on buttons and more. With the exception of the OU header and footer, everything you see on every page on the Help Centre has been designed and developed by the Help Centre Content & UX Team.
Content is designed and developed by following our well established User Centred Design process of understanding user user needs and expectations. We have a range of content formats and media in our toolkit. Whatever the solution, we ensure measures are established to evaluate and improve.
What is UX?
User experience refers to the singular and accumulated experiences that occur for users as a consequence of them interacting with an object in a given context.
We design content in the Help Centre to provide students with a positive experience where they feel supported and understood by the OU.
Everyone in the team works in UX and a User Centred Design (UCD) process underpins everything we do.
UX and design for the Help Centre uses consistent principles and guidelines across all content and content development so that students and other users can:
- quickly find what they are looking for
- easily understand the information and advice when they find it
- know what they need to do next
- feel well supported
All designers, developers and administrators working on the Help Centre live and breathe user centred design and are committed to continuously improve to address student needs, meet or manage their expectations and illicit a positive student experience.
Our users (mostly students) are at the centre of our design process. We test and validate our understanding of student needs throughout a project lifecycle via one to one consultation with students asking students
- What do you want to know?
- Is the answer where you expected to find it?
- Is the answer presented in the way you expected it to be?
- Does the answer make sense?
- Are you clear what you need to do next?
- What would you do next?
- How did the experience make you feel?
Once content has been published we use web analytic data and feedback to find out
- What are students searching for?
- Do they end up on pages that we think should provide an answer to their search query?
- How long did they spend on the page?
- What did they do next?
- Did they leave any feedback? Positive or negative? Any insight?
We use these questions to help us continuously revise and improve our content.
How do we manage our work?
All work undertaken by the Help Centre Content & UX Team is underpinned by our User Centred Design (UCD) process.
Every piece of work the team undertakes should pass through these stages. We adjust the scope of activity undertaken depending on the urgency. We have a proven set of tools to call on to enable success.
At the outset of any project, “Discovery” clarifies and agrees the purpose and scope of the work.
The outputs of this process are:
- high-level content goals and strategic alignment
- well defined and validated student and enquirer needs for content design
- agreed project objectives and metrics to ensure continuous improvement once new/refreshed content is released into the support ecosystem
- structured collaboration of the project team from the outset of work
- a shared understanding of scope and how it will deliver value to both users and the business.
The Discovery process has 2 stages:
- Vision and high-level content strategy. Agreeing the project vision and high-level goal or problem to be fixed. How will the work align to University and unit strategy? Is there a specific group of students or enquirers being targeted? Does anyone in the project team have ideas already for key features of the “product”? What topline metrics would be used for evaluation? Is there a deadline to be aware of? The outputs of stage 1 then go into a validation process.
- Validation. Establishing the feasibility and reliability of what was documented in the first stage of Discovery. The goal of the validation stage is to mitigate the risk of building a product nobody wants or needs or that the target group can’t find. What are the specific student/enquirer needs this work will address? Is an information review (data/research/analytics etc) required to understand the business problem or goal better? Can we gain more clarity on the features/solutions already proposed, will they address the needs and solve the problem or is something else required? How will we effectively monitor and measure the results?
These stages will flex according to the project, for large scale development an information review may need to be conducted before clarity about the goals and objectives can be agreed. For some smaller projects or “quick” content changes, reviewing the high level strategic alignment may not be necessary and aligning to “continuous improvement” is sufficient for ensuring the work supports University priorities.
Questions we seek answer during the discovery phase are
- Where does the idea for the work originate (context)?
- Is there a problem to solve?
- What are we working towards by completing this work (goal/vision)?
- How will the work deliver value to the OU/align to University priorities?
- Have specific student/enquirer needs for the work been identified?
- If so, have they been validated with data (feedback/research/analytics)?
- What are the specific objectives or product features that will be delivered?
- What metrics will evaluate their relative success against objectives and the project goal/vision?
The design phase uses the outputs collected during the discovery phase to generate ideas for solutions to address the needs and expectations of the end user and organisation stakeholders.
Here, our Content and UX designers will assess the range of possible pre-existing solutions for suitability. We have a number of content models and formats available in the Help Centre that might suit. For example – plain text, video, audio and diagrams.
If none of the existing content models and formats are thought to provide the best solution, or it is considered that an innovative approach is needed, we will look to fresh options. For example, we have designed a new content model for stepped guided journeys / wizard to support the Exam results – next steps initiative. In another example we have conceptualised an extension to Recommended help to enable students to self-serve personalised recommendations for content in the APP focus areas: BAME, Carers, Care leavers and Access. In this situation we work closely with technical experts / web developers to understand the art of the possible within the scope of our current framework.
Brand new content solutions are evaluated throughout the design stage. We consult with our users (typically students) to understand if the proposed design will enable them to find the answer to their question, understand what they are being told via the chosen format, know what to do next as a result of viewing the content and finally – how do they feel? Is it what we had expected to happen? We use this data to inform the next iteration. We also work closely with colleagues and stakeholders across the OU to ensure that we are able to provide metrics to support strategic objectives and quality compliance. In the diagram above you will see the arrows indicating the cyclical nature between the distinct phases.
Some of the methods we use to evaluate the success of a design are usability testing (find, understand, do, feel), collection and evaluation of user feedback via the Help Centre Healthiness application, focus groups, behavioral based web analytics (do students actually do what we expect them to do?), VOICE SR analysis, Web chat transcript analysis, SRSC call analysis, card sorting, tree testing, multivariate A/B testing.
Often seen as the ‘final’ stage, this is actually often the catalyst for the team to initiate the evaluation and design stages. This can be because work has been brought to the team in an already well advanced ‘solution’ state via task and finish group or higher ranking senior management with a high priority and urgency. In this situation we may not be able to undertake much in the way of discovery, design or evaluation before getting into implementation. We treat this kind of work as ‘experimental’ and seek to at least obtain hypotheses that we might measure the success of the solution against.
The implementation stage enforces a number of safeguards to ensure quality and compliance. This includes but is not limited to accessibility, style, policy, peer review, review dates, end of life date.
New content implementation using existing models and formats is released to the Help Centre immediately or as a part of a scheduled release of numerous changes required on a specific date/time (e.g. a Registration Open).
New content models and/or formats are coordinated by the BOSS systems support team where new technical code is introduced into the Help Centre ecosystem.
A communication plan to students and staff is created at this stage and managed across the wide range of stakeholders in the OU.
More detailed information about our team processes can be found on our Sharepoint website.
How is our work prioritised?
We have many requests and opportunities for work. Our work typically comes from
- Annual business planning and strategic objectives. This work is used to help us roadmap work for the year ahead. The work is not often clear at this stage. In this case we schedule the discovery stage for all unknown work. We cannot easily schedule the design, evaluation and implementation until we have conducted the discovery stage.
- Requests for change via our team inbox. This is reviewed throughout the day, every day by our project coordinators. Work is impact-assessed and triaged against an urgency to importance ratio. Urgent/important work is prioritised and the impact on project work is highlighted to management.
- Student feedback. All Help Centre articles have a ‘feedback’ widget at the bottom of the page. Students use this to give up a thumbs up or thumbs down and can provide and accompanying written feedback. We monitor the resultant feedback throughout the day and identify trends in issues that we need to act on. Where a solution is obvious and easy we act immediately, informing stakeholders about the change. Where the Help Centre feedback is highlighting an issue elsewhere in the OU – with comms or faulty systems we will notify colleagues and pass over to their control. Sometimes feedback is important but not urgent. In this case we look to align the feedback with strategic projects to inform and refine definition of the need as well as the solution.
- AD-hoc requests for change by senior management. Sometimes we are asked to drop everything and do some work that is particularly important to a senior ranking colleague. In this scenario we will attempt to funnel them into our usual user centred design process to try to aid understanding of the purpose and context. If they are too busy or unwilling to engage we will recognise their seniority and make changes under their direction, flagging the development for subsequent evaluation, iteration and exit strategy.
Prioritisation of work against strategic objectives is undertaken via a clear line of management. The team is a part of Business and Online Student Support (BOSS), Student Support, Academic Services.
Priorities for new developments are set via the Digital Student Support Steering Group, chaired by Rachel Hawkins. Recommendations for priorities are made via the Digital Student Support Communications & Content Working Group (DSSCWG). It reports into DSSSG and includes membership from across Academic Services, Marcomms, Library, LXT and others.
We are also represented in the Central OU Digital Governance Groups – UX, Content & Communications, Brand, Digital Preservations, Information Security, Accessibility and others.
Who do we work with?
Business and Online Student Support
The Help Centre Content & UX are part of Business and Online Student Support (BOSS), Student Support, Academic Services.
We work very closely with our colleagues in BOSS to present an integrated approach to digital student support.
The user (student) experience often begins as the result of an email designed and distributed by the Proactive Communications team. This email will contain links to Help Centre content. Together, we construct a targeted campaign with clear and specific objectives where performance can be measured across the entire journey.
Also in BOSS, the Quality and Compliance team work with us to effectively communicate OU policy and changes that will impact on student success.
The technical backlog prioritisation and liaison with web developers is managed within the BOSS system support team.
Our main internal customers are our colleagues across Academic Services. ACQ, Student fees, Career and employability services, ALSPD, Disability support, Widening access, Student policy and casework and of course the SRSCs. We work closely with our colleagues toward shared strategic objectives to improve the student experience.
Other OU content and UX teams
We join colleagues in Marcomms, The Library, OpenLearn and LXT in the UX, Content & Comms, Knowledge Information Management, Brand and Digital preservation digital governance working groups.
We also jointly chair the Digital Student Support Comms & Content Working Group that includes membership from across the OU.
We facilitate communities of practice to develop common ways of working.
Together, we work together to develop and continuously improve digital services for students.