Improving the University’s course pages

John Chapman
Wednesday 9 November 2022

With over 200 courses available, prospective students, parents and teachers come to our website to find out what St Andrews has to offer.

The courses are organised into subjects, forming our ‘Digital Prospectus’. The Digital Prospectus is the most popular part of the University website – in 2021, these pages had over 670,000 page views, 2.5% of all University page views.  

Our Digital Prospectus is now the first point of contact for many rather than traditional marketing materials such as print prospectuses and visiting days. It is therefore important that our course pages are the best they can be and evolve to match our user needs. 

Our Digital Prospectus was launched in 2016 and over the years there have been minor iterations to the design, but no real evolution of the original design or workflow despite the process of keeping it up to date becoming very onerous and inefficient.  

The main issue was that all the content on the page had to be manually inputted and checked several times over to ensure it complied with Consumer Protection Legislation. Each course would take about an hour to create. Multiply this by 200 courses and the hours required each year to complete the Digital Prospectus was becoming impossible.  

Compounding this was the issue that different University schools and departments would provide information on entry requirements and fees, generally on spreadsheets and PDFs, which the Digital Communications team would then need to manually copy over to the course page. This was a time-consuming task and could easily result in incorrect information being published on the page causing consumer protection legislation issues.   

To solve this problem the Digital Communications team have been working with colleagues in IT Services, Publications, Registry and Admissions to create course pages that are automatically populated using information from centrally maintained University databases. While this would seem an obvious thing to do, it has been a big challenge to coordinate different departments and put in place a technical solution that would allow web pages to retrieve the information. 

Now that we have solved the technical issues, we can benefit from knowing the information in the database has been checked and does not need to be verified again. This reduces the time spent creating the online courses and minimises potential human error. We can now automatically populate the following information on each course page:  

  • UCAS code 
  • Course dates and duration 
  • Entry requirements 
  • Fees
  • Contact information 

As part of this project, we have also had the opportunity to look at the visual design on the page. Following consultation with students and staff across the University the new page design is optimised for accessibility and user needs. The main benefits of the new design include: 

  • Key information, which uses central data, has been condensed so users can find important information quickly.
  • Teaching information has been divided into tabs, this has reduced the length of the page and allows users to choose which information they want to look at.  
  • Joint honours degrees, where available, are now listed in an accessible table alongside their unique UCAS code.  
  • An introductory image can be included on the page if requested providing more of a visual appeal to the page.  
  • The navigation of the page has been improved with the page navigation now fixed to the side of the page, users can now jump to different sections of the page quicker than before.  
  • ‘Register your interest’ and ‘Apply now’ buttons are fixed along the top of the page so there is a constant call to action, something that was not available in the old design. 

We have also made big improvements to the content management of the design. This is not apparent to the user, but behind the scenes, we have improved the workflow and further reduced the time required to create a page. This has been achieved by having just one content template to enter the content, whereas previously each course page was composed of 20 to 30 content blocks that had to be individually opened, edited and approved.   

The one content type also includes standard information that need to be displayed on a course page. By having one content type we can easily edit the standard information across all courses – previously we would have had to go into each course page to make a change. 

The overarching benefit of this project is time management. While it has taken years of work to get us to where we are now, the rewards will be significant. The previous workflow of creating a course page took around one hour per course from start to finish. This included sending content to content owners, uploading content to our content management system, checking content and making the page live. Across 200-plus courses, the hours needed to complete this task quickly added up.  

With the use of central data and the new design course page it is estimated that the time needed to create each page can be reduced to half an hour, effectively halving our workload. This freed-up time can instead be spent on other website improvements.   

The time saved includes: 

  • Less content needs to be shared with course coordinators as this is now automated.  
  • Less content needed to be uploaded to the content management system thanks to central data and standardised content.  
  • Less time reviewing a page as the central data only needs to be checked once.

We also plan to reduce this time even further by automating module information on each course page. This is scheduled for 2024 entry and again will make a massive change in how course pages are populated.  

The new page designs went live in August 2022 for postgraduate courses and September 2022 for undergraduate courses making it the biggest overhaul of design we have ever done.  

This project has improved the workings of the University. While the digital prospectus was mainly a Digital Communications task, it has now involved teams across the University to solve a bigger problem. Teams have become integrated, and communications have been supported with regular meetings and online Teams groups. The hard work, determination and problem-solving of the past couple of years will benefit the University and end users for many years to come.

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