Behind the scenes of UX research at Studyportals


What distinguishes the best online user experiences from the worst? Lots and lots of research and design iterations. It’s easy to think of new ideas, but it takes a great deal of work to build and maintain an intuitive and cohesive experience. While many, especially start-ups, rely on A/B testing, others add different techniques to their research, such as eye monitoring, interviews, and focus groups. At Studyportals, we aim to build the best experiences for our users worldwide: a place where students can find their study choice options and where universities increase their online international recruitment efforts. In this article, our UX teams share their views on experiences with design methodologies and examples of how it improved our product, so they can inspire you to see the value of user research.

Continuous usability testing

Instead of relying on your own intuition to develop products, we let our users guide us. Because no matter how much time your team spends on optimizing the design, users always have a way of surprising you by finding spots in your product, both positive and negative. Discovering these experiences is what makes it vital to have UX teams who are deeply involved in studying the motivations and behaviours of their users. We consider all factors, no matter how big or small, to help create a well-designed, intuitive, and seamless product. Eventually, with the Scrum method, we are able to prioritize the items that our users gave the most feedback on and require to be solved.

Product development at Studyportals

At Studyportals, we aim to build our product in a structured and consistent way by having fixed-length (two weeks) iterations. While working in Scrum teams, usability test sessions are conducted at the end of every sprint. Meanwhile, we perform online surveys, remote task testing sessions, and focus groups, depending on what is required to improve. These user studies help us clarify the goals of our target users — students and higher education professionals from all over the world — which we always keep in mind while designing.

Finding out what users really want

One of the major challenges in UX research is finding out what users truly want and what, often unconsciously, motivates them to perform certain behaviour. A quote from the former ethnographic researcher, Margaret Mead, is spot on about what makes it so difficult:

It becomes even more challenging when your product reaches a global audience– something that more and more companies are dealing with in today’s world. This phenomenon translates to a diverse set of needs and expectations, often caused by cultural differences. In our case, for example, a student from India searching for study options abroad may care more about knowing the university’s ranking compared to a student from the Netherlands. Therefore, when dealing with many different nationalities, we cannot constrain ourselves to local users for the test sessions, but must also reach out to an international target group. We achieve this by either inviting international students to our main office in the Netherlands, or by performing remote test sessions.

Different research techniques, different purposes

One of the ways UX research decreases the gap between what people say they do, and what they actually do, is by applying various research methodologies, each serving a different purpose. Some of our main research techniques include surveys, interviews, and tasks for our users to participate in. Other methods we regularly use to measure performance and user satisfaction are A/B tests and NPS (Net Promoter Score). Surveys allow us to get inspired, enabling us to explore areas for product development and designs that reflect the users’ goals. When there is a need to explore these goals more in-depth, interviews are the next go-to as it enables us to explore users’ attitude and insights into more specific topics. Either we talk to people individually, or we organize focus groups where small groups of people share their experiences and expectations. When it’s time to test a new design, we create tasks to that the user can interact with our newly built features. At the end of the sprint, we communicate our observations and feedback to our Scrum teams. Where the findings from the usability tests are prioritized and improved first. After the changes are implemented, new usability tests are conducted to find out whether the experience was actually improved.

Five things we’ve learned in 2016

Last year we implemented valuable improvements for 19 million students who explored their study abroad options on our portals. Next to that, we also learned a lot about optimizing our UX workflow and procedure. We are happy to share some insights!

  1. Content Feedback Tool

One of these improvements regards the Content Feedback Tool. The idea originated from users complaining about inaccurate or outdated information. Based on this feedback, we designed the Content Feedback Tool which invites users to help us identify and update wrong or missing data. Since we are a content-heavy web service, and the design (together with the brand reliability) is highly impacted by content, this project helped us improve our users’ experience. You can reach the tool via the “Improve Page Content” link at the bottom-right of the About section. Currently, it helps us get around 50 messages per month from our users.

  1. Lead Form

One of the projects that resulted from usability tests and stakeholder feedback was to improve the lead form design by using a pop-up function. Students commented that the lead form was very long and resembled an advertisement. In addition, reaching the lead form on mobile devices was quite complicated, forcing the user to scroll down a lot. After the re-design, students were able to more easily get in touch with universities.

  1. Remote testing

One of the most difficult parts of doing usability tests is and has always been, the recruitment of the users. Last year we actively explored different recruiting channels to get more (and better) feedback on our products. Still, finding appropriate users that would like to participate in our sessions has proven to be tricky and time-consuming. Performing remote test sessions was one of the methods we explored more in-depth. This allowed us to reach out to more international users. Apart from getting feedback from a more culturally diverse group, another advantage of remote testing is that students can choose when and where they want to participate. In addition, remote testing also allows the UX team more flexibility, since we can decide afterwards when to evaluate the test sessions. At the same time, this brings a new set of challenges for the UX team, since we cannot ask follow-up questions or jump in to help users when something goes wrong with the prototype. We try to anticipate possible user interactions beforehand and implement our predictions in the tasks online.

  1. Client dashboard

Alongside our aim to improve user experience on our portals, we are also working on developing a client dashboard for educational institutions. The primary idea and concept for the client dashboard were co-created with our clients during a very insightful and meaningful design sprint. The dashboard aims to provide our clients with an easy way to manage the information about their programmes and institution and gives clients the option to retrieve campaign results at any given time. However, just as we rely on students for the continuous improvement of our portals, we also have to be in touch with professionals who deal with international student recruitment. Only then are we able to create a seamless and useful client dashboard. Therefore, please contact us if you want to become part of our usability sessions! Listening to your feedback and experiences is what we love to do. Your insights motivate us to work on building better products and creating a truly valuable dashboard for our clients.

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  1. Improved UX workflow

Next to developing and improving products, we have also professionalized the procedure and workflow for in-house testing. One of our goals was to create a higher awareness about usability testing across the company. How did we achieve this? By presenting the usability test outcomes biweekly. On top of that, a more professional and efficient workflow was explored so that we can document and search for user feedback. Standardized user feedback templates made it easier for the Scrum teams to read and prioritize the most important aspects. More than ten different design methods were tried and evaluated in order for us to understand how we can improve our cooperation inside of the company. We will continue researching and optimizing our current process this year!

With a creative team of designers and innovators, we are perpetually seeking new ways to enhance the experience for the users who are seeking international education options on our portals. In order to best assure an easy-to-use and streamlined search platform, we rely heavily upon the direct and candid insights from our users. So, from a design perspective, it is crucial that our users’ expectations, goals, desires, and frustrations are taken seriously, as they are the best materials that we have to inform our design decisions.

If you are interested in participating in future user studies feel free to contact us.

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