Improvements to the Clearing process: A technical overview

My colleague John Bourne recently wrote a post about our clearing application process covering the user experience improvements. In this post I’ll be delving into some of the technical work behind these.

First, an introduction; I am a front-end developer for the Digital Communications team here at the University of Bristol. This will hopefully be the first of many dives into some of the technical work we do.

Last year we identified that the process for updating clearing information was convoluted and vulnerable to mistakes. A manually coded HTML table was used to display current vacancy information for all the courses involved in the clearing process. This would have to be completely re-written and published after any change within a separate system maintained by our admissions team.

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Optimising the user experience of our Clearing pages

A-level results day is one of the most important days in the University calendar, and that applies to us in the digital team. One of the most important tasks for us is ensuring that any A-level students who enter clearing have all the information they need from our website to make a decision about whether (or not) they’d like to join us.

Deciding on which university you want to go to is a huge decision for anyone to make and the whole process means often these decisions have to be made in a hurry. To mitigate the stress, we have to make the user experience of our Clearing pages and systems as simple as we can.

Screengrab of homepage message saying Bristol is opening for clearing
Our homepage call to action

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Intranet design principles

We’ve been investing significantly in an intranet for University staff and postgraduate research students (PGRs). Previously our intranet content was scattered across our external website, seriously old internal content management systems, wikis and random crevices that only staff who’ve been at the University for decades would be able to find.

As we’ve just moved it out of beta and into live I thought it was a good opportunity to detail the design principles we’ve been using to inform its development.

It’s important to add we’re still at the early stages of a long journey. There’s a large roadmap of development ahead. But we believe that by sticking with these principles we can continue to build an intranet that will prove invaluable to all our staff and PGRs.

Screenshot of intranet

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Content sprinting – part three

Fees and funding web content - show and tell
The show and tell for our latest sprint was held virtually, via Skype.

The third part of digital officer Charlotte Brewer’s series on content sprinting.

This post was actually written a while ago. We planned to release it as part of our series on ‘Content Sprinting’. Thelockdown started. Hitting the publish button fell down the list of priorities. 

Despite lockdown, and despite everyone working from home and all the challenges that has broughtwe’re actually still working in exactly the same way. We’re still sprinting. We’re still doing everything we did before. Everything in this blog post remains accurate. The only difference is that all our meetings and our conversations are via Skype.  
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Love the problem

When colleagues from across the University come to us for help with their website, the first thing we ask them is: what’s your problem?

That sounds a bit rude and abrupt. Let me explain.

In any digital project or product this is the single most important question that needs answering. If there’s no problem to solve then there’s no work needed.

What do we mean by problem? What we don’t mean is that your website looks ugly, that it doesn’t look good on a mobile device, it doesn’t have the right tone, or that it’s not structured in a way that mirrors your team’s structure.

These aren’t problems, they’re solutions looking for a problem. (more…)

Seven things you need to do to make your content accessible

Our previous accessibility blog post explored some of the barriers that people face when they read online content. Barriers that stop people from being able to use the content.

Creating clear and accessible content has always been important. It means everyone can use and understand it.

However, as more and more services move online, it’s even more important that we reduce these barriers. It’s even more important to create clear and accessible content.

Accessibility symbols
Symbols highlighting different needs. Mobility issues, cognitive problems, hearing problems and vision impairments.

Here are seven things every content professional needs to do to make their content accessible. (more…)

UX writing: making our microcopy clear, concise and useful

UX manager Miles Taylor on the benefits UX writing can bring to the usability of forms, instructions and error messages.

Major upgrades are afoot to a raft of University systems that support student recruitment and the students themselves once they arrive here.

At the coal (inter)face of each are forms that facilitate tasks and activities students need to complete. Things like booking on an open day, uploading documents to support their application, providing their accommodation preferences or accessing support.

Improving our forms’ usability

Typically, the Digital Communications team has been brought in right at the end of the development process to ‘sign-off’ on accessibility. But we’ve noticed so many more issues with the way we display form than just poor accessibility. (More about our accessibility testing in another post.)

While internal stakeholders have been consulted, users haven’t always had much of a look-in. Research hasn’t always been conducted or designs tested, beyond the purely aesthetic. As a result, several of these forms have been overly long, complex and confusing to complete.

We’ve been working with project teams on each of these systems to offer advice and guidance on form design best practice to improve layout and flow.

And we’ve introduced them to the importance of UX writing to improve the clarity, consistency and usefulness of their forms’ instructions, labels, buttons and error messages.

In preparation, I put a workshop together for our Content Team. Here’s the guidance I stole synthesised from several excellent blog posts on the subject. (more…)

Content sprinting – part two

The second part of digital officer Charlotte Brewer’s series on content sprinting. 

In my last blog post about the sprint way of working, introduced it as a concept and looked at how we did sprint planning. In this post, I’ll show what it’s like to do the work as part of the content team in a sprint.

Do the work 

Once the sprint planning meeting is over, we get stuck into the list of tasks.   

Each task is a specific, distinct thing that we need to do to complete the goal of the sprint. For our students’ Top Tasks sprint, these included:  

  • Draft a template invitation email 
  • Book rooms  
  • Contact an International Officer to get list of international students  
  • Email these students an invitation to a focus group 
  • Contact the Mature Student Adviser to get list of mature students  
  • Email these students an invitation to a focus group 
  • Collate a list of URLs across the website that answers students’ FAQs (spoiler: there is a lot of duplication) 

Once we finish one task, we move onto the next task. Some of these are small enough for one of us to easily complete it. Others are bigger and need us all to work on it at once. Some tasks are straightforward, while some become blocked. This is where daily stand-ups come in.   

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Untangling our duplicate content

Senior digital product manager John Bourne looks at some of the problems in how we showcase our courses to prospective students 

At Bristol we spend a lot of time and effort gathering and publishing information about our courses. Most of this is done centrally through our online prospectus, but this information also appears in a variety of other places. 

The University of Bristol homepage with course finder

Duplicated content across our site causes maintenance problems for staff. More importantly it means prospective students don’t really know where to find the most useful information to meet their needs.

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Content sprinting – part one

It’s not only software that benefits from being delivered in sprints. Digital officer Charlotte Brewer discusses the practicalities of “content sprinting”. 

Sprinting – an act or short spell of running at full speed. That’s the traditional definition. Since the times of the Ancient Greeks, the sprint has been seen as the pinnacle of the athletic world. And in the last decade or so, it’s also become popular in the world of work.  

Software teams have been taking up ‘Agile’ practices that quickly deliver lots of small but functional improvements. Sprinting is fundamental to this. Like the sporting version, sprinting involves a lot of effort over a short space of time.   

In the Digital Comms team, we’ve started to adopt this approach in the way we deliver new contentOur newlyformed content team hanow completed five sprints since we started this new way of working in October.  (more…)