In December, the Oxplore team were invited to attend the Seren Network’s conference ‘Above and Beyond’. Seren is a network of regional hubs designed to support Wales’ brightest sixth formers achieve their academic potential, and the conference brought over 1000 of them to Newtown in Mid-Wales.
We delivered workshops with over 200 Year 12s, and enjoyed seeing how they responded to the tasks we set for them (creating, discussing and presenting their ideas for Big Questions). Being put on the spot – especially when you’ve been travelling in a coach since 6am – can be daunting! Their ideas were creative and their responses astute and considered. Joseff and Tamsin roamed the workshop rooms to challenge their assumptions, and at the end of the sessions the Welsh students submitted their own Questions to us to bring back to Oxford. We put them – all 275 of them – to the Director of Undergraduate Admissions who carefully considered them before choosing 4 to receive prizes from us….
Bringing the Oxplore concept from Oxford to Wales allows us to spend some time away from our desk and the ongoing task of developing new content and live streams. It also allows us to meet some of the young people we want to encourage to use the site. In our development, feedback was crucial, and even now we’re keen to test the ongoing appeal of the site. On this occasion, 95.2% of those surveyed said they would use oxplore.org after the session – and a modest (well, it was Christmas) increase in pageviews and visit duration from Welsh users bears this through into site usage.
In the first half of 2017, our work has been largely defined by the two pilot phases in which we’ve been sharing Oxplore with specific groups and regions. When we haven’t been travelling to schools to meet with young people, we’ve been planning these visits and working out what feedback we most need to shape the development.
Gathering this feedback has been incredibly helpful – and taking the time to pilot Oxplore has been very worthwhile. We have run 12 focus groups with 162 young people, and each one of them has surprised us with their ability to grasp not only what we are trying to achieve, but how we can use the digital tools to achieve our aims. Their digital upbringing was particularly noticeable in our recent visits to the East Midlands where we were discussing UX, interface and technical features. They were clear on what they expected from a website – and many even bandied about terms like ‘OAuth’, ‘CAPTCHA’ and ‘hamburger menu’ like developers!
A challenging aspect of these visits has been coming up with activities that help us to gauge their true feelings in an engaging way while still getting the data we needed. We were clear that the traditional focus group format of sitting around talking was not going to work for our groups – we needed something to keep their attention. We merged our need for qualitative feedback with sessions designed to be both reflective and interactive. To gauge their preferred other websites, they voted in ‘Web Awards’ which not only asked them to reflect on the features of the sites they most like to frequent, but gave us evidence of user interfaces we might seek to emulate. To help us prioritise the development of new features, they spent ‘cash’ (ahem, stickers) on the features stuck up around the room. To help us refine the scope of those features, they looked at site designs and answered prompts about the process of registration, commenting and more.
While collating the outcome of these activities and more, we’ve also been reflecting in the team and with our developers how simply letting the young people loose with a tablet or PC in a computer room is in itself an excellent barometer of how well the site achieves its aims. In many cases we struggled to get the young people off of the site and onto the tasks. In a few schools they even used the Inspect Element function to view the CSS and temporarily edit the site to what they thought it should look like… (more Big Questions about footballers, apparently).
With technical development now back underway, our next task is to ensure that we make the very best of all this input.
The boxes are packed and ready for the road. The social media is all scheduled for release. Over 300 envelopes addressed to schools have been dispatched to the post room. Five brand new Big Questions are live at www.oxplore.org It must be time for Oxplore’s second pilot!
Our first pilot focussed on the North East. This time we’re seeking to gather feedback and information on site use from a broader area – Wales, Yorkshire and Humber, and the East Midlands. As with the North East, we’ve chosen these areas by triangulating several databases around progression to HE and to Oxford.
Our activity this time involves school workshops and focus groups in Wales and the East Midlands. In Yorkshire and Humber, we’re running a mainly digital pilot to help us see how finding us that way changes the site usage.
Last time we were interested in how young people responded to our concept of Big Questions and the content on the site. This time we’re interested in how users experience the site. Does it behave as they’d expect? Is there anything about the interface we’ve designed that they dislike? These details are the difference between people sticking around on the site or moving on. They are the cogs in our machine.
“If the user is having a problem, it’s our problem.” —Steve Jobs
With such great content from across the University of Oxford we’re keen that the technical detail doesn’t scupper our chance to engage young people. We also still have some technical development time before our launch later this year. This pilot is well timed to give us the chance to seek user input on new functionality like registration.
As before, we will be combining the opinions we hear in focus groups with the data we can gather from Google Analytics. In our first pilot, the overall picture was positive with proof of some things we expected plus some areas we need to think further about. What we’ll find out this time… who knows!