26 January 2018

Developing a new course search

We've created a new version of the course search on the University Website Project alpha website. The first testing session is complete and we'd now like to hear your feedback.

The top three most popular tasks from the top task analysis, which we conducted at the start of the project, were around finding course information. Based on these results, the course search is one of the priority areas in the development of the new website.

User journeys based on top tasks

The ultimate goal of the project is to build a task-focused website, which facilitates common user journeys through the effective structuring and presentation of relevant content.

Prospective student users will be at varying stages of the decision-making process when using the course search. Some may want to browse through a range of courses or subjects to consider their options. Others may want to search for a specific course to find a specific detail, such as a UCAS code, when making an application. It's our goal to create a course search which will cater to varying user journeys.

To ensure prospective students can complete top tasks related to course information, the course search should be prominent and intuitive. The course search will continue to take a prominent place on the homepage and we also have plans for it to feature at the bottom of all study-related pages.

The ranking of prospective student tasks informed some of the features within the course search. Based on insight gained from the top task analysis and student workshops, it was clear that the course search should offer users the ability to:

  • browse all courses
  • browse by subject area (subject areas to be confirmed)
  • browse by specific course features
  • browse by attendance type
  • browse by study level
  • find a specific course


We aim to create a course search which users will feel familiar and comfortable with. We've looked at examples of search functions from other universities, as well as from outside of the sector.

Common features found alongside the search bar include dropdowns and filter panels. These features cater to differing search habits of users. They also allow users to search and refine based on various categories.

Intuitive search bar

One feature that was seen as a must-have was having 'autocomplete' on the search box. This means that as you type, a list of suggested results - in this case, courses - appears below.

For instance, typing 'english' into the search will return a list of courses with English in the title. Tapping or clicking on one of the results will take you directly to the course page. Users also still have the option to press the 'search' button to see a full list of related courses returned to them.

The list of search results on the course search page also updates responsively as users type or select filters, which assists with refining a search and reassures users that they have the control to view just a specific group of courses, such as those with a foundation year.

Level of study dropdown

As level of study is likely to be one of the most popular top-level filters for users, we've created a dropdown which can be applied as part of the main search.

Users can select from the following options to search for and browse courses:

  • Any
  • Undergraduate
  • Postgraduate taught
  • For mature students
  • Online learning
  • Apprenticeship degree
  • PhD

We don't have the course data for all these courses on the prototype website, but the approach w'’re taking it to propose how it might work in an ideal world, and then we can strip out what isn't initially possible.


The course search features a panel of optional filters which users can apply to either refine their search, or to browse by subject or course features.

The decisions for the filter options were informed by our top task analysis research. The filters are are currently attendance type, subject, course features and award.

Search results

The default view for presenting courses within search results is via a 'card' of key information including course title, UCAS code, attendance, length, A Levels requirements, part of the course description and additional features including bursary, study abroad, foreign language and industrial placement.

Populating the search with sample course information

In order to get a feel for how the search might work, we needed to add some real course information to the alpha website.

We decided to import a snapshot of data from all the 2018 undergraduate courses from our current online prospectus. This would give us real content to use and also has the benefit of the data being already organised into separate fields. This gives us more flexibility in terms of how to use it.

We also created some sample manual entries for other levels of study and types of course, including postgraduate, foundation year courses at our Department for Lifelong Learning, online learning and apprenticeships.

Testing with users

We recently held user testing sessions with students, where users were given specific tasks to undertake using the course search.

We found that students tend to rely on the typed search first, and then use filters if the results do not return precisely what they were looking for. Based on this, it's clear that the typed search should be the main focus of the search, but that filters should be present as a secondary optional element.

We have plans to develop the filter panel further. For example, we would want to incorporate collapsable filter headings and 'apply filters' and 'clear all filter' options. It was clear from the testing that these elements would have assisted users in effectively using the filter options.

We also did some testing around the subject areas list, asking students to find their own course using the subject filters. The results were positive, although we plan to conduct more comprehensive testing sessions focussing solely on the subject list.

Continued development

Our progress so far has determined the types of course search features which will facilitate user journeys. We still have a lot of work to do on developing the features and filter categories after the prototyping stage.

Questions that we still need to consider about the course search include:

What are the most logical and effective subject areas for course groupings?
Subject areas need to make sense to the users. The subject list also needs to be concise and straightforward to avoid overwhelming someone with too many options. We plan to do more comprehensive testing on the subject list, speaking to prospective students and staff.

How can the filter panel be improved?
We have plans to make the filter headings collapsible so that users do not need to scroll to find filter options. In our testing we found that users were only likely to use filters that they could see without scrolling. Other suggestions from the user sessions were to include 'apply filters' and 'clear all filters' buttons to make it easier to manage their filters. These are features that we hope to incorporate and test after the prototyping phase.

What should be the default view when you first visit the course search page?
Currently we show an unfiltered A-Z list of all courses. We want to test this further, and consider options such as whether a subject areas list could be shown by default instead.

Are there any instances where just a course title should appear in the search results, instead of the 'card' of information?
It might be beneficial to present lists of course titles grouped into different study levels as one of the search result pages. There may be times where seeing more course titles higher up on the page is preferable to all the information on the card about every course.

Further refinements and feedback

The course search is still very much a work in progress, which we'll continue to develop and test after the prototyping phase of the project.

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Posted by Emily Coupland, Digital Content Coordinator, Corporate Communications

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