Plymouth University gets agile

When Plymouth realised that most students learn about them primarily through their website, they knew the existing site was not up to scratch

As the competition to attract new students increases, universities have had to become much more commercially oriented. For Plymouth University, one of the ways to achieve this is to improve the way that they engage with prospective students online. The University was fully aware that most students learn about what they have to offer through their website, and wanted the current site to better reflect the quality of the Plymouth University experience.

Paul Westmore, IT director at Plymouth University admits: “We knew the site had to change, but not just in terms of design. We had to make sure it gave a great experience on mobile devices such as smartphones, as that is how a large number of our potential students now want to interact with us.”

Speed of delivery was a critical requirement for the project, so Plymouth University chose to work with Unboxed Consulting, a London-based consultancy specialising in the delivery of digital products through Agile methodologies. Unlike traditional development methodologies, where a design is meticulously documented before a line of code is written, agile approaches are iterative with new features being delivered at regular intervals based on their priority. In Plymouth University’s case, new sections of the site are being built during development cycles called ‘sprints’ which last for two weeks at a time.

The project team is made up of specialists from Plymouth University and Unboxed Consulting, who physically relocated for a period of time in order to work alongside the Plymouth team to ensure no delays were imposed on the project by team members being 200 miles apart. What resulted is true agile team collaboration.

In order to create a site that delivers what its users want, the team ran sessions with a number of different stakeholder groups but with particular emphasis on students – the primary user. They then worked to deliver the most important features first, iterating to add further functionality on the basis of the evidence gathered for what would be most effective. Students also feature in the testing of the site, often giving feedback on the prototype before the functionality is built into the site. Despite having to work across different stakeholder groups the project team is able to release sections of the new site as they are completed, alongside the old site.

Westmore continued: “Getting core elements of the site out early allowed us to gain feedback, make changes and importantly continue to add functionality early and often, confident that everything that had gone before had been user accepted. Releasing the whole site in one go would have been risky, and meant unacceptable delays to presenting students with a true image of Plymouth University life.”

Building the site and its features is only part of the challenge. Plymouth University staff needed to be able to overcome the challenges of refreshing over 10,000 pages of web copy. Originally course information was delivered across up to 15 different web pages. A new website content strategy and editorial process is in the process of being implemented for continual use through the project and beyond, to ensure that content and navigation is much easier to access, especially on mobile devices, making the user experience instantly rewarding for prospective students.

Outside the web development project, Unboxed Consulting also introduced Plymouth University to a number of Kanban tools, a way to schedule work as developed by Toyota in the 1950s. This helped the team to develop performance metrics and processes to improve efficiency. Using Kanban and the new editorial process has resulted in the content commissioning and uploading process being far more efficient. Unboxed Consulting also enhanced the Ruby on Rails skills of the internal Plymouth University IT team so they can maintain the site effectively in the future.

With the website project still ongoing, Westmore concludes: “Unboxed Consulting has helped us to create a far more attractive and appealing shop-window for Plymouth University, and one which we are starting to see the benefits of. The agile process has also assisted us to be much more efficient internally and learning about the agile method of delivering projects has been of great value – one that we will continue to see the benefit of once the website project has come to an end.”

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