University of Southampton
A better course finder system for new students
"We wanted to create a simple, intuitive, engaging app to help prospective students understand the range of different courses that were on offer at the University and what careers they might lead to."
Sophie Dear Head of Digital

View the finished course finder at

Sophie Dear, Head of Digital within Corporate Communications at the University of Southampton faced a challenge. Universities need students, but students were unexcited by those bulky prospectuses and dull websites.

Sophie spoke to five one two and between us we created an effective alternative which enables students to search for courses by career, subject and, uniquely, providing recommendations based on their current studies.

Feasibility – is it worth it, and what else is out there?

Sensibly, Southampton asked us to perform a feasibility study: a low-cost and valuable alternative to jumping straight into a big project, and something we recommend to establish a business case and identify any particular challenges before the project begins.

We helped them plan out the project, flesh-out the top-level requirements and conduct some competitor analysis. A good example of the usefulness of the feasibility study came as we identified the need to manage the various data sources from a range of teams at the University – and that we needed to link in with the core in-house Banner student database system from Ellucain.

Not only did we find this was an unique idea in the UK, but also in the USA and Australia – Southampton truly had a chance to be a market leader with this project. This sort of information can be invaluable not just for planning the project itself, but also to get approval.

With this in mind, alongside a solid business case, valuable research and our clear plans, Sophie was able to get the project approved and subsequently awarded the full development to five one two.

Preparing ideas, gathering feedback and building positive relationships

Before full development began we created detailed wireframes and creative concepts to show how the application would look and feel, as well as an indication of how it would integrate and function technically behind-the scenes.

This process is important: it allows people of different technical levels and with different requirements to be involved from the beginning. The marketing department, for example, has different concerns to the IT department: both are equally valid, but need to be handled in different ways and projects always run more smoothly when everyone is on board. That’s very important to us, and is a key reason why our projects are so successful.

We also conducted workshops at the University to get ideas from the people who would be using the application and took these results to the different stakeholders to get feedback, buy-in and approval.

As well as giving us valuable information this allowed us to build solid relationships across the University, leading to new technology projects along the way.

Dealing with setbacks

No matter how carefully you plan, setbacks and spanners-in-the-works are inevitable in large projects. What’s important is how you deal with them.

During development the University started to engage in a complete rebranding exercise, obviously a challenge given we had approved designs and a prototype in production. However, we were able to react quickly, working with the University’s appointed brand agency to redesign the system inline with the new look and feel.

This meant adjusting the design and layout of the software, and our timescales to match the launch, but we were able to do this without changing any of the original objectives or causing any issues with planning or usability.

Development and adjustment

Right from the start of development, regular prototypes were shown to the key stakeholders as per our Agile software methodologies.

This regular review and feedback is invaluable to all concerned. It lets the stakeholders monitor progress (more effectively than simple status reports) and provides us with early feedback.

It’s important to remember that not everyone can visualise the end result as easily as the team developing the project, so delivering frequent prototypes is a critical part of the project process.

Successful integration with existing systems

It was critical to link the software with existing systems – Southampton uses the Banner student information system and there was also key data on the main University content management systems and independent faculty web sites. Essentially many disparate sources of information.

We had to bring all these multiple data sources together to display them seamlessly to the students using the software.

The success of this means there is very little extra work: content is automatically updated when changes are made to other systems or if there are any discrepancies these are flagged for manual review.

Ensuring new systems don’t cause headaches for existing users is a fundamental part of the work we do.

Testing and launch

The software was tested throughout development, both in-house and on-site.

We used collaborative tools such as Jira (a cloud-based issue-tracking and management tool) to make sure all changes, bugs, feature requests etc. were not just visible to all concerned, but easy to manage and – importantly – to fix.

The project was launched to schedule and initial feedback has been extremely positive.

“We also wanted to integrate the app with our University systems to utilise existing data sources and minimise maintenance and this did throw up some challenges. But the guys at five one two took a very methodical approach to resolving these, working proactively with our IT team to ensure a positive outcome, that more often than not led to identifying new functionality for the app. We are very happy with the outcome.”

Sophie Dear Head of Digital