Case Study

University of Essex

Combining expert analysis, user insight and biometric research to lay the groundwork for the future of digital transformation at the University.

Case Study

University of Essex

Combining expert analysis, user insight and biometric research to lay the groundwork for the future of digital transformation at the University.

The University of Essex puts students and their experience at the heart of its mission. Delivering a first class student experience through digital platforms is the cornerstone of the University’s digital transformation project.

Elixirr Digital were brought in to help the University better understand how students were engaging with the digital estate in terms of:

  • How they were using the 1st and 3rd party tools available
  • What they were using them for
  • How long were they using them for
  • Why they were behaving in these ways

To gather these insights in a way that was useful to the digital transformation project, we conducted:

  • Stakeholder interviews
  • Student surveys and interviews
  • Biometric research
  • Workshops with UoE’s key stakeholders

Kicking off the project

First we held a kick-off workshop with the University’s Digital Comms team to build an understanding of how students might complete key tasks online – for example:

  • How do students access their timetable?
  • How relevant are the emails that they receive?
  • How do they collaborate on assignments?
  • How do they access course materials?

Across the huge range of tasks students undertake online, we prioritised areas of focus – ensuring that our efforts were correctly distributed throughout the rest of the project.

First-hand accounts of the student digital experience

In line with the University’s ethos, we took a ‘student first’ approach to our research – this included:

  • A survey sent to 10,000 students
  • Face to face interviews with students at Colchester campus
  • Telephone interviews with students at Southend and Luton campuses
  • Exit interviews after Biometric research (more on this later)

This helped us understand which tools students used, which they liked using, and what the lifecycles of those tools might be.

While the student digital experience is important, there were also significant offline touchpoints within student life that related to that online experience. Talking to students allowed us to understand the crossover points between offline and online, and how the website could better facilitate that.


How eye tracking, GSR, & facial expression analysis can deliver the ultimate UX insight


Using Biometric research for unparalleled insight

At the forefront of our approach to digital transformation projects are our suite of Biometric research tools:

  • Eye tracking technology
  • Galvanic skin response sensors
  • Facial expression recognition software

Alongside the qualitative and quantitative data we collect through surveys and interviews, Biometric research gives us the missing piece of the puzzle. Specifically, how students behave when they are interacting with the University of Essex digital estate – what do they look at, what do they feel, and how intensely do they feel it?

Eye tracking gives us insight into areas of interest on a page or app, and the order of focus. These are data points that traditional tracking and monitoring methodologies – such as heat or click-mapping – can’t give us.

When calibrating our Biometric tools for the UoE project, we ran a simple test – we asked subjects to find information for new students.

Below is what we call a ‘bee swarm’ – an aggregated heatmap of where users look over time.

Evidently, it’s not simply that users aren’t clicking on the ‘New Students’ element of this page – they aren’t looking at it. These are the kinds of insights this technology provides that aren’t possible otherwise.

We took the Biometrics toolkit to the Colchester Campus and ran students through a number of tasks. We did two days of testing – day one on desktop, day two on mobile.
The tasks had students using the core websites and tools that were key to the student digital experience – like the student portal area (MyEssex for Students) and the student educational portal (Moodle).

Once a student had completed the tasks, we conducted an exit interview about the websites and tools involved – asking them how easy they found the tools, if there was anything they got stuck with, etc.

The emotional impact of the digital experience

Thanks to galvanic skin response (GSR) and facial expression analysis, we were able to identify spikes in emotion in our test subjects.

For example, we saw spikes in anger and contempt when users were confronted with cluttered navs or content-heavy pages.

Our most significant finding came from tasks we set the students that had them interacting with multiple platforms across the digital estate. While the user’s login information was the same across each platform or tool, there was no single sign-on solution in place – meaning users had to login each time they entered a new tool.

We know this is a suboptimal user experience. However, these Biometric tools allow us to measure the nature and intensity of that reaction. We were able to identify user frustration, the points at which it occurred, and how the severity of that frustration grew as the journey went on.

This finding was then confirmed in the exit interviews, where users identified that this was not only a point of frustration, it had also eroded their trust in the digital estate.

The outcome of this finding is that single sign-on is now a priority of the University’s digital transformation project. When it comes to conversations about the resource and time involved in implementing that, there is evidence of the impact it would have in improving how students feel about the digital experience.


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Engagement with key University stakeholders

Stakeholder interviews gave us insights into key challenges faced by the University’s departments. We held interviews with user groups that impact the student experience, including:

  • Comms teams
  • Content authors
  • IT staff
  • Web developers
  • Student welfare teams

This allowed us to find out what they thought the student’s challenges were, as well as how each department uses the digital estate and what their feedback was. This helped us understand each department’s frustrations and what that meant for students.

A roadmap for University of Essex’s digital future

To help shape the University’s digital transformation project, we created a set of deliverables, including a detailed report of the findings from the engagement and testing we had undertaken.

Within this report we identified:

  • Recommendations for the overall digital strategy moving forwards
  • A future project to identify overlaps between the various tools and websites – and how these could be streamlined
  • Tools or websites that were either not being used as intended by the students, or were not delivering the experience as planned
  • Recommendations on integrating a user-centred design approach into the University’s development workflow
  • How those tools or websites could pivot to better serve student needs
  • Recommendations for changes and improvements to individual tools and websites

We also created a 3-year roadmap for the project, including a ‘next steps’ timeline, priorities and dependencies.

Finally, we assisted in the presentation and delivery of these findings and outputs to the University’s major stakeholders – including the board of digital directors.

Ultimately, this project set up the University of Essex to push on with the transformation of their digital estate and will continue to have a positive impact on the future of the student digital experience at the University.

Sectors: Education|Subjects: Analytics, Biometrics, UX