The University of York was looking to start a programme of change to review its frontline services and improve the student experience. The University wanted to review these services to improve student retention and completion rates, and by extension, their overall league ratings.

York set a vision for 2030 which includes developing an integrated student experience, recognising the changing expectations of students in higher education. Central support services are a consistent point of connection for all students and this project offers an opportunity to show what a good, connected student experience should look like.

York wanted to provide a joined-up, coherent and consistent offering to students, whether accessing services in-person or online. Taking a design-led approach to this initial discovery and concept design project, we focused on first-hand student experiences and needs.


Research approach

We defined our areas of focus as student and academic services (student life, wellbeing, careers and placements)estates and campus services, finance (fees and cash office). Other access points (academic supervisors, both student unions and the library helpdesk). Working collaboratively with student-facing support services, we undertook a 10-week discovery to understand the student and staff experience of using and delivering these central support services.

To gather evidence, we ran desk research, contextual observation and interviews with six services, two receptionists, four college staff. We also conducted over fifty pop-up interviews with a range of students in various locations around campus. We then conducted 11 individual in-depth face-to-face student interviews.

To understand patterns in how the university website support pages were used, we used website analytics and tracking data on enquiries at the information centre, careers, placement receptions and the student hub. To understand the staff experience we ran focus groups and workshops with staff, consisting of three show and tells and academic supervisor focus groups.

We also attended conferences and other higher education institutions to hear what others are doing to improve central student services. This provided us with good knowledge of lessons learned and good practice whilst expanding the university's network.

Research findings

We discovered that students often look for support when they already have a problem that needs solving.


The role of support services is to assist students to get through these stages and resolve their needs quickly, so they can focus on their studies. To get the right support, students need to first be aware and confident of what support is on offer and where to find it. Every student then needs to be able to easily access and use these services.

Some of the existing challenges we found included:

  • students looking for advice and support from many different sources including social media, friends and college receptionists
  • it’s not always clear to students where to go for support
  • there are students who, due to a change in circumstances, need more support to resolve issues
  • student experiences can be inconsistent and disjointed
  • perceived barriers prevent students from accessing support
  • students and staff spend time on processes that could be simplified

These obstacles have created a poor user experience for students. Many explained that they're often required to 'join the dots' between points of entry, creating an inconsistent experience.

Underlying reasons for these challenges consists of students expecting their university to be a joined-up organisation that holistically supports different aspects of their lives. Students expect staff to be aware of what other teams do and a seamless multi-service and multi-channel experience. They often encounter siloed services that are designed around the organisation’s structure, rather than their individual needs.

In our research, we identified four different types of students:

  • independent: a good awareness and confidence of the services and good ability to access and use them independently
  • hesitant: different levels of awareness of the services and confidence in how these services can help with their specific problems
  • constrained: have other obstacles to overcome which makes it challenging for some of them to access and use services
  • vulnerable: vulnerable and in situations that are at risk of becoming more complex


With central support service teams, we built a shared understanding of what we were learning and collaboratively designed ideas and opportunities to change the service. The research identified three opportunities, and these are designed to help shape the future service and ensure student-facing support services are contributing positively to the student experience at the University of York.

The opportunities identified are a series of overarching themes which will help guide an improvement programme to realise a service that meets the expectations of all students. The service will then be flexible and adaptable to changing needs of both the students and the university. We have recommended a programme of improvement comprising three workstreams that will support delivery towards each area of opportunity.

  • culture and ways of working, data sharing and communications: making it easier for students to navigate the support available through clear, consistent communications about the support on offer, so students know how and where to access the right support at the right time
  • information, advice and guidance, process simplification and digital infrastructure: designing simple and multiple ways of accessing and using the service, York can support those in challenging situations and enable others to self-serve
  • future delivery: using data and analytics more effectively, the University can identify students at risk sooner, preempt student needs and support those in vulnerable scenarios

Next steps

All improvements will be developed using a "designing for student needs resource" and tested with staff and students before implementation is agreed. Prioritisation of tasks within these work streams will form part of next steps, once agreement on whether these are the right areas of focus has been reached.

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