The Open University
What we did
Design research
In person research 02

The Open University has been a democratising force for education since 1969. If you’re counting the sheer number of students, the Open University is the largest university in the UK. Over 50 years of delivering high quality distance learning through the medium of the times from analogue television broadcasts and telephone tutorials to digital platforms and innovating for the future.

The Open University’s virtual learning environment has been an established part of their study experience and is key to how students study with them. Its usability is regularly reviewed internally using various methods, but every few years a more in depth review is required utilising the expertise of an independent review. In the now post-COVID era, it was time for the OU to establish if their websites still did what they needed to and to look at how they now sit in a more competitive distance-learning environment.

The Results

Comprehensive usability testing

We did in-depth remote testing sessions with over twenty students across the UK.

Actionable interface insights

We found clear evidence of where potential improvements could be made and provided prioritised recommendations for how the experience could be improved.

A focus on the future

We ran an in-person focus group to discuss potential future learning opportunities with current students to understand the attitudes and needs around different ways to learn.

The Full Story

How do you know when research will be effective?

We’ve done plenty of research projects here at Clearleft. Sometimes that means we’re heads-down doing the research for days or weeks at a time before reporting back to the client. This project was different. Right from the start, the team at the Open University were eager to get stuck into the testing. We loved this!

Seeing the drive and commitment from the Open University team spurred us on to do our best work. They were initially worried about getting in the way, but we reassured them that it was great to have them so involved. They showed a real respect for our research expertise, while we were bowled over by their domain knowledge. It was an inspiring collaboration!

The OU team are genuinely passionate about their product and the value it delivers to the people who use it. Being so generous with their time and input throughout the project the overall outcome was infinitely larger than the sum of its parts. We can’t wait to work with them again!
Luke and Benjamin Research team, Clearleft

Because the Open University team was so closely involved, we were able to make minor adjustments to our questions to ensure our framing was correct. In the debrief after each session, not only did we have insights from the student, we also got more feedback from the team on their priorities. We used a shared Miro board to share the session livestream links, capture observations and screenshots.

When it was time to write up our findings, this open and collaborative approach meant the team had full trust that we were on the same page. Instead of doing a big chunk of research followed by a period of synthesis, we were able to do continuous synthesis. This meant that the final report contained no surprises as we were sharing insights with the OU team throughout the project.

How do you know you’re on the right track?

We tested the Open University’s online learning environment with sixteen students. We were looking for two things: what was working well, and what was missing.

Here’s a good question to ask at the end of a usability testing like this: ‘If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about this interface, what would it be?’ That’s usually a good way of finding where the gaps are. But these testing sessions revealed an interesting trend. A lot of the features that students were wishing for were actually available…but they weren’t very discoverable.

This was good news! It’s a lot less daunting—and a lot cheaper—to work on making features more discoverable than it is to build brand new features.

How do you avoid tunnel vision?

As well as testing the Open University’s own platform, we also tested competitor products with a further six students.

It was important to do this to keep the bigger picture in mind. If you get too laser-focused on your interface, you might not realise what else might be possible. By stepping back and casting a wider research net, we knew we weren’t missing out and insights from outside.

Working with Clearleft was like extending our team for a time. Their understanding of our diverse users and sharing the values of our team enabled a trusting partnership. Whilst the digital expectations and experiences of OU students is at the heart of everything we do, Clearleft understood our need not to be complacent. They expertly dived into the digital experiences of learners on other platforms, adding breadth to the research findings.
Graham Dungate Online Student Experience

How do you plan for the future?

All the usability testing was done remotely—quite fitting, given the unique nature of the Open University.

But that wasn’t the only research we did. We also ran an in-person group session in Brighton with another six students from the Open University. This wasn’t a usability test. It was a discussion.

We discussed the potential viability of making course materials available in more other formats not currently available. Given the past evolution of the formats used by the Open University, it pays to think about potential future opportunities.

In person research
Discussing students' studies to gain insights into which formats may suit them best

By talking with students about how their studies fit in with their day-to-day lives, we could better understand which additional formats might work well for them and their learning styles.

Because like that's the whole point of The OU, it's a different way of learning. Maybe we don't need to do it like that. Maybe we don't need to be looking at the words, maybe we could be learning in different ways.
OU student

When we delivered our final report to the wider Open University organisation, we provided a mixture of tactical recommendations for updating the current interface, along with comparisons to competitors, and options for future investigations.

It was an honour for us to work with such a great institution. Their hands-on collaborative involvement in the research made this project a real joy to work on!

More work