User research and design concepting

Unite Students

Putting students in control of their accommodation booking process.

Unite students is one of the UK’s leading providers of private, purpose built student accommodation. Since launching in 1992, they’ve housed over 600,000 students across 22 cities, many of whom come from overseas.

In that time, competition in the private student housing space has increased exponentially and so, it’s imperative that Unite stay ahead of the game to maintain their market lead.

A screenshot from the Unite Students Booking Journey

Key outcomes

  • A better understanding for Unite students on how their customers book accommodation and what is most important to them during that process.

  • A comprehensive set of user centred prototype design concepts to help their in house team with the next iteration of their online booking flow.

  • 68% increase in clicks through to the booking page

Project context

This project happened when Adam was Managing Director and Principal UX Consultant at Natural Interaction, a UX agency in Bristol.

Adam led a team of UX Consultants, Researchers and Designers as well as directly conducting user research, UX design and running workshops in a hands on capacity.

What would give their students the best booking experience?

They came to us with a booking experience that was clunky and over complex. They knew that it didn’t give students the control they needed and wanted when booking accommodation but were relying on hearsay for the details. They needed some user research to add evidence to their assumptions before investing their time and budget in any major changes.

It was important to them that they understood what students want when booking their accommodation. For example, do they require date flexibility? Do international students want something different to domestic students?

We undertook a comprehensive research project which included by qualitative and quantitative methods to interrogate the Unite Students booking experience and make recommendations as to what needed improving.

This then developed into a high fidelity prototype and rebuild of the online booking journey with a much slicker, and clearer experience for its users.

From the inside out

As with most of our user research projects, we started with the Unite Students team themselves. We ran an ideation workshop with the key stakeholders with exercises designed to help us get under the skin of the business. We also spent time interrogating existing analytics and historic survey data and undertook both call centre listening and depth interviews with the customer service team.

Once we felt we’d ‘got it’ from the inside, we started looking from the outside.

From there we conducted depth interviews and user testing with four groups of students (existing domestic and international and year 12 students planning their future university accommodation).  

We found that there was indeed a lot of confusion around certain elements of booking journey but also that  interestingly,  the confusion varied by student type. People were also struggling on mobile due to fundamental usability issues.

One thing which was particularly useful and possibly surprising was that the most important factors in booking accommodations weren’t as clear cut as Unite had thought. Price and location ranked most highly as expected but the look of the room itself was deemed more important than the features available there. Our recommendation here was to introduce photo galleries at room level and simplify the classification of different room types.

Moving forward

We knew that our research would be used by Unite Students to make design changes to their booking process and we were delighted that after reporting our prioritised findings, our brief was extended to include the design of a brand new online booking flow. It was important that this was done quickly as our work needed tie in with a strategic IT project happening simultaneously within the wider business.

Moving into an iterative design and testing process, we were
able to take everything we’d learnt to date and turn it into something visual.

Working closely with the Unite team, over three sprints we produced high fidelity clickable prototypes and tested them with real students. The end result was something is fully accessible, works well across all device sizes and gives students the flexibility and control they want when booking their university accommodation.  

Answering the question “What would give their students the best booking experience?” was more complex than it might seem at first glance. It required us to really understand the business model operated by Unite Students, and to track their users journeys back past the website to consideration stage. We did this by speaking with students in the early stages of choosing university accommodation as well as current students.

Collecting a mix of qualitative and quantitative data was essential if we wanted a rounded picture which covered all aspects of that online booking experience.

Often we’re hired to work on a research project with no design in scope. To be asked part way through this project to take our findings and turn them into designs for a new, improved booking flow was a proud moment for us and testament, we feel, to the great work we’d done to that point.

By arming Geoff and his own growing UX team with both insight and user centred design, we’ve been able to help Unite Students maintain their position as the market leader for private student accommodation. They’re now working hard to implement the designs we provided them with and we check in frequently to see how everything is going.

"Adam and his team at Natural Interaction undertook a key UX research project for Unite Students, under extremely tight deadlines.

Not only did they work at pace and guarantee to deliver on schedule, the quality of the research and comprehension of our business were both exceptional. We are very pleased with the output and the detailed level of insight gained. I would highly recommend Natural interaction and will certainly be using them again in the future."

Geoff Meston, UX & Design Manager, Unite Students