How we helped the team at Bristol University build a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by new students, and generate ideas for supporting them better.


The challenge

It’s vitally important to universities that their new students have a positive experience when they arrive to start their studies. They want their students to feel comfortable and be set up for success.

They are also acutely aware of how their ratings with students affect the perception of their offer in the highly competitive marketplace for higher education.

The team at Bristol University asked us to help them understand how they could improve the services offered to students, in particular in that vital first semester, while they are still finding their feet.

Our approach

The project fell into two parts. The first was focused on the Welcome Week experience. The second was about the broader student experience throughout the first semester.

Gathering data

We decided to run a diary study which would start in Welcome Week in October and then continue through to January.

We recruited participants by working with our preferred recruiter People For Research in Bristol. We had a range of students, including mature students with families, students with disabilities, international and students from different backgrounds and cultures.

During Welcome Week we asked participants for regular updates, submitted as video clips and comments, via an app called DScout. We also had a team on the ground, interviewing students as they waited in line and observing behaviours.

After Welcome Week we continued to stay in contact with participants as they settled in to student life. They told us about how they got to grips with the online tools they use for keeping track of lectures and submitting work, how they partied and made new friends, how they sorted out their accommodation, and how they prepared for exams at the end of the semester. 

We gathered 325 video entries and did further interviews to follow up on interesting topics. Students were remarkably candid, and the video diary format revealed changes in their demeanour, as well as offering a convenient way to post entries.

Reporting and workshops

All entries were submitted to the Dscout platform and shared with the core university team in real-time.

At the end of the study we created a detailed report describing the key themes, illustrated by over 50 quotes and links to video clips. We also highlighted moments that frustrated some students and those that delighted them and suggested opportunities to improve service provision.

Finally we ran a workshop with the university team discuss the themes in more detail and generate ideas for service improvements. As part of the workshop they created empathy maps and storyboarded their ideas.


The team were enthusiastic about the insights and ideas that the process generated. They are now in the process of planning improvements to the student experience across a number of touchpoints, both online and offline.

Pilot Works helped us engage the student experience at an individual level, providing us a much richer insight about the information and support we provide to new students. This enabled us to focus on improving our services to meet the diverse needs of our student body. Pilot Works were easy to work with and very flexible in designing a bespoke project tailored to our needs.
— Jen Morgan, Deputy Academic Registrar, Bristol University