Recruiting students with a purpose built digital platform

For the University of Birmingham.
digital student recruitment

SMILE were commissioned by the University of Birmingham to design and develop an Online Events Platform (OEP) to help aid their recruitment efforts in a more personal, timely and authentic manner.

The University of Birmingham is a part of the Russell Group of universities with an excellent reputation and benefits from one of the most attractive campuses in the country. They boast over 34,000 students, of which more than 40% are postgraduate. This means that they are one of the largest international student and staff communities in the UK, with over 6,800 students from over 150 countries and 31% of their staff come from overseas.

When we were first contracted back in 2015, we were briefed to create a system to aid the postgraduate recruitment efforts. At the time, HEFCE had released a guidance white paper that suggested more could be done to engage with prospects in a personal and timely manner — there was a general consensus in the sector that more impetus had to be put on offering better mentoring services. The university had made good traction in delivering this, but because the system was paper-based, it wasn’t large enough to provide significant value to the institution. So when they asked us to come up with an idea on how we could provide a digital transformation to the departments existing strategies and scale them up; we were in our element.

digital student recruitment

We designed a platform that allowed them to create mentor profiles and allow anyone to ask them questions. Questions are vetted by university staff and answered by mentors in a timely and standardised manner. Because the system is all online, statistics and reports can be generated quickly at any point. With regards to the live eventing side of the system: Events can be set up in a matter of minutes, and staff and academics can log on from anywhere in the world to help answer incoming questions.

We had previously built a virtual map system that dabbled with some similar live Q&A functionality and one of the reasons they chose to work with us was to expand out the features that we had already built for them. It was also important to the university that they had control over the direction of their system, and as a bespoke platform, they were always able to guide the direction.

digital student recruitment


The solution itself is quite technically complex with technological decisions that allow them to deliver media content into countries that are famously-firewalled, like China — which is a hotbed of activity for the university’s international recruitment team. We worked with stakeholders from across the institute to ensure that the system would be easy to understand, as adoption was crucial to the platforms success criteria.

Our design team conducted discovery workshops to understand the needs of users and created both low and high fidelity mockups before working with the development team to bring it to life. The University of Birmingham continues to work with SMILE on the vision of the solution. The support, maintenance and hosting contract ensures that the platform continues to meet and surpass its expectations.

We collaborated with the Postgraduate team for the initial inception of the platform which took 6 months, but it has been so successful for the university that it has since been rolled out for the entire university with unique strands now available for Undergraduate, Postgraduate and International teams. Working with the university has been crucial to the internal adoption of the system, but it is also worth noting that we ran user testing on the site to make sure that the site was also well suited to its audiences. We used remote testing tools to watch how users reacted to a set of questions about the system, and with video/audio feedback we were able to watch responses and adapt our design work around the feedback.


This user-centred design approach has clearly had an impact on the results too. The University immediately benefitted from switching to a digital way of working, with enhanced reportability and scaling opportunities. They were able to put out the call for mentors without a self-imposed ceiling and through a series of pilot live events they were able to obtain enough data to validate a templated approach to bring to future events, guaranteeing success. Using the paper-based scheme, the university only had the capacity to work with 10 mentors, but it also suffered losses due to the high demand of mentors time. Now, the university has over 300 active mentors, with minimal overhead required.

The system is continually cited as one of the best-in-class for personal, timely and authentic student engagement in a heavily saturated marketplace. The system designed and built by SMILE has empowered the University of Birmingham to respond to over 10,000 enquiries from students all over the world across a three year period. We’ve empowered a small team to deliver a big vision; because the system has allowed the university to scale the idea, they’ve been able to share the load across staff and academics. With more than 300 members of staff onboarded, no one is ever overwhelmed by the volume of enquiries.

The postgraduate mentoring scheme has increased its mentor capacity by 3244% and engagement by 11,151% clearly demonstrating that the system exceeded all set KPI’s.

The Online Event Platform has been a pivotal tool in the university’s recruitment efforts, so whilst it is difficult to attribute recruitment statistics directly to our work, it has been a large contributing factor. It is clear that the ability to collaborate on this effort is key to the longstanding success of the project. 

Nathan Monk
Nathan Monk

I'm proud to work for some of the world’s most influential brands that shape cities and define lives: Universities and colleges.

I provide advice to forward-thinking senior leaders on how to exceed their organisational targets by creating user-focused, digital-first strategies.