The University of Sunderland flagship website redesign

Dive into the details of how we won gold at HEIST for “Best Website” in 2018.
Uni of sunderland mockup on a macbook pro

SMILE are the team behind the multi-award-winning website redesign for the University of Sunderland. We entered a competitive pitch and were chosen as the partner to help take the flagship website forwards.

The university’s dated website meant that they were struggling to compete with local colleges that were beginning to offer HE courses, let alone their university peers. So in what is already a highly competitive marketplace, the University of Sunderland found their recruitment numbers dwindling. 

The university has around 13,000 students and has recently added campuses in London and Hong Kong alongside its distinctive ‘city by the sea’ hometown of Sunderland. The university has very strong links with the automotive and healthcare sectors and attracts a significant proportion of it’s cohort from overseas.

The Challenge

The University had undertaken some market research, which pointed out that many people were not confident of where Sunderland is geographically. It also suggested that those who did know where it was, had a negative perception of the location. The reality is that Sunderland is a wonderful ‘city by the sea’ with many benefits to the student community.  

The University of Sunderland wanted their new website to increase their recruitment numbers and reposition Sunderland as a destination. 

SMILE were chosen as the university’s key strategic partner in the redesign of the website after a 6-month competitive pitch process.

“During the tender process to appoint a design company, several agencies pitched websites that were in line with the best websites in the sector. However, SMILE were selected for their vision to deliver a website that was ahead of the curve, where video, intuitive search and simple navigation were central to success. In short, we decided that our new website would be bold and unique, unlike anything else in the sector.”

Emma Cottle, Digital Content Manager, University of Sunderland

We were keen to position the new website as a leader of the pack rather than to follow trends set within a sector that historically falls behind the more fleet of foot lifestyle brands that youth audiences are more likely to engage with.

The Solution

With the feedback in place from stakeholders, we created a feedback strategy based on the Microsoft Desirability Toolkit that allowed the university to cast a wide net on prototypes that we would create and get unbiased user feedback. We worked closely with the content team to design an information architecture that is concise but accommodated the comprehensive requirements of a flagship web property.

university of sunderland, flagship

In our initial sprint, we created a library of components that would, later on, become the formative building blocks of the website that we delivered. There were some key conceptual underpinnings that subliminally act as nods to the location. One such example of this is the “shoreline” which is an angular divide between sections, reflecting the point at which the sea meets the sand at the local Roker Beach.

Art directing the photography for the site was joyous. We discovered some local cosmopolitan hotspots and got to experience a slice of the surf side of life down at the beach.

We planned the project into sprints. We created a hypothesis, worked with the university to understand the measure of success and then created clickable high fidelity prototypes, which were constructed with the Website Working Group on-site. Once these were ready to present they were sent out to a large audience along with a feedback form that could be filled in online. The results were collected over a short period of time, assessed and refined to meet the measure of success. This user-led approach became an important part of the legacy that we left behind.

Once the UI and UX were approved, we recreated the clickable prototypes as frontend HTML and CSS. In a similar vein to the design team introducing a component led approach, we introduced key systems that contributed to a collaborative approach that made the handover from designers to developers, silky smooth. This had version control at its core, but used preprocessors to delineate the difference between development and production code. Our code was integrated into the TerminalFOUR CMS by the team at the University of Sunderland.

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Throughout the process, we were also able to act in a consultative role to direct the functional aspect of the website too. We promoted that the design and content should be led by a layer of personalisation. The website takes advantage of integrations with KissMetrics and QS (formerly Hobsons) that allowed us to deliver relevant content to the relevant audiences presented in a personal framework that we hypothesised would increase conversion rates.

We were able to deliver the project within the given timeframe of 12 months over two, six-month phases, thanks to the tireless effort of the client and agency side project managers. They made sure that deadlines were met and actions were completed on time and within assigned budgets. 


The University of Sunderland flagship website now has a modern and distinctive visual language that is device agnostic, easier to navigate and has an emphasis on being user-led, with algorithms presenting an evolutionary personalisation approach that delivers more personal message the more that users engage with it.

Sunderland is presented as an attractive and vibrant city by the sea that has a university that is welcoming and accessible to everyone.

In the first 12 month period after phase 2 was launched, the website met and exceeded all expectations.

  • The university has seen an increase in open day bookings of 67%, a 36% increase in prospectus downloads and has referred over 7,000 people to apply via UCAS.
  • Home undergraduate recruitment rose by 19% in 2017 and although it is difficult to directly attribute this to the website, the strategy of driving more people on campus, and engaging users on a course level, has the website at its core.
  • The university has also seen a 14% conversion rate from the bespoke Virtual Tour that we created as a key addition to the scope of the flagship website.
  • A rough ROI calculation based only on average tuition fee revenue for the extra 19% of students provides a calculation of (£13,875,000 income – £200,000 project costs) / £200,000 costs x 100 = 6,838% ROI.
  • The University of Sunderland was awarded Gold in the Best Website of the Year category at HEIST 2018. This was a rewarding confirmation that its bold and confident approach puts it ahead of its competitors.
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.