jess tan

Redesigning Penn Course Search

Redesigning Penn Course Search: Penn Labs Design Technical Challenge


I was tasked with redesigning a Penn Course Search, a solution to the shortcomings of Penn Intouch as a scheduling tool.

First, I considered the main issues presented by Penn Labs, the new owner of PCS:

  1. Toggling between different pages on Penn Intouch (academic planning worksheet, mock schedule page, course search list), individual department websites, and planning documents, is both time-consuming and disorganized.

  2. There are many factors that must be accounted for during course registration, including graduation requirements, course details, and schedule structure. Although the data for all of these factors are available to students, it requires referencing many different sites and tools. 

  3. The current version of Penn Course Search is not well integrated with the rest of the Penn Course Suite (Penn Course Review, Penn Course Alert).

I continued by brainstorming more specific pain points Penn students face when using the current Penn Intouch system:

  1. Comparing different sections of a class is extremely tedious on Penn Intouch. The current system requires individually adding all sections to the course cart, then testing them one by one in the mock schedule. 

  2. In order to obtain additional information about courses, the user must open Penn Course Review in a separate number just to see a set of three numbers, which is enough information for basic scheduling. 

  3. It is tedious to build mock schedules because this feature is located on a different page than the course search tool.

  4. The interface is outdated and difficult to navigate.

The existing Penn Course Search admittedly already has features that solve many of the pain points of using Penn Intouch. However, it is not without its own flaws:

  1. It does not integrate the helpful (but hard to use) Academic Planning Worksheet tool on Penn Intouch, which is essential for addressing an important student concern: fulfilling graduation requirements.

  2. There is no way to view all courses that satisfy a particular set of requirements without entering key words, course codes, or instructor names. This makes it difficult for someone who wants to see all available options at once.

  3. The design is fairly cluttered, often giving more information than a user needs for his/her purposes. For example, a list of all of the requirements a certain class fulfills (for all of the different schools) is presented upon its selection, which clutters the interface with unnecessary information.


After taking into consideration the requests of Penn Labs, the pain points associated with Penn Intouch, and flaws in the current version of PCS, my goal in redesigning this tool was to improve its function as a stand-alone, all-in-one scheduling tool by integrating customizable course planning options (a simplified version of the Academic Planning Worksheet) and highlighting its filtration and complex search features.


Eliminating the need to toggle between multiple pages to view all academic requirements

This redesigned model of Penn Course Search integrates the essential features of Penn InTouch–a course search function, a mock scheduler, and an academic planner–into a sleek, all-in-one interface.

Web 1280 – 8.png
Web 1280 – 7.png

The master planner tool sidebar is a key feature of the redesign. One problem with the current version of Penn Course Search is that it is cannot be used as a stand-alone scheduling tool. The lack of an academic planning feature means that users will still need an external tool to cross-check their requirements with.

This sidebar is completely customizable and adaptable to the user’s academic path. At first, I thought it might be a good idea to have the user manually enter classes they have already completed, but I realized this would be too much of a hassle, defeating the purpose of a convenient graduation task view. The main issue I was trying to solve was that people often have to switch back and forth between a list of graduation departments on a department website and they may not be sure which courses count for their major/program requirements. Penn Course Search already has the existing capability of saving actions made on the site, so users would only need to enter their requirements once. There is reset tool brings them back to the starting planner menu. 

At first, I considered checkboxes instead of yellow highlight to indicate the requirements were fulfilled by the selected course, but I realized it would be confusing because checkboxes were used in the column on the right as a filtering option. Lack of differentiation between these visual cues could lead to confusion.

Web 1280 – 3.png

Compilation of data students care about all in one place


From left to right: course quality, course difficulty, course name, course availability (+ option to sign up for Penn Course Alert), instructor quality, instructor difficulty, section number, section type, section time, (+ option to add course to mock schedule)

When a course is selected, there is also the option to be redirected to the prerequisite course details. In addition, the often bulky and text-heavy course description is collapsable, contributing to a cleaner user interface. There is also another opportunity to sign up for Penn Course Alert and the option to bookmark the section.

Clearer display of filtration tools

The filtration in the current version of Penn Course Search is just a drop down menu. However, I think that the filtering function on Penn Course Search is one of the main reasons why people prefer this tool over Penn Intouch. For example, PSC has the capability of finding double counting courses. The filtering panel is fixed in this design for quicker access to the filtering tools and better visualization of what filters are applied at each time.

Additional filtration features from the current version of PSC to this version include the option to set a range for difficulty and meeting time. Most students prefer not to take early morning classes, and this feature could allow them to avoid them when possible. In addition, there is now the option to save a set of filters and clear all filters.

Sorting is available by course quality, difficulty, and number.


Integration with the rest of the Penn CourseS Suite

One of the key goals of this product redesign to better integrate PCS within the rest of the Penn Course Suite. Although there are redirects to Penn Course Alert, there were none to Penn Course Review. The cart function is unique to PCR, while also giving an overview of the parameters shown in Penn Course Search, so an external link (the cart icon) to PCR seemed like the most appropriate way to integrate PCS with PCR. Additionally, on the mock schedule, there is a tool to add all courses from the mock schedule to the cart.

Web 1280 – 12.png

Penn Course Alert is currently fairly integrated within Penn Course Search, so no changes were made to the notification feature. However, I suggest some way of indicating that a user has already signed up to be alerted.

Screen Shot 2019-02-10 at 4.17.51 PM.png

Comparing different sections of a class with ease

One pain point for Penn InTouch is comparing different sections of a class. The current system requires individually adding all sections to the course cart, then testing them one by one in the mock schedule. The current version of Penn Course Search is not much better, still requiring manually and individually all of the sections to the mock schedule in order to view all sections to see where each fits. The addition of a “Preview All” and “Hide All” function resolves this issue.

Web 1280 – 3.png

Streamlining the process of creating mock schedules

The redesigned mock scheduler moves the export features onto the actual schedule, rather than near the top of the website. In addition, the different mock schedules are more accessible and visible in a tabbed format, making it easy to compare two versions of a schedule.

Web 1280 – 5.png

Additional Design Notes

The redesign features more dropdown menus than the original design in order to reduce cluttering of the interface.


The current version of PCS relies more on abbreviations to label categories. Often times, these abbreviations were unclear. For example, it was not obvious to me that O/C stood for open or closed. However, the redesign is more visual and icon-focused. The unabbreviated labels can be easily accessed as well by hovering over the icon.

Color change is used to indicate selections. A light grey background on a course indicates it is selected. An aqua instead of grey icon indicates that it is active.


Color scheme based on current version of PCS versus color scheme based on PCR: One major style change I made to the current version of PCS was the function of opacity. Opacity is used to visualize Penn Course Review (higher opacity indicates closer to 4.0 rating). However, because it is important for the PCS to be integrated within the Penn Course Suite, keeping a consistent color guide between the two products is essential.

Screen Shot 2019-09-05 at 1.30.52 AM.png

Opacity is also used in the current version of PCS to show course conflicts. If a course interferes with one that is already in your schedule, it will be grayed out. This can be misleading, because it could seem as if the course were closed. A better way to demonstrate scheduling conflict is through an icon.

Web 1280 – 17.png