uConnect is an app that helps students create and join activities with other first-year students. Users match with students by swiping right on custom-made events. They are connected with groups of people to plan and make long-lasting connections.
UX Researcher, User Testing, UI Design
COVID-19-related campus closure has impacted nearly every aspect of the student experience. Being fully online means that the usual student onboarding ceremonies, events, communities, and clubs will need to adapt to an online model or be suspended indefinitely. Impacted the most are first-year students, who are at risk of not feeling immersed in the campus experience or a part of a larger student community, resulting in loneliness, depression, and other mental health issues.
For this challenge, we were asked to design this product for a fictional college called Coastal University. Coastal University is a comprehensive post-secondary institution, offering undergraduate degrees in a broad range of disciplines. Consequently, they maintain a diverse and vibrant student body.
Before jumping into primary research, my team decided to research the current landscape of post-secondary online learning & interaction space. Canadian institutions historically lacked the resources or expertise to fully develop online learning. Digital spending comprised only 2.5% of global education expenditures pre-lockdown.
Looking at this from the business side, international students are one of the major contributors to higher education. “Research from the Canadian government estimates that they contribute over $22 billion to the country's economy every year”. Since the pandemic, international student enrollment rates have seen a steep drop. Post-secondary students are taking gap years because of the lower quality of education. When students were asked what diminished their experience with the remote courses, 65% cited the lack of opportunities to collaborate with other students. Retaining these students is essential, and so we have based this project around international students.
We quickly broke out into interviews after discussing our research. Due to time constraints, we reached out to 4 interviewees. Our participants were current international university students aged 18-22. We chose a narrower age range to get the freshest perspective on the first-year experience from real post-secondary students. International students also have a much harder time adjusting to life in a new country, so we focused a section of our interview on their unique experience.
- Interview Participant
University students meet many people during micro-interactions such as breaks from class, small conversations in the hallway, and so on. These are less common through digital learning. Meeting people through online classrooms felt too formal and didn't engage students. Professors are too busy with the workload and cannot facilitate effective classroom social activities.
When you cannot meet your online connections in real life, it's hard to arrange events for you to bond. Students feel distant from their classmates and experience anxiety when reaching out to someone they've never seen in person. Self-doubt was something that affected students when interacting due to overthinking.
Many international students come to Canada to have fun experiences in their new home country and make friends with other people in the world. Interviewees reported feeling less integrated into a foreign country and less likely to make connections in their chosen industry. They also cannot depend on old connections like domestic students since they don't know anyone in the country. When they're paying exponentially more than the domestic student, they feel robbed of their opportunity.
Once, we gathered the insights from our interviewees, we created the persona to consolidate the traits of our target user.
Meet Kevin Young, he is an 18-year-old native of Poland and has arrived in Canada to pursue his first year of university. His first couple of days at university were very exciting, but that wore off quickly as all of his classes were online. After a few weeks, he was feeling tired, lonely, and unmotivated. He didn’t want to attend classes and was missing his friends and his family. He was devastated that he could not explore the city with all his new friends like he hoped he would.
My team began ideating with quick sketches to get a low fidelity wireframe done by the middle of the second day of our sprint. After coming up with our individual sketches, we voted on the best parts and put it together for our first iteration. It was intended to be an interest matching app similar to Facebook groups.
An interesting component of our design sprint was the chance to meet with a mentor from the EY Design Studio. Our quick 15-minute call with him changed our entire approach to the problem. Our first iteration delayed the gratification of meeting with other students and sharing interests. He told us: remember to make the interactions delightful and make the user feel like the smartest person in the world.
We regrouped and rethought the solution. My teammate had come up with the brilliant idea of using the dating app interface to make connections fun. Young university students were already familiar with and fond of the swiping feature of the dating model so it would help with the app adoption. Since time was running out, we split the team in half
Part of the Sprint Challenge was to use the brand assets of the client. We had to incorporate Coastal University's logo, colours, and fonts to build into our product and make our screens WCAG AA compliant. The palette was an interesting blend of purple and green which made designing the final screens challenging. We settled on a look that was vibrant, minimalist yet still engaging.
uConnect allows users to find featured events on campus. Since our primary customer is the post-secondary institutions, universities can feature events they've organized and advertised them to their students. The app will also recommend events arranged by other students to the user based on their profile and interests.
Kevin is now able to find the events at Coastal University so he doesn't feel alone. uConnect is designed to avoid any social barriers and make it easy to connect with other students.
Swipe right or left based on the events suggested to you on the app. You can also filter the suggestions you see while swiping so you receive cards that better match the type of events you're looking for. Once you find an event you're interested in, you can easily request to join the event with a pre-written, editable message.
According to our research, meeting people through online classrooms felt too formal and didn’t engage students. So we developed the cards as a way to engage in micro-interactions that felt natural. Self-doubt was something that affected students when interacting due to overthinking. By having prewritten messages and automatic acceptance, users like Kevin can be more comfortable engaging with others.
Once Kevin is accepted into the event, he can see the event description, other attendees, and messages left by the event members. The message board creates a comfortable space where members of that event can interact without any other preconceptions about the members. The aim of our design decisions is to have as many “happy accidents” as possible!
Because uConnect was built in a 4-day sprint, we were only able to conduct one round of user testing with 5 testers but did not have the time to implement the changes. Many of our testers remarked that we were missing a notification screen. They also wanted an option to archive events or save events they see for later if they felt like it was something they could now attend. During the judging round, our mentor also commented that the main home screen could be an event home page or calendar so users can keep coming back to the app to see and save their events.
In order to further validate our concept, more testing and iterations will be conducted. When launched, we wish to keep track of new students and the retention rates of international students at Coastal University to determine how they compare to the new users on the app. This would help depict if the app is encouraging international students to be more involved in the university and return the following year.
The pivotal moment in this design sprint experience was getting to meet an experienced mentor. He taught us that we had to design delightful experiences for the user. They needed to have that aha! moment that made them feel like the smartest person in the room. To do that, the app needed to be designed simply with fun, interactive features that served the core problem.
We were critiqued heavily on how our core task flow didn't always have a compelling reason for the user to come back. It was easy for the first-time user to meet friends on their first few events and abandon the app afterward. Not having an events hub also made it feel like these events were thrown out into the void once the user didn't swipe right the first time. It was important to have a pull factor built into the app so the product can keep solving the user's problems.
I was very lucky to be able to design this product with very talented designers. We owe our win to the fact that we met up a day before the sprint formally started just to get to know each other and clarify our expectations. That way, we could dive straight into the problem without the awkward introduction phase. When it came time to divide the work, it was easy to refer back to our original agreement and assign work to those strongest in that aspect of UX design.
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