This is group consulting work for the Enrollment Services at Carnegie Mellon University. We were tasked to improve the Student Information Online system to better support students in their academic and personal life.
Pen & Paper
Given the broad project prompt, we first conducted background research in order to scope down to the problems where we could make the most impact through a concerted effort.
To understand the current support network and their relations to the SIO system
To learn about their journey at CMU and how they dealt with personal and academic problems
To learn about how different support functions interact with students and the SIO system
After affinitizing the background research results, we had the following findings:
Most students have existing support networks they reach out to when encountering problems.
When in need for help, some students reach out to campus resources, such as counseling and academic advising, and others prefer talking to family and friends. They do not currently perceive the need to have an additional channel for addressing those needs.
Students use SIO periodically for academic needs, but do not associate it with personal needs.
Students currently use SIO to pay tuition, register for classes, and check grades. They do not perceive SIO as a channel for addressing any sort of personal or emotional need, such as stress management or emergency reporting.
Although a working system, the current SIO has a lot of room for improvement.
Many people cited that although they can achieve the tasks, the user experience of the current system could be improved -- the UI is out of date, the information is overwhelming, and the resources are scattered.
We brought our initial discovery and possible project directions to the Direct of Enrollment Services and initiated discussions around:
We learned that the client prefers incremental changes to the system that has real impact. Hence, we were encouraged to explore solutions that would either fill a gap in the current experience, or impact a significant number of students.
We brainstormed for ideas to improve the current system, either from our research or the problems our client proposed. Taking into consideration the client's expectation and feedback, we plotted our ideas along the axes of Impact vs. Effort:
We eventually decided to pursue two directions in parallel, which possess the most potential for making an impact and require moderate development effort:
1. To create a centralized on-boarding experience for graduate students, which is currently non-existent.
(My contribution: Research, Ideation, Storyboarding, Low-Fi Prototyping)
2. To improve the current information architecture to make resources more discoverable and the user flow more fluent.
(My contribution: Research, Prototyping, UI/UX Design, Usability Testing)
"You are not the user." -- We say it all the time. However, this is a special project in that we are actually the user, which we should be cautious of, but also take advantage of. Due to the limit in time and resources, we need to first take an educated guess. So we created a user journey map out of our own experience during the on-boarding process and identified possible pain points that may have been experienced by others.
We discovered three major pain points through recounting and capturing our journey prior to arrival at CMU:
Different tasks are communicated and managed through a variety of channels and SIO does not intervene until later stages
Students need to dig through emails and different sources to get desired information and there is no hierarchy to it
Not getting feedback from offices processing documents caused a lot of anxiety for new students, especially around visa status
These pain points were validated through a survey distributed to a diverse student body:
Based on our initial findings and concepts, we each came up with different sketches to get a breadth of design ideas. Then we regrouped to discuss these designs and come up with low-fi prototypes for further iterations.
Out of the pain points and features we discussed, we digitized three different solutions. My design (the first wireframe) focuses on providing status update on various tasks and making resources more salient, especially around course planning and registration. In this way, I hope to lower anxiety caused by two main stressors -- document submission and course schedule. Also, a Q&A forum would help the students get their questions answered more promptly, alleviating the feeling of isolation. Most of these features were adopted in the later design iterations.
We got valuable feedback from our client on the technical feasibility and administrative constraints of the different designs. After evaluating different aspects of the designs, we chose the first one to keep iterating on. Through various user testing and research methods, my teammates were able to keep improving on the content and format of the design, based on users' mental model and needs.
The first iteration focuses mostly on the key functionalities and information presented, and the second iteration is concerned with refining interactions and representing different states.
Besides the onboarding experience, we also had the opportunity to optimize other parts the current SIO system. However, with limited time, we need to choose the part where we can make the most impact. According to a survey we conducted on the current usage of SIO, we decided to tackle the class planning and registration workflow, where the biggest gap between perceived importance and current satisfaction exists.
We first sketched out the current site map and conducted a heuristic evaluation of the workflow and information architecture. Combined with qualitative feedback from the survey and our own experience using the website to plan and register for classes, we were able to identify the following problems:
Students would have to navigate to multiple sites in order to gather class information, plan for courses, and then register
The course planning and registration functionalities could be optimized to provide a more seamless experience
Due to deficiencies in information architecture and user interface, many useful tools were hidden and unaccessible
Based on the problems identified, we did parallel prototyping to come up with designs to address these issues, aiming at making the workflow more fluent and encouraging students to utilize existing tools. The three designs we came up with have different logic and features.
We speed-dated our initial concepts with 7 students in random orders to learn more about their current usage pattern and to get feedback on the different designs. We found that:
We also presented our designs to the registrar and our client and got similar feedback. After confirming some of the changes we are making are both technically and administratively feasible, we moved onto converging the designs and finalizing a workflow.
We synthesized the feedback from the student and admin perspectives, developed a new workflow that is more fluent and flexible than the current system, and continued to iterate on it.
We conducted Think-Alouds with four students in order to evaluate the user flow logic and overall usability of our design. The results are positive in general -- students are able to complete most of the tasks on first attempt. We adjusted some font size and color alignment issues, and paid special attention to the semantics to make sure the changes would not cause much confusion to the students who are used to the current system.
We presented our research findings and final design to 30 stakeholders from the Office of Enrollment Services, the SIO engineers, and other admin teams. The responses had been more positive than we could ever expect, the lead engineer said he wish he could just "copy-and-paste all these into SIO already."
With special thanks to our client Lisa and our advisor Skip - this has been a wonderful learning experience for me. We learned that in real-world project, we need to work with various constraints -- time, resources, technology, legacy, policy, etc. We got to practice different research and design methods and be creative in the ways we utilize them.
I am especially grateful that we had such a wonderful team, in which I learned how to work with multiple designers and researchers effectively. In such a collaborative project, it is easy to get into fusing everyone's design together and create a Frankenstein out of it, but we need to leave the designer's ego at the door, and really think from the user's and the client's perspectives. This team made it so easy and delightful to do so.