Panopath App

Break information asymmetry in college application process by building a current student network

Project Overview

This is a web app I re-designed and managed for Panopath, an EdTech startup I was a core member of during college. Our mission was to break the information asymmetry in the college application process and disrupt this billion-dollar industry. I was brought in to improve the user interface and update its functionalities after the initial release. This app currently have 20,000+ users and has been a go-to resource and social platform for many overseas students.


Panopath Education & Technology
(the largest international student network in China)


Lisy Li (Co-founder)
Aaron Hou (Co-founder)
Ke Wang (Developer)

My Role

User Research
Prototyping & Wireframing UI/UX Design
Product Management

Methods | Tools

Guerrilla Research, Survey
User Persona, User Flow,
Paper Prototyping,
Sketch, Principle

The Problem Space

Information Asymmetry in the College Application Process

Every year, more than 100,000 Chinese students apply to colleges in the United States. However, many of them lack easy access to sufficient and accurate information about the schools and the application process. For years, consulting agencies has been taking advantage of the information asymmetry. Having experienced all these, our startup tries to help more students make informed decisions for themselves.

The Solution

Directly Connect Prospective students with Current Students
We started out as a newsletter channel on WeChat, sharing our own experiences applying to and studying in the U.S. As our subscribers grew, we found that what we were doing was not enough -- the prospective students need a more direct way to access the information first-hand. Hence, we designed and developed the Panopath App, where prospective students can directly reach out to current students to ask questions and build connections.

The Impact

Current Students
Prospective Students
Connections Made

NOTE: The following interfaces are the re-design I did for the WeChat mini program, modified from the web app released previously.

Step 1.

Browse the School List

When logging into the app, prospective students can see a list of Universities and Liberal Arts Colleges with current students registered. By browsing the list, prospective students can tap into different schools to learn more information and find current students to connect with.

Step 2.

View School Information

Each school profile page includes essential information about the school and the admission process for prospective students to scan. Since WeChat newsletter has been a main way for us to do content marketing, newsletter articles are also embedded as a Wikipedia-like resource for students to learn more.

Step 3.

Find Current Students

The user can then browse current students profiles and see a short bio and a list of topics around Education, Experience, and Interest with audio recording. This way, the user can quickly filter and find the exact person to talk who share similar backgrounds or have experience they are interested in learning more about.

Step 4.

Propose to Connect

If the user is interested in engaging in a deep conversation with a current student, she can propose to connect. Current students have "Promise Statements" that sets the boundary for what she is comfortable with answering. And prospective students can add a personalized message to express their intent. If the proposal is accepted, they can chat over WeChat.

Discovering an Opportunity

Prospective students lack Experiential Information about the school

It is fair to say that our app idea came directly from the users. After gaining some initial tractions from our posts about American colleges and universities, we found some consistent patterns in the comments. There were mainly three kinds of inquiries and requests:

Due to the asynchronous nature of our posting, these inquiries cannot be fulfilled on time. In fact, we found that there was no existing ways to access first-hand, experiential information or to seek on-demand help for prospective students.

Hence, we decided to take our mission of promoting information transparency one step further, by providing a way for prospective students to connect with current students directly.

Understanding our Users

Connections should be build around Trust, Respect, and Conveniency.

In the process of designing the app, we both utilized our existing knowledge and continued to talk to users whenever possible. In consideration of scalability, we approached this problem with a platform mindset. Balancing the needs and motivations of customers (prospective students) and service providers (current students) is essential to the success of our product.

Let me introduce the two sides of our typical users:

Based on our understanding of the end users' frustrations and pain points, we also derived corresponding design principles to guide our MVP.

Paper Prototype & Initial Testing

We tested the overall workflow with current students we know and prospective students over WeChat. In general, both groups is appealed by the app idea as a way to easily connect with each other, and they also made a lot of valuable suggestions that helped us make design decisions quickly.

Finding 1.

Having audio clips is a quicker way to establish trust.

In our original design, the current students will input their experiences via text. However, the current students mentioned that that would require a lot of typing to provide appropriate context (e.g. write a whole intro about a sponsored program). On the other hand, the prospective students mentioned listening to someone talking, even briefly, could help them gauge the other person's personality and to build trust in them.

Finding 2.

Users prefer to carry out conversation on WeChat.

We were debating whether to have a chat function included in our app so that the personal identities of the users can be better protected. However, both groups of users indicated that they prefer to add each other on WeChat because it supports reach functions, such as sending pictures and video calls easily, and creates a more lasting connection.

Finding 3.

The platform should make the transaction process more transparent.

Although the general idea appeals to the users, there were a lot of questions around processing the payment. When will the transaction be completed? How can I know if the other person will accept my request on WeChat after paying? What happens if the conversation was unsatisfactory? We realized we should design the mechanism more deliberately to provide guarantee for both parties.

MVP Design

For the first MVP we launched, we focused on accomplishing the major tasks and a transaction mechanism to guarantee a successful exchange.

See Solution Again

Iterate Based on User Feedback

This is AWESOME, and it could be better!

We got 300+ current students and 1300+ prospective students registered within two weeks. As the main customer support rep, I gained valuable feedback and suggestions. Following a SCRUM agile development method, we used user stories to quickly generate new features and changes for the following updates. Here are a few selected user stories and corresponding design solutions.

User Story 1.

"As a prospective student, I want to quickly find current students who have similar experience as I do, so that I can get the most relevant information."

Design Update 1. Tag Profiles for Better Match

Based on our experience, we generated a dozen of tags that are representative of a student's background. Current students can select these tags when registering or updating the profile, and prospective students can see tags associated with the profile or search for specific tags. In this way, time spent on editing and searching for profiles can be saved greatly.

Current Student:
Select Tags when Registering

Prospective Student:
View Tags on Student Profiles

User Story 2.

"As a prospective student, I want to find other students with the same major I am looking at, so that I do not have to go into every school to find them."

Design Update 2. Quick Access to Major List

Using school as the first level of filtering fits the mental model of most prospective students. However, we fount that a lot of students are also interested in specific majors and want to talk to current student at different schools studying the same major. Hence, we added two ways to navigate based on major, one is within advanced search, the other in current student profile page.

User Story 3.

"As a prospective student, I want to see more information about the schools on the list, so that I can do a first round of filtering quickly."

Design Update 3. New School List with Filtering

In observing students using the app and asking them questions about the experience, we found that students rarely consider research universities and liberal arts colleges together. Instead, they wish to see more information about the schools when browsing in order to decide which schools they want to do in-depth research in. Hence, we changed the School Lists view and added advanced filtering in order to help students narrow down and start taking actions.

Learning & Reflection

Get Your Hands Dirty and Immerse Yourself with the Users' Context

This is my first product design project and what got me into HCI. Through this process, I tried to apply what I learned in psychology into crafting a better user experience and getting at the real needs of the user. Since I am a UX team of one, I got hands-on experience on every facet of research, design, and iteration, and quickly acquired skills as I go.

Being the first point of contact as the customer support was definitely a valuable experience as well, because it gets me thinking more about how to complete the product and how to think of creative ways to deal with edge cases. I have also had failed attempts when trying to add more features to the product, such as promotions of other services, and I would happily discuss that further if you are interested.

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