Moneythink: College Affordability
DecidED gives students an affordability rating based on their financial aid award letter. Students then use this rating as well as other fit factors to choose the most affordable college for them. At the time, the product had been launched for a full academic year, however very little was known if students truly understood and made use of the tool. In order to check for the student's level of understanding, of “how much they had left to pay” and if the tool was being useful, I lead qualitative research, and a remote design sprint as lead product designer.
Given that every student’s financial situation is different. How might we better support alternative financial situations?
Lead UX Designer and Lead Researcher
Lead non-researchers through first org wide round of equity centered qualitative research
Planned, facilitated and lead first remote design sprint in order to come up with a solution
Designed and handed off a new feature that increased user understanding and engagement by 86%
An Equity Centered Design Approach To Reach The Most Unheard User
Our users our students who come from low-income BIPOC backgrounds. They are high school level and seeking to go to college. I deeply value equity centered design principles. I had just led the team through a shift towards a more equity centered practice. By rolling out this shift I made a new framework that the whole organization could be guided by. I had the team complete a series of readings on this topic and look inwards at our current practices on how we could move from a designing by and for to a mindset of design with and by.
I was driven to invite our students into our process throughout various points in the design process. From research to prototype testing, I ensured that student voices were heard. Working with an underserved population, it is crucial that I as the designer build strong relationships with the community that I am serving to understand the intersectionality that is present in the educational ecosystem.
WHAT DID THE SOLUTION ACHIEVE?
- Increased user understanding of college affordability by introducing a simple and visually compelling design solution to a complex problem
- Improved efficiency: Internal staff saved time on product demoing and training educators on how to use the product
- Product engagement and return visits improved by 82% from previous year
- Users saw actionable data that nudged them on how they could pay given if their financial situation was different
I served as the lead UX researcher for this project and facilitated all workshops, interviews and discussions that were needed to complete the deliverables. I mentored and guided my team in this area as well as I served as the lead.
I used both qualitative and quantitative methods in order to conduct this research. I conducted in-person research with High School Seniors at a local Bay Area High School. Students had never used our product before and identified as first - generation college students from under resourced backgrounds .
- All students expressed a high level of stress when asked if they thought they would be able to afford college.
- Students felt behind because of Covid protocols and being stuck at home so to be tossed back into the thick of school deadlines and their senior year has been very stressful!
- First generation college students are often unaware of college costs since they are often the first in their family to make the leap.
- Feelings of isolation, confusion and mistrust are often noted by students.
The Design Was Confusing
It became very apparent that students were not understanding truly how much they had left to pay. Sure, they could see the extra white space on the bar - but what did that number really mean. When asked, students fumbled around numbers.
Numbers, loans and hefty dollar signs left student's heads spinning, they would apologize for not knowing the answer, citing that numbers made them nervous… This was a big moment for me as a designer, I realized we were doing more harm than good!
“I feel like I just don’t have that much knowledge about college as a whole…. To say if this is affordable.” (when asked about if a school was financially possible for them) - Bay Area High School Student
Besides the confusion of college costs, students were very concerned with finding a sense of belonging on campus. The majority of the student web service identify as BIPOC and wanted the campus to mirror their life growing up.
“I feel like when it comes to school and Black People in general, all the schools that I have been to were majority black, so I feel like I will have bad culture shock...” - Bay Area High School Student
With this research in mind, I grouped our findings into these general points:
- Lack of understanding of general college costs
- Affordability bar seemed confusing, as none of the four students were able to confidently report how much money they would need to pay for college after awards/grants
- School closures from covid and a lack of in person learning has both made these feel defeated but also that they are far behind in regards to college planning
- Overwhelmed by information and unsure where to go besides googling schools
DEFINE PHASE, A REMOTE DESIGN SPRINT
The problem that I was trying to design a solution for was multifaceted and affected several areas of the organization, so I decided the best solution was to plan, implement and facilitate a design sprint. This was the first remote first design sprint that my organization had ever run. Here you can find the full brief and plan for the day. I condensed the general 5 day design sprint into a two day remote sprint. Our main goal was to walk away from the two days with a framework that we could make a prototype to students with.
The team included all members of the org; marketing, partnerships and engineering. I planned, led and facilitated this design sprint across several digital platforms. We did meet up in person to build prototypes.
After building the prototype, I knew for a change this big we needed to test this again in front of students. So I took the paper prototype to the same group of students and measured the difference. The results were great! So we moved forward with engineering.
Design Sprint: What We Learned Beyond The Product
- Team members felt much closer to the student after listening to student interviews
- This sprint inspired team members to take their learnings back to their day to day roles in order to solve similar issues
- We learned that our students needs simple solutions to complex problems in all facets of the product
- Our goal was met of experimenting with what a two day all remote design sprint might look like
As a Product Designer, I pride myself on ensuring that all members of the organization feel included in the product. From research, designing and testing - I am inclusive in inviting members in. This is when you can get the best solutions to big problems.
DESIGN PHASE WITH AN EQUITY CENTERED FOCUS, HANDING THE PENCIL TO THE STUDENTS
I synthesized the prototypes that were made in the design sprint into one design. This design change would be a massive change to the product, so it was important for me to get this in front of our users early and often. I took the prototype back to the same school and had students react to it. Using an equity centered method, I would ask students “what would you think would be helpful?”
Wireframes & Testing
In the design sprint and through research it became very apparent that students were not truly understanding how much they had left to pay and the bar graph design was no longer a great solution. I decided to add more clarity by introducing the designs below:
Now, the bar is turned into a circle and each part of the circle is cut up into sections of a pie. Sometimes a student may pick an out of state school, so this major change in money allocation would be showcased in the circle.
Great! We had a solution to illustrate to the students HOW much school was going to cost, but that did not help students' feelings of being unsure of how to PAY for this. Thus, I implemented a new section of our product called “How will I pay for this?” Students responded super well to both of these changes as I learned during prototyping our final mock up.
“Wow! I can show this to my parents, this can help me explain to them how I plan to pay for schools without going into extreme debt!”
This new design gave students clarity, transparency and actionable steps. I worked with our engineering team of 8 to ensure that this new design was aware of any constraints.
Serving in ed-tech as a designer, I am often constrained by strict legal and privacy laws since we work with minors. Often this mostly comes up in research when trying to seek participants who are under 18. This can sometimes delay research efforts and cause a few roadblocks. An additional constant was hosting a remote design sprint. The benefits of remote is that everyone from the org, across several time zones can participate. However, the in person nature of the brainstorm can be dialed or hindered. For me as a facilitator this is something that I am still seeking to grow in.
SUCCESS & LEARNINGS
In serving as the lead designer on this project I found that I was able to excel in bringing the team together for a common goal. I constantly have the larger mission of creating a world free of student debt in the back of my mind. It’s difficult to conduct a remote design sprint, but I knew it was necessary to truly solve and unearth the big problem at hand - our org was missing the mark on college affordability.
knew that it was much more than just the affordability bar that was confusing. Rather, what was confusing about the previous design was that it did not give students any action, any hope and any next step that they could take towards their future. Small changes in the product allowed for students to feel empowered vs feeling defeated.
DID THE SOLUTION MAKE AN IMPACT?
This design change started out very small, a box to a circle, and turned into something much larger. Yes, students' level of understanding around college costs skyrocketed! Students said that they felt more aware and confident in choosing a school for them. The design sprint and visual change in how we talk to our students about college costs, shifted our organization to reframe our efforts. Now we all remember how stressful this process is for our students and it highlighted the extreme challenges that come from this academic year in particular with Covid and the pandemic. The design sprint helped kick start several new content articles, remote trainings and newsletters that helped support the new design change and overall served the mission of how we talk to our students about college affordability.