This project was completed by a group of graduate students at The University of Washington’s Human-Centered Design and Engineering (HCDE) program as part of their User-Centered Design (HCDE 518) course.
The primary objective of the course was to equip students with the skills and knowledge necessary to develop innovative solutions that address real-world problems.
How might we support students with external obligations to achieve a fulfilling college experience?
Juggling the demands of being a college student with external obligations that require equal or more attention can prove remarkably challenging. However, it’s quite common for students to have external responsibilities, such as a part-time or full-time job, being a parent or a caregiver, that compete for time and attention. This often leads to poor self-care, subpar time management, and deteriorating mental and physical health.
Our aim is to explore and address the specific pain points experienced by students with external responsibilities, seeking to alleviate their burdens and reduce stress.
- Full-time students: Those dedicated to full-time academics.
- Part-time students: Balancing academics with external responsibilities.
- Working full-time students: Juggling a full-time job alongside academics.
- Working part-time students: Managing part-time employment and academics simultaneously.
- Advisors: Provide academic guidance and support to students.
- Professors: Deliver course content, assignments, and assessments.
- Student Association Members: Promote student engagement events and engage with the student community.
The project took approx. 10 weeks to finish from start to end.
For our initial approach, we selected a quantitative survey as our primary data collection method.
- allow for valuable benefits in early-stage research, allowing us to establish a foundational understanding of our research topic
- provide groundwork for the formulation of more specific research questions for the subsequent phase
- are efficient and scalable, allowing us to reach a larger number of participants compared to other methodologies
Our focus is to survey University of Washington students who are enrolled in a full-time or part-time program and have time-consuming (10 hours/week) responsibilities outside of school. This survey will be invaluable in identifying the most prominent themes and pain points.
We surveyed a total of 19 students who had external responsibilities outside of school.
- 84.2% found it difficult to manage time
- 57.9% of students did not have great experience with networking events
- 78.9% of participants found that they have limited participation in campus activities
- More than 50% of participants don’t find on-campus counseling services helpful
- 68.4% find online classes and courses to be helpful.
- 42.1% of participants felt isolated or disconnected from their peers
By grouping key findings on virtual stickies and consolidating based on user feedback, we narrowed down to 4 problem areas rooted in participant experiences.
The main themes we deduced were:
Lack of social support
- Universities can better support students by “having more support networks with others who also have similar experiences.” — Participant 1
- Provide “networking or social events targeted for people who are in a similar situation” — Participant 11
Lack of accommodations
- I want a “flexible schedule to submit assignments.” — Participant 12
- “Less group project work and more homework that can be tackled individually to minimize having to accommodate schedules between full-time and part-time students” — Participant 20
Lack of college resources available / known
- “networking opportunities outside of M-F 9–5 schedule” — Participant 9
- “I’m not aware of any resources available for students with external responsibilities” — Participant 3
Difficulty managing time
- ”Less group projects would allow for easier management of work completion” — Participant 10
- “Time management is very important. And taking care of health and nutrition is non-negotiable” — Particpant 13.
We recognized from the surveys that balancing college life and staying connected to the college community while managing other responsibilities is a critical issue that many people struggle with. To address this challenge, we decided to conduct interviews.
Interviews offer a depth of qualitative data that the survey alone fails to capture, and they allow us to delve deeper into the topics the survey responses brought to light. Through these semi-structured interviews, we can not only explore the concerns raised in our surveys but also uncover nuanced insights and hidden issues that may have eluded our initial data collection.
We conducted interviews with a total of five participants, comprising a mix of undergraduate and graduate students, ensuring diversity in our sample.
The interviews revealed deeper insights into how students balance college and other responsibilities. Converting these learnings into representative personas will synthesize key takeaways into relatable profiles. The personas transform raw research into accessible models to frame problems and focus design thinking on the human experience.
Having gathered extensive insights through our survey, interviews, and personas exploring student needs balancing responsibilities, we uncovered several critical imperatives our solution directions must address.
The solution should:
- work on a portable device as the student is usually juggling between school and the other responsibilities.
- be social and be able to facilitate networking, information sharing and making communication possible with like-minded people.
- help users manage their time between different spheres of life to enhance their efficiency and help them achieve their goals.
- students keep a balanced and healthy lifestyle.
Refined Design Question
We began to identify specific patterns and common problems after conducting our research. After careful evaluation, we refined the question to specify what aspects of the college experience we could make more fulfilling for students with external responsibilities.
After: How might we empower students with external responsibilities to effectively balance their time and well-being?
Idea 1 — Slack Integration
- To enhance the user experience on Slack by gamifying the platform to enable more organic, lifelike social interactions
- Create a virtual navigable space with interactive user icons that bold when in close proximity to signify nearby users and enable direct text, voice, or video conversations between them, while displaying only the channels that individual user belongs to, introducing channel-specific mini lobbies, and implementing an AI “discover channels” recommendation feature.
- Builds on Slack’s existing role in informal discourse for students, aligning with user needs for more social opportunities and streamlining information access into one already familiar platform, making an enhancement more promising than an entirely new platform; facilitates organic interactions between users while addressing the challenge of varied channel memberships across individuals.
Idea 2 — Calendar AI Plugin
- To introduce an AI calendar integration designed to help users prioritize tasks and enhance overall well-being
- Visually represent task priorities through adjustable border radii, incorporate personalized AI-powered mindfulness breaks like taking walks or listening to music tailored to users’ daily tasks and preferences to strike a balance between productivity and health.
- Addresses user needs revealed in research around juggling responsibilities and empowers them with a tool to streamline tasks and improve mental/physical health by incorporating a dual focus on productivity and wellness to enhance user experience; success depends on user engagement and the accuracy of AI in understanding individual preferences.
Idea 3— Physical Calendar
- Design a physical calendar tailored for college students managing external responsibilities to address time management and well-being challenges.
- Color-Coding and Categorization of Tasks: Visual color representation of tasks from work and school to aid efficient time allocation and activity prioritization by delineating tasks as “Main Missions” for essential priorities and “Side Quests” for less critical tasks to provide focused prioritization frameworks while balancing various tasks.
- Unique and Tangible Approach with Potential Digital Integration: Resonates with users seeking a tactile and visually intuitive physical tool for managing demanding schedules and optimizing time management while addressing the weakness of physical reliance by considering future integration into a digital platform, providing users flexibility in organization methods.
Idea 2, the Calendar AI Plugin, emerges as the most promising concept among the three proposed. This innovative approach extends beyond mere organization; it becomes a dynamic tool that empowers users to pursue their daily goals with clarity and efficiency.
The inclusion of AI to enhance productivity and well-being directly addresses concerns gleaned from user research. The plugin is designed to cater to the prevalent challenges faced by our users, such as managing overwhelming workloads while neglecting personal well-being.
While the other ideas possess their merits, the Calendar AI Plugin’s distinct advantages lie in its relevance, feasibility, and potential positive impact on users’ lives. It adeptly tackles real-world challenges in a manner that is not only user-friendly but also aligns with the evolving needs of individuals navigating demanding academic and personal responsibilities.
We focused in on three user flows to explore. Each flow is directly related to our research findings & design goals — as stated above.
- Time management
- User inputs tasks and a schedule is generated
- User assigns importance/weight to the tasks
- User can edit schedule /ask to regenerate
2. AI Generated Breaks, personalized based on user preference
- Calendar tracks your screen time and activity from smart watch etc
- AI generates breaks for users based on user preference & activity
- Focus in well-being and social connection
3. Positive Affirmation
- When user completes a task, the event reveals a positive affirmation or compliment.
- As you work on a task, update the emoji to reflect your progress. (progress bar)
- Create a virtual “trophy room” event where you celebrate and acknowledge your successes, no matter how small.(so cute!! Kinda like apple watch feature?)
Here’s the mid-fidelity wireframe reflecting the user flow.
Once we had a working prototype, we aimed to show this in front of potential users and provided them with tasks to accomplish for each test.
Task 1: Onboarding
- Productivity info
- Working style
- Break ideas
- Work load
Task 2: Daily check-in
- Today’s mood
- Input tasks and time for do or die
- Input tasks and time for make it happen
- Input tasks time for when time allows
Task 3: Monthly progress and feedback implementation
- Scroll through charts
- See the chat with chat bot
- What do you think is happening here?
- What do you think you’re supposed to do?
- See suggestions
- What do you think is happening here?
- What do you think you’re supposed to do?
- Select suggestions to implement
- Apply changes
Retrospective think aloud session — probing questions
- Where did you hesitate? Why?
- What did you like about it? Explain your thought process
- What didn’t work? What was confusing?
- Do you see this as being helpful? In what situations?
After testing with 3 users, here are the changes we incorporated into our prototype:
Here is the design after incorporating all the design changes from usability testing :)
As well as a video demonstration of the project as a whole.
- Our initial assumptions about students with external responsibilities were proven false. We had to make pivots in our project and learn how to stay open-minded and adapt to changes in the design process
- Assembling our project into a cohesive story is not an easy task but our team managed to accomplish it. It’s imperative to create a space where every voice in the team is heard for effective communication.
- Another round of usability testing to make sure we hit the needs of the user and to refine our design solution
- Explore “Share with Friends” in depth because students with external responsibilities lacked social connections. We want to incentivise the users and give a social angle to being productive by linking goals with friends.