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Reinventing the U.S. College Application Experience for 300,000 Chinese Students

UX/UI Designer

ZLX Inc.

Aug 2015 - May 2016

UX + iOS Application Design

 

Pricey College Application Consultants Do not Make the Application Process Easier

In 2014, 274,439 Chinese students studied in the U.S. This number has increased steadily over the past four decades.

Such a large audience creates a huge market for admissions consulting. These services are expensive. It requires an average of $20,000 (equivalent to 1/3 of average Chinese family's income) for a limited-time consulting service. 

With such pricey services established, it is clear that Chinese applicants continue to struggle with the intricacies of the college application process.

User Research Revealed Their Struggles

I focused on two questions when interviewing active applicants:

1. What is the current application process like?

2. What frustrates applicants the most?

 

The application process can be organized into two stages: Select target colleges and develop application strategies. After further discussions around the stages, their struggles were revealed. 

 

1. Overwhelming resources make it difficult to decide on target colleges

Surrounded by numerous resources, applicants found themselves more confused and distracted. They are looking for a simple system that delivers required school information.

 

2. Ineffective consulting services create dissatisfying application strategies

Pricey services do not necessarily guarantee a satisfying experience. Applicants often left hesitant to follow the proposed application strategy because they did not think it was thoroughly developed, especially when it came to admission essays and interview strategy.

Deeper Discovery on The Struggles Led to Refined Problems

Further digging into the struggles made the problems clear:

 

1. Disorganized information makes applicants feel overwhelmed

Applicants find it hard to digest gathered information, which makes it difficult to select target colleges. A cluster of disorganized information slows down the decision-making process. 

2. Applicants do not trust the consultant, hence they do not trust the strategy

Without enough understanding of the consultant, applicants find it difficult to build trust upon him or her. The lack of confidence in the proposed strategy causes hesitation.  

A lack of concise and structured information makes it difficult to decide target colleges.

A lack of trust in the consultant 

makes it hard to apply application strategy with confidence.

For "The Concept" section, I will use the left problem as an example to demonstrate my thought process.

Identify Required Information by Understanding User Behavior

I focused on two key questions during user research:

1. What is an applicant's decision-making process like?

2. At what point do they use what information to decide on target colleges?

 

Research revealed that applicants initiate a list of target colleges based on college rankings and locations, then finalize the list based on academic resources and expenses. Some of the applicants are also interested in seeing application information and admission information prior to the application process.

I created the following process map for further analysis.

Structure Required Information with Depth 

It is straight-forward when initiating a list of target colleges, but it is not a linear process to finalize selected colleges. 

I first broke down the information needed for finalizing colleges and organized all information into a hierarchy, then laid them out into screens.

Due to the length of the information, I omitted some parts of nice-to-have information.

Translate User Need into Design

Sketch

Wireframe

Prototype

App Flow

Testing Reveals the Good & the Bad

Testers liked how the application presents the information and the amount of information the application provides, but they did not like the design, noting too many visual distractions.

“This [app] is definitely easier for me to navigate...the amount [of the information] is just enough.”
"The design is too overwhelming. I would prefer the page to focus more on the content, not having these many triangles and lines."

I updated the design to reflect their feedback.

 
 

Color Scheme

Background

Background

Navigation Bar

Proceed Action

Noticeable Action

Font Family

Open Sans

(A popular Chinese font)

Feature 1

College Info One Stop Shop

Starting with a simple ranking, users can focus on colleges, not ranking lists. To accommodate additional interests, custom filters are available as well.

By segmenting the information, users can quickly navigate to the desired information.

Feature 2

Customizable Application Strategy

The # of likes and customer reviews helps build trust in the consultant's ability. 

The up-front list of available skill enhancement courses allows users to purposefully customize their application strategy. 

The "Previous Students" section provides another channel for applicants to understand the consultant's ability.

Work preview and customer reviews allow users to evaluate the consultants thoroughly before deciding to work with them.

Persistence and Persuasion 

It's not uncommon for a team to jump into development without talking to users, especially when the value of UX is not recognized in the team. For this project, I found myself constantly emphasizing the importance of user research and user testing. It was challenging at the beginning, but by involving the team in the UX process and sharing user feedback with them, the team started to appreciate the insights UX brought to the team. In the end, we were rewarded with a successful product.

 

As a UX designer, we don't have to force our teammates to fully understand the value of UX. Instead, our confidence in UX and persistent persuasion can always bring surprising benefits to the team.