Improving College Decision Process

My Role

Cappex is a college information website that helps prospective college students find the best fit colleges. My responsibility is to lead a process that the redesign of the product is highly influenced by users' voices. During the project, I planned and conducted quantitative and qualitative user research/testing to discover unmet user needs, refine information architecture, and eliminate usability issues. I also provided quality UI/interaction prototypes and worked with the development team to implement the new designs.

Student Journey to College

Since college application is seasonal because of the application deadlines, majority of students follow a very similar timeline to go through the process. Some start earlier in the research process and spend more time in strategy process, but they enter the application process the same time.

Students start their journey by understanding their own background, qualifications, and preferences to college. In the research process, they look for as many colleges that fit their preferences as possible. Then they enter the strategy process where they narrow down to a manageable list that contains three categories of colleges - stretch, target, and safety. Through studying the user journey to college, we identified some user pain points.

A Better Search Experience

There are two types of search needs: When they know exactly which colleges they want to learn about, they want to search by keywords to attain the college information quickly. When they want to explore more options in or out of their preference zoom, they want to use filters to view all possible options so they can narrow down.

After interviewing with users, we found many students had both search needs and they put more weight on exploratory search. Students, in general, believe that the more college searches they conduct, the more confidence they have in getting into a college they like.

To start to redesign our search interface, we did an expert review of the product and looked at some user feedback regarding the search interface over the years.

Search should be simple. After evaluating the current search interface, we looked at our competitors' products and went through some ideas to improve. We put the filters on the left of the page so the users can always use these control elements to narrow down options. We also provide advice on each search research to suggest the next action for the users.

Through experiments, we found out that gamification is a successful way to keep users engaged with our product. We have an achievement system in which users complete certain tasks to collect different caps. We are doing a "Cappex Cap Challenge". If a user has collected over 25 different caps, we will mail a real Cappex cap to the user.

Improve College Profiles

We collect information from almost all colleges in the U.S., but neither our content nor structure of the content is standing out among our competitors. In addition to enhancing the appearance of the college profile information, we focused on improving information architecture as well as visual treatments. The switching cost for free products is very low and user experience plays a big part in deciding which product to use.

We looked at the heatmap of our college profile pages to get a sense of what information is more important to users. But those heatmaps are highly biased. We are not confident to drive directly into the design part. Therefore, we decided to take a step back and do an information architecture study.

We had 350 Cappex users participate in a card-sorting task. We gave each participant 30 cards and each card contains one statement about a college. Participants were asked to sort each card into 5 pre-defined groups. If a participant finds that it is hard to group some cards into the groups, the participant can create a new group and name the new group.

We were able to identify confusing cards by looking at how it is distributed in the groups. Also, from the distance map, we can clearly see how close one piece of information relates to another.

While doing the user research, we found that there is some difference between our domestic and international users. Although they share a lot of commonalities, they show various levels of interest regarding certain pieces of information. For example, compared to domestic applicants, international applicants care more about the school's reputation in their home countries and care less about the location of the campus.

Rethink the College Application Process

Cappex Application is the newest product we launched in August to help students apply to many colleges with one free application. Upon launching, I started to plan the 1st round of usability testing for this product to validate design assumptions and identify usability problems.

I invited 6 students to use the product and finish a series of tasks I assigned. During the testing, participants thought aloud with their intents and actions. After completing the 6 tests, I went through the scripts and screen recordings and built an affinity wall to group user feedback. In addition, I created a Trello board to track all usability issues ordered by severity and design solutions in order to test whether the solutions solve the problems in the 2nd round usability test.

We looked at all usability issues and tried to brainstorm with ideas to solve them. We started with the most severe issues. Here are 4 issues for example:

Restate Value Props

Users enter the site through different paths. Some of them land on the product without knowing the value of "one free application for all colleges". During the usability test, only three participants know that they do not have to complete separate applications and only two know that the application fees are waived. If users don't know the value, they won't use the product. So instead, we restated the value inside the product to remind users of our value propositions.

Save Indicators

Users are afraid to leave the page because they are uncertain about whether the information is saved in real-time. Especially when they are working on writing essays, they are frustrated when exiting the page accidentally because they think their information is lost. Therefore, we built a save indicator to provide users the feedback that their inputs are saved in real time.

Application Bulk Submission

Because many colleges ask the same questions on applications, users often submit applications at the same time. We designed an application bulk submission model that users can trigger from the dashboard page. Users can view which applications are ready to submit and submit those applications.

Member School Page

Users want to know all our member schools so they can understand which colleges they can apply to through Cappex Application and which colleges they need to apply separately. We built a member school page that allows users to view all of our member schools. They can also use the search bar to find specific schools they are interested in.