At Cappex, we have helped over 9 million students discover higher education and scholarship opportunities. My biggest responsibility is to lead the effort on implementing user-centered design process and creating a standard problem-solving procedure where design decisions always need to be validated by testing. I manage all user testing including website optimizations and A/B testing, in-person and remote product testing, card sorting, and user interviews. I also participate in designing workflows, wireframes, and mock-ups, as well as support the product team with programming knowledge.
Although we see a difference in how long each student spends on planning college application, the user journey to college is very consistent. Since college application is seasonal because of application deadlines, most students follow a very similar timeline to go through the process. Some of them start earlier in the research process and spend more time in strategy process, but almost every user enter the application process the same time. Therefore, time is a major factor in determining website traffic. In September, October, November, and December, students will enter the application process where we see the largest number of traffic on our web products.
Students start their journey by realizing their backgrounds, grades and standardized test scores, 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. Cappex participates in all three processes. Through studying the user journey to college, we identified some user pain points.
We see these pain points as oppotunities. Cappex exists in order to help users. We believe if we can successfully solve the pain points for users, they will see the value of Cappex products.
When a user searches for colleges, two types of search needs happen, When they know exactly which colleges they want to learn about, they want to search by keywords to achieve the college information immediately. 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 compare and narrow down.
After interviewing with users, we found most students will have both search needs and they put more weight on exploratory search. A student said that he used our product to conduct college search because of the exploratory search feature, otherwise he can get the same information from Google. Students, in general, believe that the more college searches they conduct, the more confidence they have in getting into a college they like. From our side, we want to encourage them to explore more because it helps students get more information to support their college decisions and improves the quantity and quality of the leads generated from our websites.
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 simple. We keep this in mind as the core to the redesign. After evaluating the current search interface, we looked at our competitors' products and brainstormed ideas where things can 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.
Almost every day, we have student users asking us about the caps, so we decided to reinforce this type of gamification to encourage users to explore more colleges. By using notification messages, we continually provide users hints of how to get new caps. And simultaneously, students explore more colleges with joy. In the future, we will apply gamification to every possible feature on the product to guide users through all college application preparations.
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. The brutal fact is that, if a user is not able to find certain information on our websites but find that information on other websites, the user is very likely to switch to our competitors and never comes back. 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 the question still remains. What if the college profile info is not structured well in the first place? What if something gets fewer clicks not because it's unimportant but because users cannot find it? With the uncertainties, we are not confident to drive directly into the design part. Therefore, we decided to take a step back and do an information architecture user testing.
We invited 50+ current users to participate in a card-sorting task. We gave each participant a deck of 30 cards and each card contains one statement about a college. Participants were asked to sort each card into 5 pre-defined groups - admissions, cost and aid, campus life, academics and majors, and students. If a participant finds that it is hard to group some cards into these five groups, the participant can create a new group and give the group a name.
The analytics tool made it easy to get insights from the results. 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, so we can consider putting related information more closely within a page.
While doing some user testing and interviews, 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. Those differences are critical in designing the "overview" page of college profile because users would like to find the most critical information through the most convenient way.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.