COVID-19 has had indisputable impacts on many aspects of people’s lives, with 84% of U.S. adults stating their lives have been disrupted by the pandemic (here). Education is one of the many areas affected by the new normal. The lockdowns in response to the pandemic have interrupted conventional schooling with nationwide school closures all over the world, including universities and colleges (here).
Due to the shift in virtual learning, post-secondary students have reported it’s been harder to form genuine connections and build a sense of community as easily as they could’ve through on-campus experiences.
Even prior to COVID, there was already a growing concern for mental health of post-secondary students (here). The feelings of loneliness, depression, anxiety and isolation were common amongst post-secondary students (here), and have only escalated by the dramatic shift in COVID. A recent study on the effects of COVID-19 on college students’ mental health in the US found 44% of the participants reported experiencing increased levels of mental health conditions. These included depressive thoughts, factors such as feelings of loneliness, powerlessness, financial and academic uncertainties (here).
Pinpointing the Problem
To understand the problems post-secondary students were facing, our team interviewed five students at various stages of their academic degrees. The interviews were conducted one-on-one for approximately 30 minutes over Google Meet where students were prompted with various broad questions on their university experience. We were able to identify patterns in problems students were facing for our Problem Discovery through actively listening and user research during these interviews. Additionally, the interviews were recorded with the permission of each interviewee so that we could transcribe them for further research afterwards.
Based on our user research, the most common pain point amongst students’ was feeling isolated and lonely, and the common desire to meet and form genuine connections with others who share common interests. Some interviewees stated they didn’t know where to start to find out more information about clubs, and the information they currently receive in school newsletters/ platforms were either overwhelming or irrelevant. Another common pattern was that the interviewees missed the social aspect of in-person classes. While professors attempted to integrate group discussions into lectures, interviewees acknowledged it was hard to get to know their classmates outside of the lecture and they had no other channels of meeting new people.
Some quotes from our interviews:
“It’s kind of hard to build a relationship now from just meeting online.”
“Starting university, I haven’t met anyone new [outside] my program.”
“I would say the biggest challenge [is] you are very restricted to your own bubble right now.”
Conclusions from the user research
A more connected virtual university community
In a study investigating the effect of community engagement for individuals, 73% of the participants reported feeling happier being involved in the community, as their quality of life was improved with increased social interaction and broadened social networks (here). Student clubs are no doubt an essential component in improving community engagement within universities, as they brought a sense of purpose and belonging to university community members. We can leverage these existing communities, and assist them in transitioning into virtual communities.
An Involved Student = A Happier Student
In the context of post-secondary experience, it has also been found that students’ involvement in extracurricular activities is generally considered advantageous to their overall educational experience. They generally feel more connected to their university and tend to stay through to graduation (here). Extracurricular activities provide a setting to become involved and to interact with other students, thus leading to increased learning and enhanced development.
Our Solution, UniT
There are approximately 1.4M and 19.9M post-secondary students in Canada and in the United States, respectively. In the most recent CCREU survey hosted by the CUSC (Canadian University Survey Consortium), it has been reported about 4 in 10 (42%) have participated in student clubs at least occasionally, including 1 in 5 who report participating often or very often (here).
As a result of the pandemic, the typical university experience has been disrupted due to COVID-19, leading to increasing sentiments of loneliness and isolation in the student population. Our product “UniT” aims to connect post-secondary students to school clubs and events that are most relevant to their areas of interest, to simplify pursuit for connections and communities. It helps them find the right club without going through numerous irrelevant mails.
Facebook Groups and Events
Facebook groups are a common platform for clubs to promote themselves and its events, as they are able to reach out to a wider university community there. However, the visibility of promotional materials may be affected by advertisements and other contents in students’ feeds. Moreover, students are not able to explore all clubs through this. They would have to search and then follow a particular club.
Reddit is a forum students may turn to when they have specific questions regarding clubs or events. While it is effective in redirecting students to relevant resources given another student responds, students are more likely to interact with these contents only once.
Post-Secondary Internal Event and Club Portals
Some post-secondary schools have club portals which showcase the variety of clubs and events available for students. However, students can get easily overwhelmed by the volume of information, especially if there is no effective filtering system. For example, the University of Toronto has 966 registered clubs for this school year, and it can be daunting about where to start their search.
The target users for our platform are post-secondary students. These students want to connect with others who have common interests, but do not know where to start due to lack of information about resources and/or feeling overwhelmed with the amount of options available.
The features in the first iteration focus on three aspects: providing a way for post-secondary students to find information about relevant clubs, connecting post-secondary students with those who have common interests, and reducing information overload due to the number of clubs and events available.
Part of the onboarding process for new users include the option to indicate some of their interests, such as sports or music. Afterwards, the platform will suggest some clubs the user may be interested in, with the option for the user to follow the club immediately.
The Home page will have an area of suggested clubs and events for the user, based on their indicated interests, clubs they follow, and events they are interested in. As the user follows more clubs, our platform will suggest more relevant clubs and events on the homepage to the user. The goal of the personalized suggestions allow students to be exposed to clubs and events that are more relevant to their interests, to mitigate existing problems with student club communications, including dispersed sources of information and overwhelming amounts of student club options.
The platform will include information of all registered clubs on each respective campus. The basic information provided will include the club’s name, description, and contact information. Additionally, clubs have the option to include other information, such as social media links and its executive team. Having a clubs database allows for users to find information about clubs they are interested in and including the option to include social media links makes it easier for the user to learn more about the club.
Each user has a personalized calendar on the platform, with events they have indicated they are interested in and/or will be attending. The calendar can be linked to other apps, such as Google Calendar or iCalendar. Furthermore, there is a weekly event calendar for the user on the homepage. Some students have several commitments and are unsure if they can commit to attending events until the night before or the hour before. As a result, the feature reduces information overload for the user because they can save the event and not have to search for it again.
As our intent is to provide post-secondary students with relevant information on clubs and events without feeling overwhelmed, some potential features will be present in future iterations. For example, users can opt-in to a weekly newsletter about relevant clubs and events.
User Case/ Product Flow
The Sign-Up page allows the user to sign up with their university username and password. Once the user signs up, the Onboarding Process page appears. If they already have an account, the user can Sign-In.
The Onboarding Process page displays a broad category of interests where the user can select multiple options. The user is then directed to a “Suggestions for you” page that displays Clubs they may be interested in.
Once directed to the Home page, the user can view suggested clubs/events that are tailored to their interests. The Home page displays Latest News from the clubs they are already following, groups/events they may be interested in, and weekly upcoming events. There are icons to direct the user to the Search page for more clubs/ events or go to My Calendar. The aim of this page is to give the user an insight of ongoing activities in clubs they are part of/follow and at the same time give suggestions for other clubs that they might consider following.
Clubs and Events Pages
Students can find information about clubs on the club page. They can see the activities, the contact details and member details. On the Events page, users can star events they are interested in, and choose to register and confirm attendance for the event on this page. The main club contacts will be included and event description are provided.
Through this page users can choose to search for certain clubs using keywords of their choice or by browsing through the options and applying filters.
A page where the user can save starred and registered events. It would be directly linked to the personal calendar of the user.
Key Performance Indicators
Our product not only serves as a directory for students to find relevant student clubs and events, but also to provide a platform to receive the most up-to-date event and student club information. Hence, we want to assess whether or not students have discovered and attended events posted on our platform, and have made connections directly or indirectly through the platform.
With user behaviour analytic software (e.g.Mixpanel), we will be able to track quantitative metrics, such as product usage, DAU and retention rate. We will evaluate the direct impacts of the platform on event attendances for individual clubs, by tracking the number of times students are redirected to event registration pages through our platform. Another metric used to assess connection-making is to track the number of clubs users opted to follow and interact with on our platform.
User surveys will be issued to earlier adapters of the product, assessing whether or not they have found new clubs and events through the platform. The survey will also include open-ended questions, asking the students to share user anecdotes on how they have met new people and if the platform helped them build meaningful connections and community.
To improve the product for the next design iterations, we will be conducting more in-depth user interviews with these users, assessing whether or not the UI is intuitive for use, and the features contribute values to their overall experiences.
While giving feedback on our prototype, many people pointed out that they have a regret of not knowing many of the clubs during their university time. The unique aspect about UniT is that it is relevant even in a normal non-pandemic situation- it would help clubs to present their activities in a more organised manner and students to explore the on-campus activities more easily.
This case study is a collaborative effort by Jenna Fu, Linh Trieu, Miloni Mittal and Tahsin Kabir. It was among the top 5 entries in Project Jam Protothon organised by Product Buds - an event where we had to build a prototype for a product based on the theme “The New Normal” in the timespan of a weekend. To view the demo day presentation click here!
Thank you so much for reading!