Lisa Nian Liu
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Black Box

Imagine you want to study in the United States. You do your research, carefully fill out your documentation, sit through a stressful embassy interview, and send off your hard work for processing.

… and then what? Have other people been approved? Has the political situation in your country blocked your entry? Have you filled in something wrong? Will you get approved in time to arrive in time to start school?

Enter Black Box.

"How might we provide reassurance for international students through collaboration with a knowledgeable and experienced community?"

"How might we provide reassurance for international students through collaboration with a knowledgeable and experienced community?"

Our solution is Black Box — a web-based solution where confused international student applicants can enter their Visa situation and school information, generate an application timeline, and find answers to specific questions through a forum populated by experienced applicants.

 This project was undertaken during the first week of UW   mHCI+D     program: a week-long bootcamp called Immersion Studio, designed to push us to our design limits.

This project was undertaken during the first week of UW mHCI+D program: a week-long bootcamp called Immersion Studio, designed to push us to our design limits.

How did we start?

How did we start?

Our prompt: CSCW (computer supported cooperative work) is using technology to support collaboration between people.

We began thinking initially about digitization of documents as a potentially interesting topic with a wide variety of potential users. We soon realized that there were too many specific contexts within that audience so we needed to narrow down to a specific group of users.

Our teammate began talking about his personal experience with keeping lots of documents as an international student, and it all snowballed from there…

We did some formative research and discovered a lot of things.

We did some formative research and discovered a lot of things.

We interviewed 2 current international students for primary research. We also consulted various secondary sources.

Through those interviews, we discovered many things:

- International students still need the actual documents despite also digitizing them. Most students kept their many documents carefully filed so that they could easily show border patrol or immigration officers when they were asked. Additionally, some didn’t want sensitive information up online.

- There was a real need for succinct, relevant information. There is a wealth of knowledge available, but students don’t know what is applicable specifically to their case.

- Students had trouble keeping track of time and organization. They asked things like “What things do I need to submit? When is this due? Even though this is due later, when do I need to go to the bank to obtain income information so that I can submit this in time?” New applicants especially had a hard time figuring everything out.

- After submitting their documentation, students struggled with feelings of worry/insecurity about when they would be approved. They assuaged their fears by turning to forums (Ex. GradCafe)

This last circumstance led to the name of our solution: students have no idea what’s happening once their documents go in for approval — it’s a “black box”.

We did some ideating.

We did some ideating.

We created our HMW statement based on those insights — "How might we provide reassurance for international students through collaboration with a knowledgeable and experienced community?"

Through an ideation exercise known as braiding (sketching for 2 minutes, share for 1 minute, x 10 iterations), we sketched many ideas — see some sketches below on the left.

We discussed + highlighted a select few to be critiqued by others in the class. In the end, we were left with 3 final sketches — see them below on the right.

We evaluated our 3 final concepts to pick 1 to pursue.

We evaluated our 3 final concepts to pick 1 to pursue.

Concept #1 — “Engagements & Rewards” — in theory, this sounds good. Naturally we will need an incentive system for CSCW participation, and involving lawyers does work to assuage possible user concerns about the trustworthiness of information in the solution. However, this can’t stand alone as a central feature of the system, and it seemed worriedly hard to test.

Concept #2 — “Step-By-Step Process” — Our Winning Pick — this concept is easily understandable as a personalized timeline of submission deadlines attached to a forum corresponding to each stage of the application process. It addresses both the need for time management help and peer-to-peer-sharing-related fear assuaging.

Concept #3 — “Visa Buddy” — this plugin feature addresses another need (“How do I find the specific information that I need on this page?”) but again doesn’t address the central need. We also found through our 2nd stage of testing (pictured below) that we were mistaken about the need for help while filling out forms. It turns out students do know how to fill them out — it’s the waiting that gets them.

We made our 1st paper prototype & did some usability testing.

We made our 1st paper prototype & did some usability testing.

As seen above & below, we created a state-of-the-art cardboard laptop to slide our prototype papers through.

We enlisted the help of a 3rd international student to give us feedback on our paper prototype:

- There’s too much information on the homepage - “what is it that you’re offering?”

- She showed hesitancy to trust us with personal information in the signup process —“Why do you need my nationality?”

- There’s way too much content to look at on the timeline. 3 forum topics is a lot of text. We divided the page into halves thinking this would help the attribution, but this instead showed a lack of information hierarchy — is the user supposed to look first at the timeline to the left or the forum topics to the right? Furthermore, she was unable to attribute the timeline stage to the forum topics to the right. All in all, the details failed pretty hard here.

- We added colors for interest, but this turned into confusion on the clickability of the colored icons.

We made some updates.

We made some updates.

For the timeline, we took more visual cues from forum homepages because our users are familiar with these conventions. We’ve increased the whitespace around the timeline to make sure that users can see the different stages. To denote the corresponding forum section, the # of posts in that section is shown as well as a single most recently active forum thread. We also got rid of color on the icons to ensure users know they’re not clickable.

For the homepage, we rephrased the verbiage to tell users exactly what we offered. We also added a preview of a select few forum threads to let them sample our unique user knowledge-base.

For the forum, we hadn’t even built that out in the 1st prototype. But then…

Access to the forum is our real crown jewel.

Access to the forum is our real crown jewel.

In our original prototype, we didn’t let the user see the forum. Through the research, we realized that they wouldn’t know they’d gain access to such a great resource unless we gave them a sneak peek.

The timeline on the left helps students organize their deadlines and materials, but any questions they have at each stage are answered through the corresponding forum section.

According to our user research, students with questions on anything from details of required materials to waiting times to acceptances all consulted unofficial information sources like forums when official sources did not satisfy. As a result, we modeled BlackBox off of such forums because we knew the real power is of course the people who contribute to the knowledge-base.

Click below to view our final video prototype (as narrated by me!)

We learned so much.

Research guided us every step of the way. So many of our assumptions and planned features were disproved through research, and if this were IRL we would be even more grateful that we didn’t waste our time/money on developing unusable ideas.

It’s very tricky deciding when/how to test content in prototypes. We want to test both placement and wording (for comprehension) but how do we make sure that our users can focus on one at a time?

Focusing in on a specific topic was especially hard in one week. We had many ideas but a very limited time to develop a working prototype, so we had to cut them down mercilessly in order to arrive at something that could conceivably be built in a short time frame.

———

Through our efforts, we created something wonderful that could possibly go to market. In the weeks following, I would tell my friends about the crazy whirlwind weeklong studio session and the awesome idea we came up with.

Every time I talked about Black Box, multiple people would enthusiastically tell me, “I would totally use that!”

UX, ya’ll.

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