Thanks for dropping by my workspace. I spent 8 weeks (March to May 2021) working on an end-to-end product development under the guidance of Noel Konagai (he, him), a UX Researcher @ Google. Noel and I were a match made through the Out in Tech Mentorship Program and, under his mentorship, I learned a range of skill sets from product development processes, to double diamond framework, problem space discovery, UX Research methods, sampling, interviewing, survey creation, and delivery. As a result, I built a pitch deck for a business that I’m creating called Silk Road Journey!
The problem I set out to solve
10 million students apply to go to college every year in the US. While most struggle putting together their personal statements and find the financial aid process daunting, there’s also a deeper, more silent struggle occurring. Students are being misled into downplaying their cultural backgrounds to avoid certain stereotypes. This prevents students from truly celebrating their accomplishments and places a barrier of entry to economic opportunities that demand introspection and reflection essays: college, internships, study abroad, and even networking. As a Black woman who spent some time in China and in the US with fellow Asian students, it pained me to see this recurring pattern among our respective immigrant communities.
The solution I came up with (and continue to develop)
Using my background in international education, coaching, and community building, I created Silk Road Journey, a personal story lab experience that affirms students from immigrant families throughout the US college admissions with stories that celebrate their cultural background. This approach uses YouMap, a holistic self-discovery tool to enable students to discover their strengths, values, skills, and career interests, combined with cross-cultural peer-learning to, ultimately, lead students to craft personal statements that they feel good about.
The skills I got to flex
- One-on-one interviews
- User sampling, survey creation & delivery
- Project management and virtual collaboration
- Virtual presentations via Zoom, Google Meet + Otter.ai live transcript for interview notes
Here is how I broke down the case study into 8 weeks (two 1-hour sessions per week)
Week 1&2: Intro to UX Research methods — double diamond framework, business napkin canvas, and rich pictures
For the first week, I got introduced to the Double Diamond Framework and the Business Napkin Canvas to clarify my idea. I did some readings on Tech, Media, and Democracy, as well as readings on academic UX Research:
- Protecting free speech in the digital age
- Locating the Internet in the Parks of Havana
- I worked on political ads at Facebook. They profit by manipulating us
- Keeping Up with the Algorithms: What You Need to Know About Each Platform’s Sorting System
Then, I created my own business napkin for Silk Road Journey, which I presented to my mentor for feedback. Below is how I implemented the business napkin template for Silk Road Journey:
Beginning week 2, I did some secondary research of my own by watching the documentary “Operations Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal” from which I derived insights about the pain points that college applicants go through, both from the students and the college admissions experts.
First, I presented my finding in quote formats to my mentor:
“[College] has become a status point. your status has now increased because your child is at what’s called an “elite institution” it’s all about bragging rights. The running line in our industry is like, ‘the parents are applying to college. And the kid is the vehicle through which they apply to college’” — Barbara & Perry Kalmus, independent education consultant
“If you’re a freshman I am really sorry because you’re gonna be thrown into a world where they’re gonna be like COLLEGE, COLLEGE, COLLEGE, go to college. You have to get the best grades. if you’re not, you’re gonna feel like a failure. You’re the worst.” — Student
“I do think that students are more obsessed with college. Most kids are getting plagued by this anxiety and you can feel it. They are like “do you think they are not gonna like me because I wrote this one word?” — Priscilla Sands, head of school Marlborough
“I took AP Bio. I am taking AP environmental this year and I am not interested in it. At all . just to have this extra leverage that doesn’t even help.”? — Student
“You drop orchestra because if you don’t take orchestra, you can take another science class. This is so much pressure on these kids because the school offers 15 ap and you’ve only taken it once, you can cross off the top 50 schools in the country.” — Student
“My goal was the Ivy leagues. And when I didn’t get in, I was… just broken.” — Student
Then, I got an overview of rich pictures which helped me map out the reasoning about and the various competing stakeholders of my business. Here are the sketches I made below:
Using the rich picture + the initial insights I got from the documentary, I started making out some sample interview questionnaires to ask:
General Questions about College Application
- How did you apply to college?
- Who came up with the idea of going to college? (ie: myself, family, school counselor, or a combination of factors)
- What activities have you picked up in relation to applying to college?
- Have you dropped any activities for those same reasons? (ie: volunteering, new sports, Ap classes)
Questions about College Essay Writing
- Is there anything about the college app process that you’re struggling with? How does that make you feel?
- Typically students get various advice to help them stand out. Have you brainstormed anything that makes you stand out?
- Was there a time when you felt like you had to second guess what you wrote in your essay? If so, could you elaborate?
- Did you go through the college application process by yourself? Who helped you in the process?
Finally, I revised these interview questionnaires and created two Google survey forms — one for college-bound students and another one for current and recent college graduates — right on time for the outreach the following week!
Week 3&4: Creating user questions, administering interviews, and collecting feedback
With the interview questions ready, I did outreach to get participants through the “Out in Tech” Slack channel — voluntary response and purposive sampling — and those within my personal network — convenience sampling. Here is the actual message I posted below:
In total, I got 5 participants to schedule a video call interview with me. I used Otter.ai (audio transcription tool) to review the interviews and summarized recurring patterns into 3 key learnings, with some ideas to consider:
- College is a family affair for 1st gen immigrant students, but the family is not in a position to provide practical or affordable help
Ideas to consider:
- Collecting scholarships that are geared towards 1st generation immigrant students
- Offering YouMap coaching for family members as well
- Involving family members in the kick-off coaching session
2. students don’t even consider college, because their family cannot afford to pay for a college education. This also implies that parents cannot afford to pay for private college counselors like SRJ
Ideas to Consider:
- Offering a pay-as-you-go payment model or a 100% satisfaction guaranteed payment model
- Improve SRJ messaging to focus on connecting story discovery to financial aid opportunities and need-blind admissions
3. Students glamorize their admission story, given an imagined set of admission criteria, instead of focusing on their authentic story
Ideas to Consider:
- Providing supportive evidence for the value of authenticity from admissions counselors, e.g. quotes about inauthentic applications
- Consider providing evidence for study/life balance with students who went through the process
Now that I had these findings, I was ready to practice talking about my experience and learning through a mock interview for UXR roles.
Week 5&6: Practicing mock interviews for UX Research roles and resume writing
For week 5, we shifted gears to focus on core skills development. So, I got to do a UX Research mock interview with my mentor, where I demonstrated the learning and research methods I used so far: critical user journey, usability, external validity, population sampling, and qualitative research methods.
I also brought up my previous research experience in academia, having conducted ethnographic field research abroad [link], to support my abilities to succeed in UX Research.
As a result, I used those insights to make a tailored resume for UX Research!
The following week 6, I decided to offer my mentor a sample YouMap debrief (the same tool I implement within the story lab experience). Through the process, I got to lean-test my coaching approach, affirm my mentor on his strengths, values, skills, and interests, and get his buy-in for Silk Road Journey as a business.
Week 7&8: Creating user personas, competitive analysis, and finally pitching!
The last two weeks were all about creating a user persona and finalizing my pitch deck.
First, I used the interview key learnings to come up with a gender-neutral user persona named Alex:
- Pronouns: they/them
- Description: 2nd generation immigrant, bilingual, and a rising junior at Public High School
- Pain Points: a) Motivated to go to college but is concerned with money to pay for college, let alone private college counseling; b) Wants to share their unique story but gets self-conscious about how others will perceive their story; c) Seeking personalized advice and can’t get the one-on-one attention from school counselor (1:200+ counselor to student ratio).
After coming up with the persona, I made a sample competitive analysis to highlight what makes Silk Road Journey unique and add it to my pitch deck. Here is what I came up with:
Then, with the user person and competitive analysis chart, I finalized my pitch deck and presented it to the Out in Tech community during the virtual graduation. Check out the video of my pitch below!
What I learned so far…
As an entrepreneur:
At the beginning of this project, my goal was to build a persuasive pitch deck to both showcase my business idea and get buy-ins from stakeholders — students, partners, and potential investors. Then, I went beyond that and uncovered a new insight: that affording college is a major, if not the main, pain point for students, which (ironically) presents another barrier of entry for economic mobility.
From a business standpoint, I now had to prioritize scholarships — whether by partnering up with schools, funders, and grantmakers to make my services affordable to students — or at least explore the possibility of creating a tech aspect of Silk Road Journey that allows students to have a self-guided coaching experience!
As a researcher:
On the UX Research front, I learned to prioritize open-ended questions, because they allow participants to give free-form answers, over closed-ended, “yes” or “no” questions, which are better geared for quantitative analysis.
I also learned the importance of framing interview questions on past actions and experiences, asking specific questions (ie: Tell me about last time when…Tell me more about that…), and remaining open-minded to the participants’ expertise or even talking to strangers!
As a bonus:
I got a mini intro to Augmented Reality (AR) & Virtual Reality (VR) from my mentor, who was more than thrilled to enlighten me on the subject. At that point, it got me thinking…Could AR or VR provide a tech solution to Silk Road Journey’s story lab experience…?
In addition to these lessons, I also walked away with the self-assurance that my quirks and resourcefulness bring added value to the field of UX Research!
Being a Third Culture Kid who grew up dance-battling in the streets of Cote d’Ivoire, reading manga and science fiction novels in the US, and frying Ivorian sweet potatoes in China with my host mom, I’m more than equipped to make sense of the complexities of cultural nuances.
My cross-cultural background then becomes applicable to UX Research when it comes to the ethical usage of technology and placing people’s (users) experiences front and center.
I see myself contributing to the field not only as a thought partner to a UX mentor but also by identifying the intangible links among us, advocating for overlooked populations in research practices, and paving the way for technology that respects our time and attention.
And, of course, I also know I don’t have all the answers as to how to reach that goal. But, one thing I know for sure is that together, complete. I couldn’t have pulled this project off without the appropriate cultural counterpart, which is why, I was very intentional and adamant in asking Out in Tech for a UX Researcher who was also of Asian-descent — in this case, Noel, who is Japanese-Hungarian; our pairing helped foster a stronger affinity between the groups I wanted to bring closer together — Asian and African Diaspora— and even helped reduce my own biases and assumptions within the communities that I wish to serve.
I also made sure to leverage tools like Otter.ai to help me extract accurate quotes from participants and take initiative to watch the College Admission Scandal documentary to derive secondary insights— Hence, the type of multidimensional thinking I want to bring to UX Research, the workforce, and the world at large.
That said, BIG shout-outs to…
- My mentor, Noel Konogai, for affirming and challenging me throughout this process!
- The Out in Tech team for providing such a wonderful program and dynamic learning opportunity!
- And ALL five of the participants who graciously volunteered their time and provided me with their unique perspectives!
So, now what?
- I completed a full end-to-end product development case study. Check!
- I unlocked new insights by conducting interviews and market research. Check!
- I built a case study + a pitch deck that I plan to use for the remainder of my professional career! Check!
And I am only getting started!
The next phase for me is embarking on the Essentials Fellowship, which will take my Silk Road Journey from the idea (or concept) stage to a small-scale pop-up experience for the student population that I want to work with. Between pitching and testing sessions, I’ll be reviewing my portfolio @ Discover Praxis to fill in the gaps between my coaching skills and UX Research to value-signal my capabilities!
If you enjoyed reading about UX Research strategies, reach out, and I’d love to work with you!