December 17, 2018

How Prototyping Can Transform Student Services Faster

Managing Change

By Coby Lerner

You’ve collected a lot of student feedback on your programs – for example, orientation, housing, career services – and you know they aren’t quite meeting expectation or keeping pace with your peers. Now what? It’s tempting to want to bring really smart people together for lengthy discussions about what’s going right and what’s going wrong. It can be even more tempting to want to send out another survey. However, discussing your data will only ever get you so far, and can often lead to analysis paralysis.

What you really need is to imagine a solution, and quickly try it out with users. You will learn more from a prototype of a new program than you ever would from your 24th annual survey on new student orientation. Prototypes are short-term and low-fidelity experiments that are designed to test assumptions and better understand users, and you can launch them whenever you want. For example, a prototype could be anything from a pop-up consultation to a new event for transfer students to a new website clarifying your programs whose usage you can track and analyze.

Prototyping involves the following stages:

  1. Define the challenge. What are we solving for? From user research, problems can be identified in the form of “how might we…?” questions, and serve as a launchpad for brainstorming.
  2. Ideate. For each opportunity area, brainstorm new ways of solving the problem through services, programs, and spaces.
  3. Prioritize. Ideas can then be filtered through a prioritization process that can use a range of criteria. Consider asking yourself questions like: which solutions are most aligned with our service principles, most groundbreaking, most likely to delight the user, or easiest to implement? The top ideas for each opportunity area can then be selected to move forward.
  4. Plan. Each prototype requires a detailed plan that maps out key action steps, times, locations, measures, and resources. Don’t wait for the perfect time; figure out the closest analogous user experience and jump at it.
  5. Launch. After plans are completed and scheduled on a timeline, prototypes can be launched for user testing.
  6. Iterate. From observations and user feedback, prototypes can then be iterated on to help refine and validate hypotheses.
  7. Evaluate. Upon completion of the prototyping phase, gather all data and reflect on lessons learned to carry forward into piloting.

Let’s walk through an example of this process. First, let’s say you define your challenge as a failure to connect students to career services for in-depth guidance. You might articulate this through a “how might we…?” statement like, “How might we better connect our career services advisors to students?” Through a range of brainstorming activities you might then suggest numerous ways to close this gap, ultimately prioritizing a proposal to bring career services consultations to meet students where they are. You would then begin planning your prototype by determining where students are (perhaps, the library), when the best time to reach them is (right before on-campus recruitment begins), how you’ll advertise the service to them (through temporary signage), and where you’ll meet with them (an existing small group study space in the library).

You would then launch your prototype, collecting informal feedback and iterating on your concept by trying out different signage language or ways of advertising the service in the library. You may try moving around to different locations within the library, tracking where you have the most success. After you’ve tried out a number of scenarios, you would then step back, reflect on what you’ve learned, and determine if and how to make pop-up career services consultations permanent.

Bias Towards Action: Prototyping Tips

Prototyping requires a bias towards action, an open embrace of failure, and a people-centric mindset — it is both an art form and science. To prepare to embark on a new journey like this, we provided the following tips:

Fun-sized innovation: We’re not trying to solve every problem at once. Prototypes are rough working models for one specific idea; not precious, finalized products nor comprehensive solutions.

Fail faster to learn sooner: If you’re not failing, you’re not learning. And if you’re not learning, you aren’t getting any closer to refining your hypothesis. When we release our prototypes into the world, we have to physically and mentally let go of our pre-conceived notions.

Listen to your users: Empathy is a constant, from research to prototyping. Practice active listening when gathering feedback from users. And by listening, we mean interactive, in-person methods (e.g. short interviews, observations, etc.), not surveys. Surveys are laborious and will put you in the mindset that you’re conducting a scientific experiment, raising the stakes unnecessarily and making it more difficult to act.

Iterate, test, repeat: User feedback is only useful when we do something with it. If a user provided really insightful feedback, try a simple way of quickly iterating your prototype and testing it out again to see if there are any improvements that can be made for the next trial.

Show, don’t tell: Prototypes shouldn’t require a pitch or explanation upfront — they are designed to be experienced by the user. If your user is having a hard time understanding your prototype, pare it down and simplify.

Identify moments of delight: When observing our users interact with our prototype, we want to be on the lookout for key moments of delight, which are indicators of success to carry forward into piloting.

Whether you’re in student affairs, the library, or any other campus group, a lean approach to creating and exploring solutions will get you there faster!

Good luck with your prototyping process! Give it a try and let us know how it goes.

Special thanks to Anders Tse for contributing content for this piece.

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