Connect students who are finding friends with similar interests in smaller chat rooms of 3 to 5
This is a course group project where 5 of us took part in research, problem definition, ideation, prototyping and usability testing
1. Led the design of Personalized Tag system and UofT Events
2. Administered surveys and interviews with users
3. Produced all high-fidelity prototype screens
Figma, Balsamiq, Illustrator
The Loneliest Students Ever
Making new friends at university is hard. It becomes even harder when COVID-19 is in place. Everything moves online and students have no choice but to attend Zoom classes.
How do these lonely students find their own squad and establish deeper connections behind their screens?
The way students made friends changed drastically before and after COVID-19
Meeting people has always been challenging at the University of Toronto (UofT) where there are over 60,000 students with diverse cultural characteristics across 3 campuses.
We looked into UofT students' blog on Life@U of T Blog, Quora, Reddit before COVID-19. Students used to make friends in interactive physical environments like:
After COVID-19, students relied on online channels like Facebook, Discord, and Slack. Studies show that it was much less likely for students to become friends with their online peers without a physical classroom.
Screenshots of students' social experience before COVID-19
Our research said students couldn't find friends anymore
To understand the challenges and expectations of students in the broader peer support sphere, we conducted primary research with first-year UofT students and collected responses from:
👉 31 Surveys & 14 Semi-structured interviews
For further details, view full research report.
Survey revealed a gap between students' needs to make friends and the reality.
21 out of 31 participants indicated a strong need to build social connections in a group setting.
Only 5 out of 31 participants mentioned they are in a social meet up group now.
We investigated the reasons behind the gap by semi-structured interviews. The participants attributed the phenomenon to:
Fear of rejection
Not being able to find peers who are looking for social groups
I don't know how I can find people who want friends too. I don't feel comfortable in a large class group.
In fact, most students faced similar challenges in making friends
We gathered the key ideas from the interviews and clustered similar ideas on an affinity map to identify the recurring themes amongst users' feedback, especially on the challenges they faced in meeting people and their expectations on social groups.
Affinity Map (Click to enlarge)
💡In a nutshell, students faced these problems...
Anxiety in large groups
Students were uncomfortable with speaking up in a large class group. Most of them were worried about awkwardness and judgment.
Unable to find similar peers
Students could not find peers with similar interests, values, and personalities.
Students found it challenging to start personal topics and maintain friendships online.
With the clustered data in the affinity map, we created our persona to capture the goals of most research participants.
Introducing Ivan the International Student
First-year UofT graduate student from Mexico
Resides in Toronto
Introverted and shy
Loves playing guitar
His goals are:
Be in a squad that he enjoys hanging out with
Find friends with similar interests (aka guitar)
Build deep connection with peers
I haven't met anyone that I'd call "friend". I wish I can play guitar with someone.
Ivan, our persona
Through diving into the experiences and goals of our persona, we developed the current friend-making journey of students. Using that as a baseline, we envisioned our persona's future journey with our mobile app Ami that connects him with his peers.
Our solution will address our persona's pain points:
Uncomfortable with socializing in a big group
Unable to identify students with similar interests
Difficult to maintain a meaningful connection
(Click to enlarge)
(Click to enlarge)
After understanding the pain points and the existing journey of our persona, we brainstormed on a bunch of ideas and voted on their impacts and feasibility. We decided to focus on identifying peers with similar interests and creating shared memories in Ami.
Ideation (Click to enlarge)
Students should be able to achieve the followings with our solution:
Join smaller groups of 3-5
Most students preferred a smaller group size according to our primary research. Ami enabled students to find and join chat rooms with a few students.
Find peers with similarities
Students can identify peers with similar interests, values, and personalities.
Establish deeper connection
Students can create memorable experiences with their new friends through interactive features.
Mockups & Prototyping
To visualize our persona's journey with Ami, we sketched a low-fidelity sequential storyboard to gather feedback from users on our personalized tag systems and chat room design.
Iterations & Usability Testing
To gather users' opinions and identify usability issues, we conducted usability testing on our low-fidelity prototypes.
Participants: 3 UofT students
Methods: Task-completion & Think-aloud
Task: Figure out a way for other students to know their passion for Guitar and Harry Potter.
After soliciting the participants' feedback on the prototypes, we incorporated the changes into our Minimum Viable Product (MVP) at medium fidelity.
#1 - Redesigned the functions and UI of personalized tags
#2 - Enhanced the user flow by adding course tags and chat room preview screens
The participants proposed adding UofT-specific features to differentiate Ami from other social apps. We added course tags on top of the interest tags to help students find peers from the same classes.
The participants preferred reading the chat room description before joining one. We added room preview for users to view room descriptions and existing members.
The color palette of Ami used a mix of blue at different shades and the accent color of orange to convey a sense of comfort and vibrant energy.
The design of interactive elements and iconography were also defined to maintain consistency throughout the high-fidelity prototype.
Finding friends with similarities
Students can indicate their interests by selecting tags that described them. Ami helps them find chat rooms and peers that share similar interests.
This resonates with our primary research on how students preferred forming social meetup groups with peers who shared similarities, including interests, values, and personalities.
Smaller Chat Rooms
There are 5 spots in each Ami chat room as students prefer a smaller group size of 3 to 5. A chat will not be shown on other users' feeds if it has reached maximum capacity.
Create shared memories
Ami chat room supports interactive features like Topic Raffle and Games to help students connect and have fun moments together remotely.
Topic Raffle is a great icebreaker where students can start conversations without spending time finding a topic.
Discover fun school events
Students can view UofT events on Ami and invite their friends to attend the events together (virtually for now).
UofT Events are categorized by interest fields, like music and books, where students can easily discover events that appeal to their interest-centric chat rooms.
This was a fun and exciting project as we were solving a very real problem faced by students during remote learning. Here are some of my key takeaways:
Be conscious of the problems we are solving
It was tempting to include every suggestion from users (literally EVERY suggestion) into our product. When we did that, it was easy to lose track of the key problems that we initially focused on.
A user mentioned he felt like Ami was "tackling too many problems at a time". If we have the opportunity to work on this project again, I would narrow the scope of Ami. For example, UofT Event could have been a separate product on its own. We can then focus better on nurturing the meaningful connection between students instead of pivoting Ami into a "messaging + event" product.
UX design is not a magic potion but it helps a lot
One of the recurring themes discussed by our participants was "deeper personal connection". However, deep connection also largely depends on users' chemistry and efforts.
I believe this is a major hiccup faced by many social apps. Ami is not a magic potion that creates in-depth relationships in a split second. As UX designers, we can listen to the users, and create an engaging solution that pinpoints the contributing factor to meaningful relationships. We can then design a journey to create shared memories between users with features like games.