Imagine this student scenario:
It is a couple of days away from Bianca’s class registration time and she is anxious about the classes she needs. Logging into her My Fresno State portal, she noticed that she had a hold on her account for an unpaid bill. She completely forgot about an outstanding charge a few weeks ago and just received money from her grandmother to pay it off. Looking at her account, she sees even more charges with future deadlines but does not have sufficient funds to pay them in full now. She is hoping that she can pay just the outstanding bill, but it is confusing to only pay for that charge. A classmate suggested that she visit Student Accounts or the Bursar to talk to someone in person, but the thought of scheduling an appointment terrifies Bianca. This is a time sensitive matter and Bianca feels stuck that she cannot resolve this financial problem on her own online.
Laura’s class registration time is at 9am on a Wednesday, exactly when she is supposed to start a shift at her part-time job. Her supervisor is understanding about her taking the first five minutes to quickly sign up. She brought her laptop to the break room since it’s hard to register on her phone alone. She clicks through the process to add one class at a time, but to her dismay, the main class she needs is already full. She is flustered looking for other comparable classes to fill her schedule, but she needs to clock in and begin her shift. She will need to spend her on-campus day visiting her academic advisor and petition the classes.
These hypothetical students and scenarios can be seen on any campus across the country. Technology and the college student experience are so deeply intertwined from registering online for classes, submitting class assignments, balancing student accounts, and even connecting with clubs and student organizations. Yet despite nearly all aspects of student life having an online/digital component, students report clunky processes and convoluted systems in completing the most standard tasks. With that context, Information Technology Services at Fresno State engaged Cal State Innovate of the Chancellor’s Office to conduct user research on the student digital experience in order to more clearly define opportunities and challenges to subsequently inform the design of a mobile-first portal to remedy some of the pain points. Although Technology Services had a solution in mind, they sought out research to better understand the users’ wants and needs before investing time and money on a pre-formed solution.
To gather as much background and context as possible, Cal State Innovate developed the following research questions to guide this research endeavor:
- How do digital tools and technology impact the Fresno State student experience?
- What campus-related apps and websites do students most commonly use?
- What are the experiences students have on websites and applications to complete common, required tasks (e.g., course registration)?
- What are the pain points students commonly encounter while navigating digital platforms?
The research questions led to Cal State Innovate creating a three-pronged data collection approach to gain a student-centered perspective on the issues.
Online Qualtrics Survey
Cal State Innovate designed a survey that was delivered to a sample of 5,000 students identified by Fresno State’s Office of Institutional Effectiveness. A total of 315 students completed the survey between November 2022-January 2023, which coincided conveniently with students’ class registration times for spring semester. With digital experiences fresh on their minds, students gave valuable responses to satisfaction questions, Likert scales, as well as open-ended response questions.
Key insights revealed the most popular digital devices Fresno State students use on a regular basis, digital services and apps most useful for coursework and student life, and methods of campus communication.
To complement the data collected from the survey, Cal State Innovate conducted on-campus focus groups with 38 students in four sessions in January of 2023. Recruitment led by DXI included tabling on-campus, social media, faculty/staff referrals, and peer invitations from DXI interns.
From the focus group recordings, Cal State Innovate developed a system to code responses and uncovered topic trends. Many themes emerged from the conversations, but four main themes surfaced as most relevant:
- Streamlined/unified communication
- Timeliness of information
- Need for instant answers & support
- Navigation & SEO
From prompts during focus groups, participants also articulated a “wish list” of improvements to enhance their student experience. That list included:
- Better integrations in My Fresno State (student online portal)
- Better accessibility and usability
- Better mobile experiences
Facilitated User Observations (Workflows)
To get further insight into student processes and workflows, the team conducted user observations to get a glimpse into the steps students follow to complete common tasks.
Utilizing the DXI intern team as participants, Cal State Innovate coached two UX interns who led peer observations and developed three separate UX visualizations to chart students’ experiences: empathy maps, journey maps, and flowcharts. Empathy maps consisted of simple grids documenting what users were thinking, feeling, saying, and doing while performing tasks. The journey maps served as visual representations of the path users take to complete a task while highlighting key emotions, pleasure points, and pain points. Flowcharts provided visual outlines of what users see, do, and experience during a specific process while navigating tasks using coded symbols.
Observing participants navigate common tasks like checking grades, clearing holds, signing up for academic advising illuminated how many opportunities for missteps exist- even for seasoned upperclassmen. Comparing all three user journeys in signing up for an academic advising appointment, the commonality of being confused and unsure of navigation was consistent. In their hesitation, one student expressed “there’s no one right process” to make an appointment.
From the months of research and data gathering, Cal State Innovate uncovered more problem areas and roadblocks that likely fall out of the initial scope of the project. For example, students provided ample feedback regarding inter-university communication and frustrations over needing multi-factor authentication. But despite all the varied (and at times contradictory) feedback and student recommendations, it was a reminder to Cal State Innovate and Technology Services to focus on a well-defined project scope and a minimum viable product to have a strong impact. It would be extremely unlikely that a first iteration of a solution would solve a “wicked problem” such as a complicated student digital experience. Technology Services is reaffirmed and hopeful to use the findings compiled by Cal State Innovate to ideate a prototype of a mobile-first student portal as a proof of concept. User testing and iteration before an official launch can help the development team further hone in on students’ wants and needs and having open channels for feedback can drive data-driven updates and iterations.