re-imagining a platform to foster community and belonging



Design partner (Research, Interview, Analysis, Wire-framing, Prototyping), Primary Client Contact, Presenter


Build total redesign concept prototypes that facilitate development of community and belonging for first generation college students, "Chicago Scholars", to connect with their mentors and each other.


First generation college students of color often feel isolated or lack resources while navigating higher education, especially in predominantly white higher education spaces. The mentors of Chicago Scholars provide guidance and resources, helping students through obstacles at their schools, internships, and places of work. The client, Chicago Scholars administration, had a vision for an online space for mentor-scholar interactions to create connection, a space to facilitate feelings of community and belonging for their scholars. 

The client desired to have the following questions answered in our creation process:

Q. What would a social platform that was created by and for young people of diverse backgrounds look like?

Q. How do we create a platform that encourages engagement and bonds users?

We needed to investigate what was both practical and of interest to busy students and mentors, while giving life to the client’s vision.

Stakeholder Needs

We worked to better understand the organizational and growth model of Chicago Scholars. We established our stakeholders - Primary: HS, College, and Early Career. In analysis of development priorities, we learned that "success" of nonprofit was measured by student employment outcome and 4-year program completion. Method for success was mentor connection and student engagement with provided resources for internships, job placement, and tutoring.

Through domain and competitor research, we studied features, heuristics evaluations, and reviews of other learner based platforms to understand the market for our stakeholder needs.  

Early on, we chose to design for mobile app based on initial interviews with primary stakeholders.

Modeling Users

We explored student backgrounds and contexts in education.Through domain and competitor research, and support from SMEs, we built a user interview script to learn from students and mentors how they connected with each other and their peers, how they how they preferred to engage socially, how they transferred resources, how they experienced and defined abstract concepts such as belonging, community, trust and identity.
Students define community and belonging
● Students feel they are a member of a team
● Students feel safe to ask questions
● Students celebrate success
● Students engage with mentors and peers when anxious/unsure

User Advocacy

Interview data revealed that regardless of socioeconomic background, race, or immigration status, scholars and mentors were already creating spaces of belonging and safety amongst each other with a range of social media and communication; they already had friend groups, spaces of interaction, relationships with each other, team celebrations, preferred ways of messaging through text and their favorite social media apps.

So, that begged the questions, what would the role of this app actually be?

As we dove deeper into student and mentor interviews and usability testing for wireframes, it became evident that the client vision was disconnected from student and mentor need. Being a part of the Chicago Scholars program, students already felt a connection and bond with their peers and mentors, highly motivated people-of-color who were first generation college students, on this journey together. While the client expressed an interest in creating belonging with more diverse looking emojis and gamified student friendly features and celebration posts, it became evident that access to resources would actually increase traffic on the Chicago Scholars app.

"100% of students and mentors indicate a need to reliably solve technical problems, share inside knowledge, ask questions about navigating school, internship, and work experiences, and they need it quickly."

True relationships and belonging cannot be manufactured on an app, but providing resources for motivated students to be successful and stable in their lives could create a sense of security in mentor-student and student-student interactions in which relationships naturally occur.

Narrowing the Scope

User investigation (interviews, user flow testing, domain research) shaped the true high value opportunities with this project. Three dominant design concepts emerged:

Academic and Career Mentorship

Scholars need to receive credible responses from reliable advisors/mentors to navigate academia and the job market with greater confidence.

Judgment-Free Community

Scholars need to feel sage and comfortable asking questions to peers and mentors in a judgement-free environment.

Quick Connections

Scholars need to communicate easily and quickly so they can build relationships with their peers, mentors, and advisors and get the resources they need to move forward.

Evolution of Drafts

Prototype Highlights

We built prototype features that allow mentors to meet students where they were at, no matter the level of their bond or relationship, and create a place where students ask their difficult questions when they feel nervous, stuck, or frustrated on-the-go. See some highlighted fetures in prototypes below.

👁 CUSTOMIZATION | Filter features also allow students to find peers and mentors that they are interested in building relationships with. Customizable profiles allowed students and mentors to express their interests, backgrounds, and school experience, and filters allowed them find others with commonalities.

home page
hamburger menu
filter options

🤝 RELIABILITY | Students match with expert, verified mentor based on their area of need, i.e. resume writing, FAFSA, enrollment, LSAT, scholarships applications, schools, etc., areas identified by mentors historical data collection. Scholar view and mentor view of scholar profiles differ for connection needs and professionalism.

mentor profile
scholar profile: Scholar view
scholar profile: mentor view

👆 CONVENIENCE | Workshops and small groups can be quickly requested and hosted. Learning new skills and information with increased convenience. Documents and folders are easily shared and reviewed (Google), as an overwhelming percentage of student identified not knowing how to fill our forms, create resumes, study guides etc as a major obstacle. Additionally, jumping between app to email to docs was not preferable.

Small group
small grout chat
small group shared material

❤️ FAMILIARITY | Heuristics mimic favorite social media apps of preferred communication for students (Instagram, the heaviest hitter).

handoffs & Results

My team's work on the project concluded when we handed off our prototypes to the implementation team. If I could have changed this process, I would have requested that the implementation team be available for our research presentations to the Chicago Scholars admin throughout the process. This would have solved problems we encountered with implementation regarding user flow.

We haven't been able to see long term data of the new features yet for students and mentors. As my role in this project has concluded, I am interested to learn the outcome of the increased interaction on the app and ultimate feedback from the mentors and scholars. I hope to add here these analytics and anecdotal responses once implementation is complete.

business & user goals

In the initial phases of research, clients were surprised: they expected to be presented with ideas of a gamified social media platform tailored to celebrating diversity and achievement. I was able to create buy-in by presenting the research and the voices of their target users to demonstrate how prioritizing the convenience of the exchange of resources between scholar and mentor would increase engagement on the app because it offered something that no other space could.

A discussion that came up often with the client? Vulnerability can’t be manufactured. Community and belonging are very specific to each person, and we learned that what elicits those feelings often changes rapidly during young adult developmental years. But practical help always allows students to reach their goals and gain access to new spaces. Reliable and safe connection to mentors and each other facilitates trust during those confusing or challenging moments in higher education. Showing those voices and quantitative interview data throughout the process allowed me create client buy-in.