The COVID-19 pandemic propelled distributed work to the mainstream seemingly overnight. Jumpstart, a networking platform, announced their #WorkTogether Fellowship as a call to action:
Thousands of students have their internships, campus events and career fairs cancelled — what product would you create to help students connect with companies during these tough times?
In our quest to help students overcome hurdles due to the complete lack of face-to-face interaction, we took on the challenge and built the VirtuallyBetter prototype over the course of 8 weeks. VirtuallyBetter emerged as one of the three winners of Jumpstart #WorkTogether Fellowship. Our team built VirtuallyBetter as a startup project from design to development to production.
View a short demo of VirtuallyBetter:
From the prompt, I broke down the 3 key objectives of what the solution should meet:
1. Allow mentor and mentee to discover each other
2. Facilitate matching and create opportunities for mentor-mentee to connect
3. Help potential student mentors to discover their mentoring abilities and encourage them to be peer mentors
These 3 key objectives will subsequently help achieve the overarching objective:
Strengthening school community through student mentoring
Understanding the context
Although I have heard of mentoring programs and know students who have mentors, but I have not personally get acquainted with mentorship in school. I did some research online and explored other mentoring app or programs and started gathering some initial thoughts. Many knows and feels that mentoring is impactful and helpful to someone, but why is it not as prevalent as it should be? Why do mentoring programs have huge dropoff and disengagement rates?
I wanted to learn more about the wider context, what motivates mentors and mentees, what are the current channels, and what struggles are they currently facing now.
I wanted understand the underlying motivations, factors and the root cause(s) of why the current ecosystem does not meet the needs of students completely. I then researched and explored the following key questions:
What makes a good mentor-mentee fit?
How do mentors and mentees currently discover each other?
What do mentees need? What do they look out for?
Why do students who wants a mentor did not successfully find a mentors?
What motivates a student to be a mentor and are they looking for?
Why do experienced students not want/is not a mentor?
This was also what sparked my initial design question:
How can we encourage and allow mentors & mentees to discover & connect with each other?
Currently, peer mentoring is very much structured and embedded in the school’s ecosystem. What we might be used to are ‘buddy system’ or orientation facilitators, and in colleges, there are mentoring programs. I decided to talk to someone right at the heart of the ecosystem, Hafiz Kasman, a co-founder of a student-led successful mentoring program TMC to understand what sticks and what is common among successful mentor-mentee relationship. I also interviewed 5 other students to learn more about the answers to my key questions.
As the common themes emerged during my research, what stood out to me was the vastly similar expectations and struggles across all students in peer mentoring. That is not to say that students have similar mentoring needs and those needs were not met instead, student’s mentoring needs are very (very) nuanced. Current mentoring programs tries to scale mentor matching to see who matches who, sort of trying to structure mentee’s needs into boxes without giving them space to explore. Technology cannot be the focus of mentorship discovery (because there is simply no one-size-fits-all), but the community (giving mentees the right kind of communal opportunities to discover their mentors). There are some key insights that should be highlighted:
Mentoring is not a one-off ‘Hi-bye!’ interaction,
it requires high-touch in-person engagement
The problems with the current ecosystem falls into 3 main issues:
1. Low-touch: Career counsellors or peer facilitators are providing just one-off advice. The ‘relationship’ becomes transactional – engaging only if I need some answers from you. We need to limit in-app interactions and focus on encouraging in-person interactions.
2. Overly structured: Because most mentoring program stipulates what you need to do at what stages, it exudes an artificial, forceful ‘mentorship’. If the mentor/mentee fails to follow the ‘structure’ in place, it encourages disengagement.
3. Gap in helping Year 1 Freshmen and Year 2 Sophomore assimilate better: Alumni mentoring program would not be able to help them answer curriculum questions, and so their workarounds include school advisors & classmates, both of which perpetuates a one-off question & answer session.
What does that mean?
I have decided to embrace the nuances of mentoring needs by keeping mentor discovery open and versatile. The solution would not have pre-defined structure that a mentor-mentee should do, rather it should encourage and enable in-person interactions. The solution should also help freshmen & sophomores to get access to students who could mentor them on their curriculum and in-school needs.
Most successful peer mentorship typically forms when students are often in the same environment or space
This was revelation to me. It made alot of sense – same environment meant more organic opportunities for high-touch interactions. So, what else works?
1. Developing trust: Both mentors and mentees need to have trust for each other to share personal struggles, as well as for providing and accepting advices. What’s apparent across students are ‘somewhat knowing my mentors, rather than some stranger’ and ‘sharing common challenges such as women in tech’.
2. Opportunities for face-time: Current students who have mentors, often externally, commonly engage them through events and workshop.
What does that mean?
I need to design ways for students to learn more about their mentors beyond what interest them. The solution should leverage on what currently works – events, workshops, and create new opportunities to put potential mentors and mentees in the same environment.
Reframing my focus
I discovered that many students have a preconceived notion that mentors = professional, non-student individual who has probably accomplished many things in his/her life. While having these mentors may be helpful, peer mentors help us navigate through the complexities of our academic journey as a friend and as someone we look up to.
Partly due to this existing expectation of a ‘mentor’, potential student mentors shies away from mentoring others for fear of their ‘inability’. While in the previous design question, it was framed in the assumption that the role of a mentor and mentee is already recognized and form. Hence, I reiterated my design question to focus on discovery > connect > (long-term) mentorship.
Exploration & Ideation
Based on what potential users prioritize, I came up with 3 key design principles that eventually guide the rest of the process.
Ideating to solve the problem
To expand on possible ideas based on current problems and challenges, I conducted a simple How Might We exercise and eventually gave rise to my design requirements.
Keeping in mind the overarching goal:
Strengthening school community through student mentoring
The overarching goal could then be achieved by satisfying these 4 core design requirements:
Sketching & Wireframing
With the design requirements and features in mind, I started to put pen on paper and wireframed what the typical user flow would be like.
After several iterations and understanding the core user flow and features for this app, I decided to move my sketches into low-fidelity screens using Figma.
Prototype & Test
Design Exploration & Low-fidelity
From my sketches and low-fidelity screens, I came up and explored with two concepts that would satisfy my goals: Commonalities-driven Model & Community Questions-&-Answers Model. The key difference in these two concepts are on the signing up/onboarding process as well as the content that is shared on the app. I will be going into details of my design rationale.
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