Cross is a product management project that helps incoming college students quickly get familiar with the new environment and meet new friends. For this project, I discovered that for incoming college students, they want to get well prepared before entering a new school life, but there are obstacles that Cross as a solution tries to solve. I participated the UI/UX design and the go-to-market plan of this product. I also made an animated high-fidelity prototype for several key interactions in 8 hours including creating the visual style, drawing my own colored icon sets, and completing the animation.
During both undergraduate and graduate studies, I was curious that why international and native student groups rarely mingle with each other, unless it was for academic purposes. I asked both local and international friends to find out that intentionally, they were willing to get to know each other and make friends from various cultural backgrounds, but there were challenges needed to be examined. First, there were intimidating linguistic, cultural, and social difficulties that prevent student groups from communicating with each other; second, it was naturally difficult for an individual to step out his/her comfort zone; third, both student groups might have insufficient common knowledge or areas of interest to support their conversation.
At the moment when I was looking into these challenges found, I personally received many messages from incoming Cornell students in LinkedIn asking me tons of questions such as "how is the campus", "how are the dining halls", "what are your course suggestions", etc. I noticed that behind these questions, incoming students faced similar challenges that mentioned above. It was all about getting familiar with a new thing (either cultural backgrounds or an environment) quickly, and establish new additional common sense.
Regarding to my discovery, I interviewed 10 Cornell students ranging from sophomore to Ph.D. I asked them that "At the time when you accepted the offer from Cornell, did you have any problems regarding to your new school life?" Almost all answers mentioned about getting familiar with the new environment. Although there a lot of information they could look into but it was still difficult because they had to filter out unreliable resources themselves.
Incoming college students want to quickly get familiar with the new environment, and make new friends to get well-prepared to their new school life, but they cannot do that well because
1. It is time-consuming to collect sufficient environment information and justify if it is trustworthy;
2. It is intimidating to talk to someone who share a different cultural, linguistic, and social differences from themselves.
• Whether they could know more about the new living environment helped a lot to adapt new school life.
• They used facebook groups and other social platforms to rent houses or meet new friend, but some connections were lost when people ended up accepting another offer.
• A few of them actively mingle with students from different cultural backgrounds, while more thought it could be interesting but were too intimidated to try.
From the target users, we created our paper prototype (not shown). And we tested it on 3 students and created the customer journey map as a representation of the user experience. We discovered that meeting new friends and maintaining the healthy relationship was another important point of the user experience. Keeping this in mind, we started to discuss the product's marketing structure.
First, we defined our main KPIs based on the natural traits of Cross as a digital mobile application product. From the perspective of our customers, we cared about two things the most - our customer engagement and customer satisfaction. For existing customers, what was their daily/monthly/annual engagement with the application? How could we attract more potential users? How would they rate the features of our product was also essential. Then how should we collect user feedback so it was efficient?
Starting from these major concerns, we included:
• Daily/Monthly active user ratio
• Average session duration
• Net promoter score
• Customer retention rate
As for the product to launch in the market (or we pretended it was going to launch), we also defined our business metrics. With business perspective, we cared most about what our Retention on Investment was. As we architected our business case to kick off our product efforts, we needed to be able to defend the ROI for devoting precious resources.
Regarding to our business concerns, we included:
• Customer acquisition cost
• Retention on investment
PAM - Potential Available Market
TAM - Total Addressable/Available Market
SAM - Serviceable Available Market
SOM - Serviceable and obtainable market
Users - Market relationship graph
To successfully address the problem and achieve our vision, we adapted the agile methodology, lean startup methodology, and design thinking as the product strategy.
The agile methodology was a suitable approach because the potential solution could contain several sub-functions to help reduce language barriers, learn more about cultural differences, or match students with similar interests and goals. Using agile methodology allowed us to craft each part of the product more rapidly and conduct usability tests for quick user feedback so that we could fix potential issues and carry what we learnt towards the next sprint, considering the short amount of time we had within a semester.
The lean startup methodology was also a good fit because our product was driven by the problems and needs we discovered from the Cornell community, but at the same time, the product also solved problems for other colleges or communities. Therefore, it was valuable for us to test it on the market. Considering the small team size we had, we tried to eliminate any time and productivity waste during the entire product life cycle.
We wanted to use design thinking to focus on human-centered design and solve a complex problem. We wanted to understand the core human need of why such communication was important. By doing so, we hoped to create a product that was valuable.
As for customer risks, because building connections between students was essentially personal and different students faced different barriers, it could be hard to solve each individual’s problems using one solution. Once a customer found our product ineffective or could not fulfill his/her needs, he or she would stop using our product. Also, if a customer successfully built a connection with students from another group, he or she might not continue to use our product because it already provided sufficient knowledge or level of comfort for this customer to continue making friends, which would not be a bad outcome.
For business risks, we were not sure how the product could make a profit at this stage. Attracting customers to use our solution was another significant problem. Specifically, we were concerned about where and how we should approach our potential customers for onboarding. Not only did we need to create an attractive solution, but there must also be a technical support infrastructure as they were crucial for on-boarding and keeping our customers happy. If the user found it hard to use or in some way counter-intuitive, they might lose incentives within a short period of time.
In terms of feasibility risks, the first concern was the scope of the project. Since our product would perform as an auxiliary platform, we had to consider what kind of platform we should develop. There were several potential directions that we could choose. We could either develop a mobile APP or a website because people were familiar with social media communication methods. However, a physical product or a service , although sounded more novel, was harder to develop with respect to either the scope of the course or the technical knowledge and capability of our team members. Thus, we finally went with building a mobile APP.
We made a complete PRD, which included our product specifics, customer and business goals, personas, user stories, main features, interaction design plans, launch criteria, and the project scope. If you are interested, you can find it below.
The goal of the design was to provide a solution to an easy, private, and trustworthy product so that incoming students could get sufficient information with minimized effort without worring about the source of the information, and at meantime, it was not intimidating talking to students that you are unfamiliar with. Let's dive into the design features to reveal how our design targeted these aspects.
In order to verify the authenticity of the information, we looked into the information provider. It was hard for a social platform to verify its information posted. Even famous companies such as Facebook and Twitter could not do this well. However, our target users were different from those big companies. Thus, it was feasible and reasonable to maximize the authenticity of the information from its source - the provider. Cross asked colleges to collaborate with us so that every student's identity was proven by his/her university. The way to achieve this was to only allow students to join Cross by their university emails and passwords.
Login with school email & password
If the user was the first time user, then he/she would need to sign in with his/her school email and password. In order to quickly on board the user, we created the onboarding flow.
In order to minimize the mental pressure of talking to someone the user did not know, or did not want other students to judge him/her by the appearance, skin color, or even legal name, we introduced Cross' Anonymous Name Assignment mechanism. It meant that on Cross, the user's real name was initially hidden from other users. We would assign the user with a random animal's name, displaying in other user's perspective as "Anonymous [Animal name]". It probably reminded you of Google docs' editing display. The difference was that Google used it for unsigned users, we used it to diminish our users' contextual concerns. Users did not need to worry about the unique animal names, there were plenty of them.
Of course, one could choose to reveal his/her real name after mutually adding friends with other users.
Discover anonymous friends and school events
Cross included four main functionalities. The first was a Discovery screen where users could see other students' posts, recommended users, popular events, and daily quizzes. Cross learnt the user's preference and supported manual filtering by using tags at the top of the screen. By clicking the dots button beside the profile picture in a post, users could add others.
After adding friends, the posts from the friends would also appear in My Wall. Users could choose to only view My Wall after using the app for a period of time when he/she decided to stop adding new connections.
Users can also message friends. The more they talked and interacted, more badges would appear below the friends' profile picture. Users could also see the match-interest-percentage on another user's profile. In Profile and Message, we added a bit gamification to further promote our customers to use Cross.
Animated user flow (left to right)
User flow of onboarding and exploring posts
This project was a challenge for me because it started within a product management perspective. We needed to first decide our work style, then define our business goals and metrics, launch plan, and release tracking methods. I have never experienced this product cycle before, thus I learned a lot of how to launch a product and manage its life cycle. I also learned what a product manager would do in a team.
I practiced a lot on visual design, including drawing the introductory illustrations on the first page (except for people illustrations), drawing a set of 9 colored icons (on the onboarding page), designing a set of plugins (buttons, tags, and cards), and creating the animated prototype.
However, because this project was heavily on product management side, there was not enough interactions designed and evaluated. Thus, in the future, I would like to further complete the high-fidelity design and do another round of user testing to polish my final design. I was also curious that how people would think about the anonymous mechanism. During the current interviews with 3 students, they were interested in this idea. However, I would like to obtain more opinions in a larger testing scenario.
Thank you for reading! Special thanks to Suzanne Lee, Jiarui Hu, James Yang, and Owen Hu!