At the beginning of 2016 I began to work with the team at Owen Software while they began a new venture. Though earlier versions of their Pathevo platform were enterprise-targeted and for the college student, a closer look led them to find that to properly address the problem a different approach would be key. And so, a consumer-facing suite of apps for high school students began to be planned.
Many competitors exist in this space, providing different services to varying degrees. The goal of Prep is to offer all of these main features as well as other "nice to haves" to piece together the bridge from high school to a well-funded and confident college career. Namely, assessments to assist the student in understanding themselves and finding their best path, access to experienced advisors, and an extensive search database of colleges, majors, occupations, and scholarships (including detailed content for each category).
Other supportive features such as planning guides, task reminders, and visualization tools are also seen as important in building a complete college preparation platform. In these early stages our main goal has been to shoot as close to the target as possible, while the company still tries to understand where its target specifically stands. Several rounds of user research and testing have helped to refine that positioning, but much more work still remains. As we identify needed components our goal has always been to keep our features connected throughout the product as they solidify and are able to mature.
This app is an unique space where the end goal in these early stages is assumed to always be enrollment in college. However, the user may enter the application at any of several significant stages. This could be a high school freshman with a nebulous idea of what their job would be, but no idea how to move in that direction. Or, it could be a student of older age that is beginning to feel pressure on choosing the right college and even more stress from how to pay for it.
The homepage must provide an overview of relevant content and helpful tools in order to engage all users along this gradient—many of whom are very likely to be new to this process and much of the accompanying terminology. With the limits of time and engineering, we attempted to find the best balance of common features and some rudimentary logic to serve these purposes.
Quick, easy comparison between school data is a major aid during the decision-making process. Of the few competitors that offer a way to look at School 'A' vs. School 'B', only a small amount of basic information is typically offered. From speaking with students we found it important to include a way to always see the answer to "what makes this school different?", no matter what data is important to that student. This begins with the usual—tuition, demographics, chance of acceptance—but will also grow to include more unique attributes—sports, housing, and many more.
One way Pathevo needed to differentiate itself was through the ability to answer the types of questions students have like "By going to this school, where is that going to lead me?" or "I know what I want to do after college, but not what to major in to get there or what schools have that major." Relate was created to answer these types of questions. With any starting point—school, major, or occupation—a student can work forward or backwards to see all possible connections to other "neighboring" categories.
Earlier designers attempted to show these relationships in a rigid format that never had a enough space and escalated confusion. Certain combinations broke the connection of the categories, defeating the prime goal.
From these early attempts, many of the challenges made themselves apparent. Even if someone began to understand how to use the tool, it was a slow and painful process to explore multiple future pathways. For this reason, I suggested the potential of a more visual and simpler presentation. Though there would be some limits, the exchange for a clear focus on the most important content would more than make up for it.
The updated feature was quickly prototyped and still remains very much in the "beta" stage, with many clear improvements possible and requested by student users. Unfortunately, this too awaits a clearing in engineering time to execute.