Deep Dive 2: Taking the Gloss Out of Admissions

In IDP 316 - Portfolio by Zoe Zandbergen

Deep Dive #2 put our team through its paces, but we undeniably learned more about Design Thinking, Smith, and ourselves along the way.

Our site of power was first the Admissions office, then its contents: Smith’s marketing materials. Our marketing is the face of the college, presenting what Smith wants itself to be. Interviewing a gaggle of tour guides, we noticed an initial tension. Prospective students want to know the “real Smith,” but the experience in the admissions office is carefully curated. Intrigued, we dove into research.

"Admissions card" from 1927.

“Admissions card” and associated paperwork from 1927.

We visited the archives and found an “admissions card” from the 1920’s, pamphlets from diversity initiatives of the 1970’s, diagrams of alumni donations from the 2000’s, and what we set out to look at: admissions brochures!

After getting a initial overview of past trends, we met with the Head of Marketing at Smith, John Eue. The process of shaping Smith’s image turned out to involve a delicate balancing act between our history and our modern-day presence and influence.

Deb Shaver, Dean of Admissions and at the time of our research a very busy woman, graciously spoke with us about the current admissions process. We learned that the admissions office is prioritizing diversity, but many high school students immediately rule out a women’s college, leaving Smith with a small pool to draw from.

We also conducted short informal interviews with both current and prospective students. Current students said that they chose Smith because it felt both comfortable and empowering. Meanwhile prospies, especially those who did not get a chance to visit Smith before applying, were concerned about their limited knowledge of what life at Smith would actually be like. After reviewing official Smith materials, we thought they weren’t as authentic as the prospective students seemed to want.

At this point in the process, we decided to explore the tension that Mr. Eue raised: the balance between Smith’s history and its modern image. With this focus, we began to ideate, unaware of our gradual drift away from the prompt. We settled on a POV statement which focused on  current Smithies as the user: Current students are unaware of of Smith’s historical context and therefore don’t consider their place in directing Smith’s future.

Terrible Ideas document.

Terrible Ideas document.

We made a list of 50 “bad ideas” for prototypes on a shared Google Doc. While we did have some interesting and feasible ideas, most of them became iterations of each other rather than thinking more broadly.  

Combining several ideas from this document, we created our first prototype, an interactive timeline. For this timeline, we used facts sourced from Smithipedia and alumni interviews. The timeline was meant to provide current Smithies with unknown details of the college’s past, then invite them to imagine its future. Users were encouraged to continue the timeline via post-it note.

Timeline of little-known Smith Facts.

However, this timeline just wasn’t an experience. Users said it didn’t engage anybody and also said (as you may be thinking now!) the presentation of information was overwhelming. We moved back to reinvestigate where we started. Thinking back to the tour guides and our original site of power, we found a new Point of View:  Prospective students want a way to see an authentic view of the Smith experience instead of one highly curated by college relations.
For our next prototype, we looked into creating an admissions pamphlet whose content would come from current Smithies, taking some of the glossiness out of the admissions office. This pamphlet would be dynamic, updated frequently at school events where Smithies could contribute their own stories, advice, and ideas for prospies. This crowdsourced pamphlet would also be a physical souvenir, which Dean Shaver mentioned prospective students enjoy. The admissions office was interested in the idea, but our time crunch meant that we couldn’t interview them further!

Interactive pamphlet stationInteractive pamphlet station

We created interactive mock-up pamphlets for people to add their own information to during the Design Thinking open house. We noticed that people enjoyed contributing, but the experience still wasn’t there. We realized we didn’t just need to revise the amount of text, but the user’s physical interaction with the prototype.

Yi came up with the idea of a flipcard display (year on one side, event on the other), which means our users have to manually turn around the card to know more about Smith history. This way, we could avoid making our users feel overwhelmed and provide them more initiative in interacting with our prototype.

Alumna candy

Alumna candy

Our users also said: Smith was not fully utilizing its tremendous alumnae resources. We prototyped another solution, again playing on unexpected information presentation: candy with alumna information in the wrapper. In this way, prospective students sitting in the lounge could enjoy Smith-exclusive candy and know the breadth and depth of Smith’s alumnae network. The candy-information concept could be modified to include more types of Smith information.

The design process wasn’t painless for us. Left to our own devices at the start of the project, we spent a while on information-gathering and ideation. We didn’t engage in as much direct user empathy as we could have, partially due to the evasiveness of one of our user groups, prospective students. We also occasionally wandered away from the prompt, and all this pondering took time away from prototyping and testing that would have helped with a more robust product.

But after a slow start and some false tries, we think we pulled a pretty impressive turnaround.

P.S. In the course of the project post-mortem, we also created another product!

Throughout our project, our group members often didn’t realize differences in our approaches to problems. For example, Yi would be polite about ideas she didn’t like in order to help the group move along, but Zoe would offer critique assuming the other team members could easily disregard it. We ended up learning a lot about expressing and revising ideas and giving and taking feedback over the course of the project.

By the end of the project, we had pulled together across our unconscious communication gaps, but we thought: how could we better and earlier understand our members’ different approaches?

Quantifiable differences in communication

Quantifiable differences in communication

We created a way to evaluate work styles and get an immediate first impression of group dynamics. The rubric we found could help clarify contrasts in approach and communication that took us some time to notice.

The best teamwork comes from realizing our differences and working out how best to use them, and we don’t always know what our differences will turn out to be. Creating some structure in assessing them could help others in the future, and as we continue to new groups we will keep what we’ve learned in mind.