Non-Traditional College Advising: As Sensemaking Becomes Action Taking


The class is already halfway through our capstone projects for the AC4D graduating class of 2019. Up until quarter three the coursework has focused on versing ourselves in the methods that make for good design research, insights and empathy-building within a problem space. Then, how do we communicate the emotional truths we believe our findings support in a way that motivates action. Sensemaking never stop during the interaction design process, nor does it stop in the life of a social enterprise.

Our coursework now adds the next layer, focusing on testing design ideas and validating whether or not our solutions are actionable, impactful—solutions that humans would actually use. Through user testing and iterative repetition we continue to reflect on our research, the sense we’ve made, and the sense we’ve just proven wrong by prototyping a product or a service that users don’t yet believe in.


Our Problem space:

Our research team (Zev Powell, Adam Niederpruem, and Cristina Suazo) has focused on how college advisors can be more effective ambassadors for their non-traditional students throughout college persistence.

The research deviates from the rest of the student groups as our focus is advisor-centered rather than student-centered. We’ve come to see advisors as influencers that can help unpack the obstacles of student success. In various organizations their caseloads range anywhere between 50 to 200 students each. We believe that if we can build effective products in the advising space, we will touch the lives of countless students.

Design Research Takeaways:

– Advising isn’t getting to the students that need it.

– Advisors struggle to communicate to non-traditional students that all obstacles in their lives—little and big—are relevant to academic success.

– Advisors need to capture sustained awareness of student’s personal needs, including financial and mental health.

Ideation & Prototyping:

The last several weeks we’ve gone through a rigorous ideation process. Coming up with ideas is fun. Down-selecting is less fun. Our group experienced some personal conflict that ended up being one of the biggest learning experiences for us: Rapid ideation comes after months of tedious research. We were attached to the truth of our data and the insights and criteria we pulled from them. It felt weird to let loose and trust our instinct to reach meaningful design ideas by just blurting them out and scribbling them down.

How were we to check in with ourselves and make sure our ideas were defensible and really tackled the problems we saw in our research? We finished last week with five design ideas that we put into storyboard format. We had our doubts. Here are three of them:


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  1. Skill Stock prepares students to see their own skillsets in a new way.
  2. College Of Forking Paths is a choose-your-own-adventure exercise that helps advisors, alongside their advisees, unpack the difficult decision-making that happens during college.
  3. A mental health gauge that helps keep advisors up to date on the wellbeing of their students.

Since the end of our design research in December we had been cooped up in studio moving utterances and post-its, drawing concept maps, and getting progressively more and more worried about the direction of our project. That was until this week when we invited one of our local partners, Andrea Guengerich of Breakthrough Central Texas, for a validation test of our unique value propositions.

User Testing:


Andrea’s response was re-energizing. She got emotional just seeing our working space and the quotes on the walls, so much so that we are arranging another time for more Breakthrough staff to go through a similar tour. She echoed what AC4D emphasizes. We do what subject matter experts don’t have time to do.

During a co-creation exercise where we had her organize some of our insights she got to telling stories about her students that she mentors. We had interviewed Andrea back in November, yet this time we were getting a whole other level of empathy. The co-creation inspired us all.

“I was on a campus visit with a student and we had to go to five different offices in one day to get him the support he needed… Afterwards we went and sat down in the cafeteria to decompress and it took a whole hour. When I asked him if he was ready to start filling out his FAFSA he said, ‘you must be crazy.'”

When presenting our product demos we strategically revealed few details so that we could get her responses to the foundational purpose of the value propositions. At a high level, were they any good? We heard an astounding yes across the board.

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To our surprise Andrea is looking to find ways to demo our products with Breakthrough throughout the duration of our AC4D course. Adam and Cristina are working on prototypes to test with advisors and students. Zev is rushing to see if he can get a good-enough choose-your-own-adventure demo for Andrea to test on her upcoming campus visits with her students in Dallas.

Looking Forward: 

While we received positive feedback from Andrea we are going to be constantly putting our prototypes in front of people with a skeptical eye so that our ideas can be challenged, so that we can fail fast, and so that the next iteration of our products will be better than the last.

Check in with us at the end of each week for updates on our many mini failures (and hopefully a few successes).