College Advisors: Building An Intentional Relationship

College students are legal adults. Whether they are 18 or 45, an advisor can’t phone home every time their student has an issue in their lives during their pursuit of a college degree. Imagine the difference between Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Good Will Hunting. For the student who is living away from home, trying to live an autonomous life, the support they could need from an advisor is so expansive and elusive.

While doing field research with local organizations and partners we are noticing that the more bandwidth and freedom an advisor has—to be daring and intrusive with their students—the greater the chance is that they are discovering their real latent needs. The basic systemic needs slide towards a much more robust personal need for support when a student begins to struggle, especially in the case of non-traditional students.

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It’s hard to get a student to ask for help in the first place. These are new life struggles to them and, most likely, first-generation college students don’t have anyone in their families to turn towards for support. The advisor has the opportunity to fill that void and its unique shape, size, profundity, and obscurity.

Screen Shot 2018-11-30 at 12.13.09 PM

Moving forward we are going to be focusing on how advisors can build intentional relationships with their students. How can this bond accommodate positive and productive faith and reason in persistence and college graduation?



Educational Decision-Making: How Prospective Students Decide a Career Path

What We Are Hearing

Making decisions about education can be a daunting and on-going process. As we hear more stories from prospective students who are trying to figure out what they will choose for their major and career paths, we have begun to notice patterns in what tips the scale form one decision to the next.

Patterns in the Stories

Oftentimes, there is a strong feeling motivating people to do a specific type of work, such as caregiving, while points of inspiration can come from trying something once, or seeing it on a dramatized television series. When it finally comes time to choose a definite career path, choices are often limited to the list of majors a school offers.

Concept Model

How prospective students decide their career path
How prospective students decide their career path


This concept model visualizes how the internal processing and external circumstances work to shape a prospective student’s ideas about what career path he or she should work towards. 


Feeling like an impostor

Over the last couple weeks we’ve been learning about impostor syndrome to get a better understanding of what impact it may play in women’s higher education trajectory from cultural background to employment. To do this we first needed to get a better understanding how we were going to identify when someone may have experienced these feelings. Below are three concept models that we’ve developed based on our interviews with subject matter experts, stakeholders, and participants to help us describe and identify feelings associated with impostor syndrome.

Figure 1: What You Know vs. What Everyone Else Knows
Figure 1: What You Know vs. What Everyone Else Knows

As shown in Figure 1, feelings of self doubt associated with impostor syndrome may sometimes stem from the idea that everyone around you knows more than you, when in reality you all know the same amount of information.

Figure 2: How much of your success is due to hard work vs. luck?
Figure 2: How much of your success is due to hard work vs. luck?

Another way to spot feelings of impostor syndrome when they may not be apparent is when someone attributes most of their success to luck despite the large amounts of hard work that went in to reaching that goal, as shown above in Figure 2.

Figure 3: Volume of Self Doubt
Figure 3: Volume of Self Doubt

While many people experience a certain degree of self doubt on a daily basis we are learning that there are certain situations and factors that may increase or decrease the volume of those feelings. These are important because they may help indicate times when these feelings get so loud that they could have a higher potential to influence someone’s behavior or decision making. For example, Figure 3 shows that a common time for these feelings to manifest is during times of change or when someone is experiencing something new. Dealing with unknowns can be scary and if someone has no prior experience, as a foundation to build from, it can be easy to make assumptions about other’s experience and knowledge compared to their own. We’ve also learned that people who are juggling and switching between multiple, and sometimes conflicting, roles may have increased feelings of self doubt and uncertainty. Conversely, we are finding that having mentors, support networks, and building knowledge and experience can be tools to decrease and overcome these feelings.

Concept Model: Perceptions of Educational Outcomes

The concept models our team is presenting are two graphs related to working post-traditional students. The models titled, Perceptions of Education Outcomes, was created from early data from interviews with student participants. The graphs are describing a misconception about education. The graph on the left, figure 1, is the expectation that personal resources invested in college relate directly with future earning potential. Figure 2 is a graph that relates the educational journey with a perceived increase in vocational autonomy and benefits. We believe these graphs will shed some light on some of the expectations and motivations driving students’ career choices. After we dive further into the data, we can contrast these perceptions with the reality of the student’s journey maps.

Graphs showing student’s expectations that invested personal resources are directly related to earning potential, autonomy, and vocational benefits.

swiss cheese of success: a concept model for persistence

The “Swiss cheese model” is a risk analysis model used by engineers, aviation specialists, and cybersecurity experts. The idea is that even the best-designed human systems (inevitably) operate like Swiss cheese—mostly sound, but with holes here and there. For the most part, systems operate as predicted. But when the holes in a stack of systems all line up a certain way, an unexpected event can slip through.

For the last three weeks, our team (myself, Shelly, and Susi) has been conducting research into how first-generation Americans in Austin perceive the role and importance of post-secondary education. One stakeholder, a student advisor at a post-traditional college completion organization, had especially salient points to make about barriers and influences on student completion: that students consistently name “relationship with my advisor” as the most important variable in their persistence; and that job changes are the number one factor in throwing students off their planned trajectory.

In our conversations with young first-generation Americans, many participants have also centered the role of family expectations, high school support networks, and legal documentation/financial aid access as determining factors re: their educational opportunities.

As we began to map out concept models for what we were hearing about persistence, influencers, and barriers, we found ourselves sketching something similar to the “Swiss cheese model”—a look at what can happen when young first-generation American students attempt to persist toward a degree. While this type of model is often used to predict negative events, we found something compelling about reworking it to show a positive situation.

In this light, the model also suggests just how hard it is for students attempting persistence to succeed.


Here, the “slices” represent external factors that impact behavior and opportunity.

The red lines represent “stopped out” student pathways, those who may sail through to success in some areas only to be met by barriers in others.

The blue line represents those students who successfully navigate each influencer/barrier in the path toward their educational goals.

As you can see from the concept model, persistence requires a precise alignment of the right conditions at the right time. And within the larger context of post-traditional students who attempt to persist, successful completion is rare, and not exclusively (or even primarily) due to a lack of individual effort or responsible studentship.

This model can describe all post-traditional students, to some degree—first-generation American students aren’t alone in feeling the pressures of family or a lack of mentorship or the necessity of holding down a job. But as we continue to conduct interviews, we suspect that the family and culture slices in particular may yield rich nuances and insights into the unique experiences of first-generation American young adults in Texas.

More to come…

Class Research: Notes from the Field

What we’ve been up to

Quarter two started up with a new research project for the class. This is a check-in to exhibit what we’ve all been doing for the past five weeks. Our findings will become the foundation of our cohort’s capstone project, which we will develop in quarters three and four through ideation and building a design prototype that will, hopefully, address some aspects of a wicked problem.

The Project

In partnership with PelotonU, AC4D has set out to conduct research into the broad topic of College Persistence and Completion. College completion rates have stagnated or fallen in recent years in the United States. The most at-risk students who start and fail to complete a degree are considered “nontraditional” students. While there is some disagreement in the academic community about the exact definition of a nontraditional student, some major indicators include either they are over 25 years of age, financially responsible for themselves and/or others, or working at least part-time. It is generally recognized however, that most students in the US have  one or more of these characteristics.

After reading secondary literature around how nontraditional students have become the norm while most colleges and universities are not structured to accommodate their needs, our class split off into six groups in order to pursue more refined focus areas.  

Focus areas

  • How college completion advisors and organizations equip themselves to deal with the obstacles non-traditional students face
  • How having to work part or full-time impacts a non-traditional students’ post-secondary educational experience
  • How people who have dropped out of college cope with moments of struggle and who is there to support them as they find their footing
  • How impostor syndrome impacts women’s post-secondary educational trajectory, from cultural background to employment
  • How prospective post-traditional students make educational decisions
  • How first-generation Americans in Austin perceive the role and importance of post-secondary education

Stories from the Field

The most critical part of design research is immersing ourselves in the lives of the people we seek to understand. AC4D uses the methods of contextual inquiry (observing people in their context as they experience something) and participatory design (using an activity to get at deeper feelings and thoughts). Below are a few compelling stories that have informed our themes and represent the array of humans who have opened up to us so far.


Above Photo: Peter explains dropping out of college and beginning his freelancing career
Above Photo: Peter explains dropping out of college and beginning his freelancing career

Peter dropped out of college just last February. Ultimately, he decided to drop out of school and begin freelancing as a developer because he already had the work experience and believed that he could learn more working at jobs than in the classroom.


Ophelia was an intern at her company when, based on the work she’d been doing for the company for two months, she was approached to fill an opening left by a more senior employee. However, Ophelia had little confidence in herself that she could do the job. She said:

“Since the experienced guy had been there for like 10 years, I assumed he wanted multiple people because I’m not to that level, obviously. I can’t take on a role like that.”


Above Photo: Chelsea describes her decision-making process and motivation for applying to colleges
Above Photo: Chelsea describes her decision-making process and motivation for applying to colleges

Chelsea is a video game designer and a recent graduate of St. Edward’s University. Her father immigrated from Mexico as a young man. She says her family was apathetic-to-positive about education, but placed a high premium on being close together. Chelsea felt faced with a choice: Run away, and risk family censure, or get a college education as a painful but “acceptable” reason for leaving home.

“I don’t want to live at home anymore. I hate living at home. And that’s where I started with college. I did research and found a whole list of colleges. And I applied to every single one.”

Initial Findings

While we are still in the thick of our research, including recruitment of participants and externalizing our data, some broad themes and insights are beginning to emerge, connecting many of the stories we’ve gathered.

  • Effective Advising is Intrusive Advising: Advisors don’t wait to be asked for help. They get on planes, take road trips, and knock on dorm rooms. An advisor can be the bridge that helps a student who’s suddenly living amongst a wealthier, more privileged culture, or simply the common situation of not knowing how to ask for help on campus.
  • Emotions and stress levels can be an obstacle or motivation. A common theme we are seeing is a positive support structure can help shape the strong feelings and stresses into a motivation. There is a sense of, “if I go UP (not down), I’m taking everyone I love with me.”
  • People believe that jobs in the technology field prioritize your work experience over a college degree. If students feel that they will not learn anything from their classes, they disengage and don’t see the point in even attending.
  • Feelings of self-doubt and impostor syndrome around higher education and employment influence decision-making and can result in missed opportunities. Feelings of impostor syndrome affect most people at some point, but after speaking to subject matter experts we learned that due to both cultural and systemic reasons, women tend to have fewer tools for overcoming or dealing with these feelings when they occur.
  • Factors that influence decisions about post-secondary education start to cement in high school. We had the assumption from the start of our research that family, culture, and community values would play a large role in shaping a student’s plans for their future. What’s been a surprise to us is that two other factors have come to light as contributing variables – the role of extracurricular activities, and the role of geographic location.

What to look for next

Our plates are full these next few weeks as we finish up with contextual inquiries and continue to synthesize our field research. Mark your calendars to join us at Austin Center for Design on Sunday, December 16 to hear initial findings from our field research synthesis! Click here to learn more.

Insights – APA!

An insight is built by asking “why?” – and answering with incomplete data. Insights should be able to stand on their own and elicit provocation.

This was our focus over the last couple weeks – turning themes into insights and delivering the information to Austin Pets Alive!. Christina and I are nervous about presenting this content – and who wouldn’t be? To summarize, we are walking into a meeting to present problems without solutions. Our hope is that we’ve built enough credibility with APA! to be able to deliver ‘hard truths’ and not insult our client.

Our first insight is centered around the culture at APA!. All the departments within APA! march to the beat of their own drum. They record information their own way and make little effort to proactively share data. As a result, management, researchers, grant proposal writers, and all others at APA! that make use of shelter-wide data are forced to aggregate the data they need from all APA! departments.


“I’ve chronicled up to 35 different spread sheets across the organization.”   – Pete (line 2)

Through the empathy we’ve built while working with the great people at APA!, we’ve come understand the daily frustration felt by people who perform such critical functions to the organization. While a universal data tool would clearly benefit APA!, we believe that the problem is with culture, not with technology.

The nursery, which is where we spent the bulk of our time, is not ready for the tech solution that management desires. They understand what they are doing but don’t seem to comprehend how their actions affect the greater goals of the organization. They are so caught up with saving Austin kittens now that they don’t adopt the tools that could lead to providing better future care.

Additionally, having many siloed micro-cultures can (and has) lead to mistrust of the information that has been shared. The image below shows someone who had found a mistake and is hand-checking pages to make sure other data wasn’t entered incorrectly. To complicate the matter, the data-entry person who entered the information works anywhere between 10 PM and 3 AM, remotely.


Insight: APA! is failing to unify its siloed programs, allowing departments to record data in their preferred way. As a result, it is impossible to access complete, shelter-wide information at a single touchpoint. APA should address the cultural idiosyncrasies between departments before prescribing universal tools.

Volunteers, both feeders and fosters, are an essential component of APA! mission to save the lives of companion animals. Who doesn’t want to save cute, cuddly kittens! And, thus, we arrive at the problem! During our theming stage we identified that people don’t always understand that volunteering isn’t about playing with kittens. People volunteer because they love animals, but a love of animals isn’t enough to be a good volunteer.
During our synthesis, we identified that whilst both are volunteers, fosters and feeders are treated very differently. Below is a diagram illustrating the time volunteer feeders spend training compared to the time fosters spend training (in red), and the time each spends with kittens during a given week (shown in blue). The large blue circle around the fosters illustrates not just time spent with kittens but shows how crucial the fosters are in APA!’s life-saving model. Fosters accept kittens as soon as they are ready to leave the nursery and typically keep them until they are ready for adoption. Fosters open up space for more kittens to be rescued from AAC and cycle through the nursery.
Unreliable fosters and volunteers divert precious resources in the form of human capital. Feeding the kittens comes first in the life-saving operation and when a feeder is missing, paid staff is diverted from their duties. When a foster isn’t reliable, staff needs to find new homes or space in the nursery.
Insight: APA! Is so stressed for resources that any animal lover is considered qualified labor. As a result, they experience poor care, high turnover, and increased stress for those who can provide quality work. APA needs to begin incentivizing valuable, non-paid personnel and increase efforts to discharge uncommitted volunteers.

Lettuce Share Behavioral Insights

Two months ago, Gerald, Cristina, and I partnered up with Lettuce, a local meal delivery service that aims to create a more sustainable, hyper-local food ecosystem. We set out to learn more about how the operation of Lettuce affects a subscriber’s relationship with food. By now, we have spent countless hours analyzing our research data to unearth recurring behavioral patterns, otherwise known as “themes”. By asking “why” about some of these patterns and interactions with food and the Lettuce meal delivery service, we have been able to synthesize deeper insights about human behavior.

An overview of Lettuce operations from plant to porch
An overview of Lettuce operations from “plant to porch”

In our recent blog post describing how Lettuce gets produce from “plant to porch”, we highlighted how increasing product lines decreases efficiency on the operations end. When the process is inefficient and deliveries run late, this affects the customer experience. One customer, Keegan, shared a story of a time when her Lettuce delivery arrived late: “One time it was almost 8 PM. I was like ‘forget this’, because that was going to be my meal for the night… I had to figure something else out.”

It is a very human thing to grow dependent on a service and, conversely, it can feel pretty terrible to be let down. Customers are relying on Lettuce to help put food on the table, and they must be able to trust Lettuce to deliver. Armed with this behavioral insight, how might we point out opportunities for Lettuce to strengthen and grow trust with its customers?

Another behavioral insight from our research involves the angst involved in meal preparation. Our workspace is inundated with quotes of individuals stressing about the various tasks involved in cooking and meal preparation, from procuring groceries to simply having the mental energy to cook a meal when one’s life is feeling particularly chaotic. We’re sure that no one in this program can relate to those feelings, right, classmates?

Keegan illustrated this perfectly in relation to her experience with Lettuce deliveries occasionally running late. She said, “Sometimes I’m ready to cook and by the time it gets here, I’m like ‘I’m exhausted’… and there goes the cooking time.” This sentiment rang true to us: if one isn’t both physically and mentally prepared to cook dinner by a certain point in the evening, then they pass a decision fatigue “tipping point” and are no longer inclined to cook their desired meal.

Lettuce delivery and meal preparation
How can Lettuce keep customers from passing the decision fatigue “tipping point” in meal prep?

Studying these themes or behavioral patterns catapulted us towards the realization that meal preparation cultivates anxiety because people approach cooking as a chore, rather than a healthy habit or skill to hone. What might happen if we can help Lettuce to reframe how people think about cooking to perceive it not as a task but as a habit to hone? 

Our next insight involves patterns of latent needs that our participants expressed through their behaviors and frustrations. It is essential to make a quick distinction about discussing the word “convenience” before we dive into how we arrived at our third insight. Our team acknowledges that Lettuce provides convenience with their food delivery, however, in the conventional sense of our food culture, “eating out of convenience” is generally associated with highly processed food with high caloric and poor nutritional value. The convenience associated with Lettuce is a healthy endeavor.

Our current food culture is a symptom of our work culture. Busy work schedules have driven the importance of shaving time from staple activities like cooking and eating. We now see behaviors that reflect people being distanced from a healthy relationship with food. We also see this behavior with parents attempting to accommodate their children with customized meals and allowing their children to make poor diet decisions.

Pat shared of his three-year-old son that “his favorite foods are bread, cheese, and fruit. He only likes some vegetables. Lettuce works with my wife and me, but our son… we usually do a variation.” We captured this behavior in the following statement: parents enable picky children which inhibits exploration of food. By catering to children’s professed palettes, parents are consequently stymying a world of new taste experiences.

We also heard over and over that people want to eat seasonally but underestimate the learning curve. This theme indicates subscribers’ willingness to try vegetables or fruits that they have never encountered before, but are inhibited by a lack of really knowing “what to do with it”. Since a large part of Lettuce’s mission revolves around encouraging people to eat seasonally to support the local food ecosystem, it’s important to acknowledge this knowledge gap.

Picky children and seasonal eating
How might we encourage exploration of food for picky children and seasonal eaters?

Another theme or pattern that we witnessed was how cooking new foods takes mental energy. People stick with what they know, as inferred from subscribers defaulting to their easy meals when life gets rough. While we were visiting her house, Keegan even used these words to describe something in her pantry: “this is my go-to, my sad ‘not cooking’ meal”.

From these recurring themes:

  • Parents enable picky children which inhibits exploration of food.
  • People want to eat seasonally but underestimate the learning curve.
  • Cooking new foods takes mental energy. People stick with what they know.

We arrived at this insight:

The allure of convenience and choice has enabled parents and kids to form bad food habits. We must foster more exploration of and respect for food.

We believe this insight is valuable because it speaks to a latent need exhibited by the Lettuce subscribers and it helped us get a better understanding of the subscriber’s actual relationship with food. It also led us to wonder how can Lettuce foster more exploration of and respect for food?

While we were conducting our research, we looked at more than just the subscriber’s relationship with food. We also looked at how and why subscribers valued the Lettuce service. We learned that subscribers desire a sustainable lifestyle. For example, Maple is a student who lives in a small apartment complex and cannot compost. Maple studies landscape archeology and she knows the positive impact that composting has on the environment.

While subscribers do value the tangible service of composting, they are primarily motivated by the non-tangible aspect of living a zero waste lifestyle. One reason people like Maple make decisions around sustainability is that they are acutely aware that their individual actions can have an impact on the greater whole whether that be in their community, the environment, society, and so on.

This sustainability or “greater good” mindset is hard to shake. It makes it impossible to throw out a plastic Tupperware without lamenting that it will end up in the landfill. One succinctly stated reflection on sustainability that we heard during our research came from Margaret: “A lot of people probably don’t think about that. But for me, I can’t not think about it. Once you get in that mindspace you can’t get out of it.”

This leads us to our final behavioral insight that we would like to share with you: Subscribers operate from the mindset that their individual actions affect the whole. Lettuce should positively reinforce subscribers impact all throughout the experienceHow can Lettuce bolster subscribers’ perception of a collective good?

As we move into the final stage of this research project, we will continue to reflect upon these opportunity questions. Pondering these challenges will guide our team in our journey to outline opportunity areas for Lettuce to grow, improve the service it provides to its customers, and strengthen the local food ecosystem. Until next time, blog readers!

insights with we are blood.

When telling our service client that we were developing “insights,” we felt the need to clarify. The word “insight” is usually treated as shorthand for “brilliant intuition,” so we knew that marching into a room of stakeholders announcing that we had insights into a service we had spent a limited amount of time with could seem, well, “obnoxious.”

But insights are not the same thing as impressions. As with everything in the design process, an insight means something specific, made up of a series of smaller processes.

To get to insights, we first examine the context, by interviewing a number of users and stakeholders and observing their behavior. Before we do anything else, we collect each of these tiny interaction points as data.

From there, we begin to make sense of this data: pulling out stories that illustrate a complex, nuance human experience of this service; combining and recombining those stories and data points to get at underlying themes; and slicing a particularly dense interaction to pull apart all of the dynamics at play in one interaction, in one environment, over time (what we call service slices).

Finally, we turn each of those themes and pain points into “why?”s. Only then are we prepared to start developing insights.

Even then, insights are largely guesswork. But unlike instant, superficial observations from newbie designers who just stepped foot into a massive mobile blood donation operation (us, mid-August), we are now equipped to offer meaningful and provocative observations about the service, because we are now armed with deep, 360-degree knowledge of a sizeable amount of data—much of which is data that company leadership has not had much access to, or synthesis around, before.

And that is not obnoxious at all—instead, it can be a viable value add to any service organization.

Here’s an example from our work with Central Texas-focused blood donation group We Are Blood:

A lot of people have been positively affected by blood donation … [but] you don’t know who gets your blood.

—Joseph, 19

“Joseph” is a long time donor. He loves giving blood because it makes him feel connected to a larger community. But he openly admits that he doesn’t know where his blood actually goes. And he’s not alone—several donors and phlebotomists alike made note of this.

As we worked through the data, this theme kept popping up for us, because a core tenet of We Are Blood’s mission is to inspire people to give blood. But they aren’t telling donors or the public about who actually gets the blood that donors give. 

There’s one good reason for this—HIPAA regulations place some constraints on disclosing recipients. But there are many other potential ways to tell these stories, and we found that presently, We Are Blood isn’t proactively pursuing these avenues.

To build from a provocative theme into an insight, we need three things:

a value statement,

a supporting phrase, and

a provocation.

To make a strong insight, the combination of all three of these things will stand on its own as a complete idea—one that, like it or not, agree with it or not, anyone can understand.

Here’s our full insight to the story from Joseph (and others):

Delivery on value promise is essential for successful service. But in contrast to WAB’s mission statement—to inspire new donors to give and to create a feeling of family—donors have no idea where their blood goes. This is a problem because WAB’s entire brand ID is built on this emotional payoff.

We drove this home with this image:

Screen Shot 2018-11-14 at 5.41.51 PM

We called this girl “Suzy.” Suzy is a stock image of a girl in a hospital. We don’t know anything else about her story. Why? Because we never have the access or the opportunity to learn it.

Instead, we do know the stories of Pat, and Gina, and Katie, and Jane, and Joseph, and dozens of others who work or show up to mobile drives. We can (and should) tell their stories in other insights…but one common theme among each of those individuals is that they don’t know “Suzy’s” story, either.

When we presented this insight to We Are Blood, leadership in the room agreed that this was an issue. They noted that they had tried various methods to tell these stories, all of which had been unsuccessful over time. We then had an invigorating discussion around things they had tried, what elements worked and didn’t, what other barriers existed to getting these stories told — and why they aren’t proactively trying to tackle this problem right now.

The next step in the design research process is to take a stab at new ideas. Some of those ideas came up in our discussion with WAB; others live on post-it notes on our wall, waiting for us to push them further.

A good insight will, above all, spark discussion and the curiosity to build new things. We’re excited to move forward into these new ideas—knowing that however provocative they may be, they will be built on a solid framework of insights, now shared by us and our client.