How might we design a frictionless emergency aid application to help higher-ed students quickly get money for their basic needs and decrease drop-out rates?
Digital product design, UX, product strategy, systems thinking, art direction, app design, branding, research
There is a growing crisis among today's college students. The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates that at least 1 in 3 college students is at risk of food insecurity and 1 in 2 have been housing insecure in the past year. In a country where 3 million students drop out every year as a result of a time-sensitive financial crisis of less than $500, our work is more imperative than ever. Edquity is the first technology-enabled and research-backed distributor of emergency aid. Students are able to use our mobile or web app to quickly apply and receive their emergency funds within 72 hours.
I needed to create a process that was frictionless for students who are in the midst of an urgent financial challenge and minimize the stress they experience in both completing the application and receiving their funds.
3 millions students drop out every year due to a financial-related emergency.
Our research team and I started by soliciting the lived experiences of the students we were planning to help with our product. We designed and distributed a Typeform survey with questions about the frustrations students experience when going through a time-sensitive financial crisis. We then interviewed the students who indicated they were open to expanding on their survey responses.
I reviewed our user interviews and data from the survey to jot down each user's pain point onto a Post-It and our team got started with an affinity mapping exercise. I helped lead whiteboard sessions in which we established user personas and grouped these pain points into similar categories: behaviors/attitudes, needs/goals, frustrations, quotes, and facts. I then formed clusters of notes that shared similar themes and referenced back to them throughout the project.
In conducting an analysis of existing emergency aid programs at higher-ed institutions, I found the following issues that I needed to approach with empathy: User’s (Students) Problems 1. Students had to "perform their poverty" in the emergency aid applications. 2. There is a lack of awareness among students of the existing programs available to them. 3. Students experience a lot of friction while filling out applications since they are extensive and emotionally taxing. Business (Higher-ed Institutions) Problems 1. Manual process makes it difficult to move from application to approval to distribution of emergency aid quickly. 2. Administrators may have implicit biases that inform their interactions with students. 3. There is limited bandwidth and resources among colleges to conduct effective outreach. 4. We found a lack of reliable and transparent data around “invisible” problems like food and housing insecurity and the efficacy of emergency support programs to combat these problems.
User Journey Mapping
Once we got a clear sense of what colleges and students were dealing with, we mapped out the traditional emergency aid user journey to see which parts of the process we can simplify with our app.
It was clear that obtaining emergency aid in a traditional college program was drawn-out and arduous: nothing you want to go through if you're already enduring a financial emergency.
The traditional emergency aid experience can be viewed below in red. The optimized and ideal user journey is shown in green.
My goal was to differentiate the emergency aid product from traditional programs. I knew application time was a huge barrier to getting funds out the door, so I wanted to minimize the amount of time it took for a student to complete the application. Also, due to the time-sensitive nature of their crises, I wanted to enable technology to notify students of a decision within 24 hours.
The primary business goal was to increase overall student retention at Edquity's partner colleges.
Based on the problems we uncovered, I drafted a few original workflows for our user stories and eventually pared them down to an MVP. I knew that having a huge paper application to tackle was stressful for students already going through a financial emergency, so I decided to break up the questionnaire using progressive disclosure. In order to reduce the cognitive load on the students, I designed it so there was only one question per screen. I also broke the application down into 4 sections and included an opportunity for review after each section.
The challenges a student could be facing were broken down into 7 categories: Food, Housing, Childcare, Transportation, Health, Safety, and Learning Resources. These research-based categories were representative of the most common basic needs challenges a student could be facing to be eligible for emergency aid.
Once a student selects the category or categories in which they are facing challenges, they are routed to the respective questions. The entire application only allowed for discrete answer options– there were no write-in fields on the application. This was an intentional design choice we made in order to ensure application time was short and minimized any additional stress on the students to "perform their poverty".
I also provided examples of challenges our students could be facing in parentheses, such as "unable to afford food for yourself or others," or "unaffordable health care costs" in case the student was unsure of how their emergency would be categorized.
The only instance of a write-in field was an optional question at the very end, in case a student wanted to fill us in on the details of their situation.
We created a simple, easy-to-use application that took students on average less than 5 minutes to complete. We've processed over 40,000 applications, where the most busy day that we had was 8,000 applications in a single 24-hour period.
As a result, more than $14M in emergency aid has been disbursed to students in need at Edquity's 30 partner colleges. We also dramatically reduced the amount of time it takes to receive funds — on average, it took a student less than 24 hours to claim their funds.
We are still in the process of gathering information about our results but early data shows that the Edquity emergency aid app has increased the overall student retention rate in one of our partner colleges by 5 percent.