Carta is the course planning platform used by 95% of Stanford undergraduates.

Role: Product Design Lead

As one of Carta's founding designers, I inherited a platform with lots of useful data but little intention.

Since January 2020, I've conducted ethnographic interviews, written a research paper, charted the product roadmap with input from our team of engineers, designers, and faculty, and I now work on the UI for Carta's fundamentals: Home and Search.

Full HCI Research Paper

This project is ongoing.

Due to the constant evolution of this work, I tend to document through Notion. Stay here for an overview of my ethnographic research paper from Spring Quarter 2020 or visit my Notion for UI/UX.

How do students actually choose courses?

I knew how I had discovered my classes as an undergrad, but for this work I wanted a beginner's mindset.

As a part of my senior research project in HCI, I conducted 14 ethnographic interviews (over Zoom, due to COVID-19) to see what what happens behind closed doors.

I interviewed 4 freshmen, 5 sophomores, 2 juniors, and 3 seniors.

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Approaches evolve, but Carta is consistent.

I asked each student to tell me about the last time they planned their quarter and then had them explain how their planning strategy has evolved.

Phases of "leveling up" the planning approach were consistent, but the details of those evolutions varied ‐ except in that everyone referenced Carta. After a long affinity mapping process, I defined 1 primary psychological framework and 3 different planning contexts ‐ 1 of which is best explained with a canonical journey map.

Affinity Mapping

Round 1 ‐ Sort by similarity

Round 2 ‐ Sort by theme

Round 3 ‐ Map the journey

Frameworks

These frameworks provided us with a good foundation to understand how Carta might need to evolve with the student.

Journey Map: Quarterly Planning

This graph is a lot, so here's the key takeaway: I found 6 consistent painpoints in the journey, 4 that always exist and 2 that depend on student performance. I also found another painpoint persistent throughout ‐ all 7 are discussed next.

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3 Personas, 7 Painpoints, and 32 Spreadsheets

As a team, we identified 3 primary users for which one of our designers, Liam Llorin, created personas establishing a consistent team vocabulary about our user base: Confused Chris, Laidback Larry, and Optimizing Olivia.

In addition to my 14 interviews, Liam and our third designer, John Hong, collected and analyzed the structure and content of 32 four-year plans to find what immediate important features Carta's planner is missing.

Personas

Pain Points

Pardon the gaps, illustrations to come.

1. Difficulty finding requirements

Students would try to show me their major requirements, but finding the documentation was often frantic Google searching ‐ and some never found what they were looking for. This was exacerbated for pre-med students who often use resources from other universities.

2. "Am I qualified?"

Despite course descriptions and data, students are uncertain whether or not they are qualified for a class. This can lead to negative class experiences and insecurity.

3. Information scavenger hunt

Optimizing Olivias say it's essential to collect as much information about a course as possible before enrolling, but the information is spread out all over the internet. Collecting is exhausting.

4. Overcommit or squander opportunity

Since units are limited, students fear they'll squander their opportunities by taking the wrong classes or taking too few classes. One student described course selection as "taking a ceiling function" on your long list of options, which can lead to poor performance.

5. No backup plan

Sometimes despite all the planning students find that they don't like some (or in extreme cases any) of their classes. Without a backup plan, it's nearly impossible to reroute, so they end up feeling like they're wasting a quarter at Stanford.

6. Poor performance = Personal flaw

Obviously poor performance is a painpoint; however, the real trouble comes in the demoralizing mental response: "I failed, I can't do this." Students rarely reflect on what went wrong, instead they find fault in themselves.

7. Course planning insecurity

There are socially perceived "better" and "worse" majors and classes. Students are careful to protect their perceived academic rigor, which can result in discontent, overcommitment, and regret.

The Discovery

Carta must evolve with students.

Despite how student strategies evolve, Carta is always a central part of the planning approach; however, our platform is static. Students should be able to "level up" on Carta instead of co-opting and hacking other resources.

Carta needs to be dynamic.

Generating Ideas

With these pain points in mind, Liam, John, and I generated "How Might We" statements and brainstormed off of our favorites.

Following our brainstorm, in collaboration with engineering we placed each idea on to an axis by importance and difficulty to help us prioritize which features to develop first.

HMW Brainstorm

After moving our stickies to the graph below, we realized we forgot to take a picture of the brainstorm. Here you see Liam's attempt to piece it back together.

Importance-Difficulty Prioritizing

As you can see, we found some gem ideas that were both important and not too difficult to implement ‐ woo!

Our North Star

Anticipate student questions and answer them.

We chose three focal points to act as our North Star principles for Carta Design.

1. Focus on the Journey

How do mindsets change on the home page vs. reviews section? What questions do they have now, and what will they ask next?

2. Frame Relevant Data

Data tells a story. What stories do students want to piece together? Don't clutter their process with irrelevant info. Simplify.

3. Build Tools for Growth

A freshman and a graduating senior don't approach planning the same way. Help students grow into their education.

Shipping Features

Since we spent spring mostly researching, we sprinted over summer and fall to prepare for handoff to front-end.

In September 2020, we were lucky to bring on 2 new designers, Jordan Llorin and Oscar Dumlao who have been instrumental in expediting our design process. Particularly Oscar has taken on the role of our Design System Manager, which has allowed us to focus on UX and save visual design for the final steps.

In line with these new additions, over summer, we revamped our design approach to consistently produce high quality outcomes even with the high turnover of our undergraduate team. Read more about our evolving approach here.

See UI/UX work in Notion

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