by Coastal University

WAVES is a native iOS app that helps mature students connect with like-minded individuals at Coastal University and gives them a virtual outlet to create meaningful connections in a fully remote world.


Product Designer

UX Researcher

Type of Work

4 Day Sprint


Sketch, Figma, InVision


Elizabeth Desouza

Vanessa Tan

Patrick Wong

How might we help first-year students feel welcomed and part of a community in a 100% online education experience?

The Challenge

EY Design Studio challenged us to empathize with students entering their first year of university during COVID-19. We were asked to leverage any available digital technologies to completely reimagine a first-year student's education experience at Coastal University. 



We had 4 days to focus our efforts on international students, mature students, or students with disabilities. We also had to follow all brand guidelines given to us from Coastal University.


Research & Planning

Day One

Conducting Primary Research

Our team was given the choice of solving the problem space for three different user groups, but ultimately, we decided to focus on mature first-year students (25+ years old & have some work experience) because the majority of our group fit this demographic and felt we could best empathize with these users. We used this information as our interview participant criteria and began our exploration of the problem space.

Key Interview Insights

πŸ‘‰  Searching for a community online is time consuming

πŸ‘‰  There is anxiety around making meaningful connections with classmates online

Secondary Research

Alongside our primary research, we conducted secondary research to find out the facts behind our users concerns. We discovered that the National first-year retention rate for universities is only 61%, but orientation sessions & meaningful experiences can have a positive effect on this number. We also discovered that in a COVID-adapting world, Universities are finding that students have "Zoom Fatigue" and an easy way to combat this is to utilize small breakout rooms to help create connection and more inclusive atmospheres.

Where Do We Intervene?

With all of our research synthesized, we had to decide at what point in our users' journey would it be best to create an intervention? To do this, we created a Journey map. We decided the best time to intervene is after the students had been notified that their semester would be fully remote, but before classes started. If we time it right and provide a solution that really solves the problem, the chance of dropouts and withdrawls will be much lower.


How Might We?

As a team of 4, we collectively crafted how might we questions that we believed would guide our designs to solve our users problems. We crafted 47 potential HMW questions, grouped them into categories and then dot voted to find the most promising ones. In the end, we had 5 HMW's as a contender for this design sprint, but ultimately landed on the following How Might We.

How might we connect mature students with similar experiences in order to allow them to feel like they’re part of a community?

Inspiration & Sketches

Day Two

Inspiration Finding

As a team, we searched for inspiration from competitors in the same space, but we also looked to different industries to help guide our design decisions. We knew we were trying to find a way to build meaningful connections so that first-year students felt included in the community, so we looked to dating apps, friendship apps, and solutions that brought people together based on common interests.


U of T Campus App





We then drew from our inspiration board and began sketching. We used the crazy 8 method to rapidly ideate for our potential solutions and each team member drew a complete concept sketch from their rough sketches. When that was finished we followed the art museum method, created a heat map, and eventually dot voted on the concepts we thought would best solve our users' problems.


Concept 1 Key Ideas

πŸ’‘ Profile page for peers

πŸ’‘ Lists of interest, activities, classes, etc.

πŸ’‘ Chat functionality with the ability to book activities direct from the chat

πŸ’‘ Visibility of time remaining in the activity

πŸ’‘ Live video feature

πŸ’‘ Rating the class for measurable KPI

Concept 2 Key Ideas

πŸ’‘ Preference selection that includes the preferred method of communication, interests, & social channels

πŸ’‘ Visibility of members in a club

πŸ’‘ Connecting around commonalities & discussions


Concept 3 Key Ideas

πŸ’‘ Games to connect peers

πŸ’‘ Ability to connect with peers & maintain a friendship after activity

πŸ’‘ Video chatting feature

πŸ’‘ Estimated time of activity


Once we had our favourite key ideas sketched out and voted on, we decided it would be best to draw out a storyboard to see how our potential solution could fit in our persona's journey in becoming a first-year student at Coastal University.


In the storyboard, our persona, Alicia Howard, is notified that the next semester is fully online. She feels annoyed and unsure of how the semester will go, but she is also told about the app made by Coastal University that will help her feel part of the community. She thinks it sounds at least better than nothing, so she downloads the app, logs in with her student ID, and fills in her preferences. Then she connects with one of her classmates and after chatting for a while, they decide to do an online cooking class together to bond and get to know one another better. Alicia ends the video call feeling amazing, connected to her classmates, and excited for what's to come in an online educational world.

The Pivot


As a part of our Design Sprint for EY Design Studio, we were given the chance to discuss our ideas mid-sprint with the Executive Creative Director, Waleed Zoghby. This was an experience I will never forget and I am so thankful that we were able to gain insight from him during our process.

When we presented our 'How Might We' question and storyboard to Waleed, he said we were on a great path, but our design question was too cerebral and we needed to recraft it to elicit more empathy and emotion for our target user. He also mentioned that once we had done that, we needed to review our solution and make sure it was truly solving the main pain point of our user and to always, always, always, refer back to the user in our design process.

This forced us to get together as a team and really assess what we were doing. We recrafted our 'How Might We' question and decided that our virtual activity did not provide enough opportunity for the user to create a meaningful relationship with their classmate, which is what our users wanted. 

The Changes

Matching with one classmate

Simple chat functionality

Virtual Cooking Classes




Being matched with a group of students and placed into pods based on interests, classes, etc.

Ice breaker activities in the chat to get to know pod members better

Virtual escape room that promotes communication & solving a common problem

The Revised How Might We Question

How might we inspire mature students to connect to their peers in order to empower them to build a community and prevent loneliness? 

Prototyping & Validating

Day Three

High Fidelity Prototyping

After we made our pivot and were fully aligned as a team, we created wireframes and then used the brand guidelines given to us to begin designing our high-fidelity prototype. It was an intense day in the sprint process, but with the help of my teammate Elizabeth, we were able to pull off a human-centered design that followed the constraints given to us at the beginning of the challenge that we are all very proud of.


Usability Testing

Once we had a minimal viable product in a high-fidelity prototype, we took the solution back to the users. We tested with 5 different individuals that fit our initial criteria and asked for their honest feedback on the usability of our design. As with any usability test, it allowed us to gain insight into the solution, that we otherwise could not have seen.

Key Testing Insights

πŸ“Œ  Users need more context around what to expect from the app and how to use it when it is their first interaction

πŸ“Œ  Users need visibility into the system status to understand what is happening at any given time

The Resulting Changes

As this Design Sprint was on such a tight deadline, our group had to prioritize all of the changes that resulted from our user testing. We made minor tweaks to buttons, content, and icons, but we only made two significant changes for our solution. To address the key insights that were gathered from the testing, we created these two screens. One to explain what the app does and how it works, and the other to show the user what is happening after they fill out their preferences.


Presentations & Feedback

Day Four

Presentations & Feedback

Our team was lucky enough to present our idea to a team from EY Design Studio that included the Executive Creative Director, the Executive Strategy Director, and the Manager of Business Transformation. We had to distill all of our hard work into a succinct and compelling presentation that told the story of our users' needs and how we effectively worked to solve them in 3.5 days. We had 5 minutes to present our ideas remotely and it was one of the best experiences to be able to present our work to such an incredible team and hear their feedback.


Key Learnings

Our team worked so hard during this 4 day sprint and along the way, we learned a few very valuable lessons:

1. Always, always, always go back to the user. If every decision you make is referenced back to the user you are solving for, you are designing effectively for user experience design.

2. Get feedback early and often. The feedback we got from Waleed Zoghby, Executive Creative Director of EY Design Studio, was invaluable and completely changed the way we thought about this challenge. It was essential to our success and I am so glad we took the opportunity to get as much insight from him as we could.

3. Accessibility needs to be considered in every UI decision that is being made. One of the main points of constructive feedback that we received after presenting our idea to the EY team, was that our designs need to be checked for WCAG 2.0 compliance. I have taken this feedback and used it in all of my design decisions since. It is so important that we not only design for our intended user, but also design so that our solutions are accessible to anyone and everyone.

The Result

I am extremely proud of this project and my team. In the end, we were able to design a solution that meets our users' needs in a COVID-19 world. Because we focused on creating a human-centered design, our efforts were recognized by the EY Design Studio team and we were winners of this Design Sprint.


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