ACC Veterans Services: education benefits
Inspiration for this project is very personal. I grew up in a military family, and my spouse is a veteran. I observed my family and friends facing challenges when transitioning out of the service. There are many higher education benefits available to veterans, but understanding and accessing them can be complicated and confusing. This is particularly true for first-generation college students.
I led a team at the Spring 2016 ACC VisCom UX Hackathon, joined with a co-lead. In the days prior, the co-lead and myself conducted research to get a running start. After the kick-off pitches, two team members joined us to work on the project. The team worked approximately 10 hours at the event, and we presented our project on the second day to attendees and judges. Post-hackathon, I developed my own version of the prototype for a class project during my spring semester at ACC. The content below displays my independent work and process.
The veteran student population faces many challenges unique to this demographic, such as transitioning from military to civilian worlds and navigating complex benefits. We found that most students that we interviewed experienced difficulties accessing and using their education benefits, and that they often delayed asking for help until it was sometimes too late in the semester. We decided it was important that we develop an app to empower veteran students to navigate this tricky process.
Our Process: Design Thinking
Research & Discovery:
- Contextual observation at ACC veterans fair, "From Humvee to ACC", held at the Riverside campus
- User interviews with ACC veteran students, veteran students currently attending area universities, and ACC Veterans Affairs Office staff
- To gain understanding of how other Central Texas institutes of high learning support student veterans, I studied what resources they offered online
We learned that veterans navigate a very complex system that can be comprised of a combination of school, state, scholarships, grants and federal education benefits. Additionally, they must keep up with not only their school schedule, but additional deadlines via the entities offering education benefits. Missing a deadline can mean a student does not receive their benefits.
ACC staff are available at only four of the eleven Central Texas campuses. It’s easy for students to get lost in the system and become discouraged. While ACC does have a website with resources specific to veterans, empowering students directly where they live and work is a much more efficient method. Research revealed veterans prefer to problem-solve independently.
All area schools we looked at have devoted, on-campus staff that assist in varying degrees with accessing education benefits. One important differentiator is that other area schools are not as geographically dispersed as ACC.
We focused on improving and enhancing the online experience for ACC veteran students. I was able to pull student data from ACC pre-hackathon. It showed that during the Spring 2015 semester there were 3,203 veterans enrolled overall at ACC campuses. There are full-time Veterans Services staff at four of the eleven campuses spanning eight counties in Central Texas.
Synthesizing and analyzing our research led us to focus our solution on empowering veterans with an accessible mobile app to transcend geographic barriers. We wanted them to easily find answers to their education benefits, and explore educational goals.
Initially I used a mind mapping technique to explore the areas of the app. This offers a quick way to get ideas out for consideration, while also providing a great collaboration tool. There are many steps and considerations for veteran students, from benefits to enrolling at ACC. A combination of a heuristic analysis of the ACC website and insights interview participants fed the creation of the key paths.
Wireframes and Prototype:
I created this concept independently post-hackathon. The wireframes were created in Sketch, and I used InVision to build out the interactive prototype. I took into consideration veterans natural language, as well as integrating terminology used at ACC in a user-friendly way. Providing the ability to chat directly with ACC staff empowers the staff and students to work together towards student’s goals. The flow focuses on features that allow users to explore educational goals, educational benefits, and to easily receive assistance from ACC staff.
I recruited veteran students to participate in testing. InVision was used to send the prototype, so they could access it on their phones quickly. I provided different scenarios for them to test, and encouraged them to provide their feedback verbally throughout. I focused on the live chat feature to gauge if users thought it added a valuable channel to reach ACC staff. All testers indicated they thought it would be very helpful to have customized help options.
One last takeaway is that two testers were able to discover hidden prototype screens by swiping around post-testing. This is something to keep in mind for future sessions, as it could complicate usability testing sessions by providing inaccurate interactions. One ACC veteran student thought prototype was intuitive to use, and that it would help him find out benefit information quickly versus the assortment of websites he used to do the same. He also liked having options of how to meet with staff within the app.
Next steps include further refining the visual design, and building out more user flows for further user testing. The next key flow I’ll tackle is the “Exploring veteran benefits”. This is important so that users can access information in a concise, time-efficient method.
I’d like to further develop scenarios, and conduct usability testing with ACC Veterans Services staff. It’s important that this is a collaborative tool for both veterans and staff.
Areas to consult with development and ACC are the integration of the ACC student database with the mobile app to allow users the ability to access information relevant to their specific student records.