🤨 How to study in a country that's on the other side of the earth?

📅 Year: 2022 Fall - 2023 Spring
⚡️ Contributions (Solo project): Task Analysis, User Research, Prototyping, Usability Testing, Visual Design
💻 Software: Figma, Miro

01 | From where it begins?

As an international student myself, I feel the pride, the privilege, as well as the loneliness, the isolation altogether. I saw the need for an online community for Chinese international students in the US. Hence, in 2022, I started this CIRCLE online community project.

Studies show that college students frequently suffer from mental disorders such as depression (41.6%) and anxiety (36.4%). The lack of social support and cultural differences make it even worse for international students. A welcoming, close-knit community could be their lifebuoy ring to thrive academically and mentally. I realize that international students tend to be scattered in different locations, only an online community can conquer the distance.

Credit: This project is advised by Amy Bruckman, Regent's professor at Georgia Tech, teaching the Design of Online Communities class.

02 | Competitive Analysis

TL;DR: The majority of those sites focus on helping Chinese international students with job hunting in the tech industry, shopping, and finance. The Bulletin board system platform makes it hard for users to build personal connections or meet people locally. Wechat groups, in comparison, are a more coherent community and exist across all American universities. However, they are not searchable on the internet, and information gets lost easily as chats overflow. All three GT WeChat groups I have access to have roughly 470 people (500 is the maximum number).

03 | User Research & Insights

The users groups are defined as - Chinese International students in the United States. I used surveys and semi-structured interviews to collect data.

  1. Surveys
    Where do international students get support? I collected data on the platforms they use, how they use them, what they need help with.
    - The most common platform people use is 1point3acres.
    - Most people gave it a 4/5 score in terms of difficulty to use.
    - The most sought-after help is grad school applications and visa applications.Most people are between the ages of 21-25, and are on an F-1 visa.
    Take a look at the survey, and the data! (It's in Chinese but try chrome-translate.)
  2. Interview
    Read about the Interview process and script. A total of 6 interviews allowed me to generate an affinity map of their journeys.
Frustration in both basic living and socializing needs.
Cultural differences can be shocking at arrival

Have close connections mostly with  Chinese international students

04 | persona

Evan Yi personaEvan Yi person perspective

Evan Yi - Evan is a senior at a public high school in China, in the college application process. His high school doesn’t provide resources for US colleges.

Jenna Xia personaJenna Xia person perspective

Jenna Xia - Jenna is a freshmen at Duke University. She feels a little disoriented because of language and culture differences. Does not do well in literature classes.

Charlotte Pan personaCharlotte Pan person perspective

Charlotte Pan - Charlotte is a senior at UCLA. She is excited about graduation but is stressed about job hunting. Her U.S. visa is also expiring soon, and she is not sure how to renew it. She also would like to stay connected with UCLA alumni and help incoming students learn more about this great institute.

05 | Pain Points

High school seniors

Insecurity and uncertainty about whether he can get in a college he likes

Not sure how to get reliable sources of information about the U.S.

College freshmen

Worried about language/culture barriers

Cannot get a lot of resources for International students such as how to read health insurance

Academic difficulties

College senior

Very stressed about graduation because of uncertainties

Do not know how to look for career resources for Chinese international students

06 | ideation

3 critical points for international students
- Before coming to the US
- Right after arriving the US  
- College graduation

Jobs to be done - functional
- Collect and share information that is tailored for Chinese international students.
- Promotes in-person socializing in local areas.
- Information should be public and searchable in both China and the US.

07 | User flows

User's goals at different stages
‍1. High school senior - Learn more about college applications
2. Newly admitted/freshmen - Learn more about college life
3. Sophomore moving out of campus - Find a safe neighborhood
4. Students new to the area - Find a local hiking group in Atlanta


08 | low-fidelity prototype

Usability Testing
I conducted a think-aloud task walkthrough with a low-fidelity mockup to facilitate the iterative design process. I was able to identify confusion with wording, mismatch between users' mental models, and categorization. I also did preference testing on different versions of the menu bar. After 4 interviews, data reached saturation with repetitive feedback.

09 | high-fidelity mockup

10 | the takeaway

The CIRCLE online community project was born from both personal experience and empirical evidence, recognizing the unique challenges Chinese international students face in the US. By targeting the poignant issues of loneliness, depression (41.6%), and anxiety (36.4%), this platform serves as a crucial support system.
Addressing a Real Need:
The emotional struggles of international students are not just anecdotal but supported by research, underlining the real necessity of this platform.
Conquering Distance: The online format unites students scattered across different locations, bridging the geographical gap and providing a communal environment.
Cultural Sensitivity: CIRCLE not only addresses mental health issues but also fosters a community that respects and celebrates cultural diversity.
Personal Investment: As an international student myself, this project is not just a technical endeavor but a personal mission to provide others with the support I've felt they need.

In conclusion, CIRCLE stands as a testament to the power of community, the significance of empathy in design, and the necessity of culturally sensitive innovation. It is more than a platform; it's a lifebuoy ring for those navigating the turbulent waters of studying abroad.