Learning What Works: A Student Perspective on ACORN & User Research

The following blog entry is written by Laura Klamot, NGSIS work-study student extraordinaire and User Research Coordinator. Periodically we’ll feature Laura’s reflections as a student working with the UX team.

Going into my third year of university at UTM got me thinking—and stressing, more often than not—about what comes after. The fear of being handed that degree and then finding a job. Students are told that you can’t just finish college or university and trade in that piece of paper for a career. They’re told that a career has to be built and it has to be earned. But it’s daunting when you’re plagued with stories of being thrown into the “real world” after having been a student for so long and potentially having a part-time job in a field unrelated to your career path of choice.

I’ve had two jobs during my academic career. While I was always glad I had somewhere to clock in at all, both occupations involved selling baked goods, and I don’t want to be a baker. After leaving the first for the second, I got around to thinking that to make my university experience and that whopping deregulated tuition fee on ROSI worthwhile, it would help to look for work related to what I’m studying.

I knew a few of the employment resources that U of T makes available to students, one being the Career Learning Network, which I found after browsing UTM’s Career Centre website. It was here among the long list of employment and volunteer postings that I found, applied for and eventually accepted the position of User Research Coordinator at the St. George campus for the NGSIS Program User Experience Team. They needed someone to help them gain student insight surrounding the design of the ACORN project, a front-end overhaul of the current ROSI system that U of T students use to enrol in courses, check grades and order transcripts, among many other functions.

I was excited to see that there was a position I could see myself enjoying, and could learn from to strengthen the knowledge I was gaining in school. Better yet, as delicious as working at a bakery was, I wouldn’t have to sell any cupcakes here.

I’ve learned about problems ingrained in ROSI that I never knew about, never experienced myself, or simply accepted because that was just the way things were. I was ignorant of the fact that users—students like myself—shouldn’t have to work hard to adapt to a service that exists to facilitate their education, and not every student has the same experience using it as I do. This was brought to my attention further after reaching out to students and bringing them into the UX (User Experience) lab to take part in usability tests. One of the things that all U of T students have in common is that unless our program’s department uses another enrolment system, we have to use ROSI. Due to this, many students are excited to see the changes that are being introduced, initially in the form of functional prototypes that they can try out themselves. I schedule usability tests, students come in, they follow a set of scripted tasks while being recorded, we ask questions and they give feedback. We learn a lot from these interactions. What did they love about this version? What did they hate? Why on earth is that thing over there and what does that text mean? The test participants I’ve been in contact with come from an assortment of academic backgrounds and each bring their own unique experiences and personalities to each usability test. It’s becoming more clear that designing a service for the needs of a “typical U of T student” isn’t a simple task, because there is no typical U of T student.

With the help of the members of the UX team, I’ve learned to ask better questions and appreciate the value of having people come into the lab and give their honest opinion at each stage of ACORN’s design process. It’s a complicated system with complicated workflows and lots of work still to be done, but I like to think that the small part I play will make a difference in how students, including myself, will view what comes out at the end of this process.