brief

Create a service that improves communication skills so well students can’t help but use it.

solution

An online platform connected to a presentation practice space where students can get automated, peer, and expert feedback and a portable system for similar in-class use.

project stats

client: Carnegie Mellon University's Simon Initiative
duration: 8 weeks
role: Project Manager & Designer. I kept the team on track and set milestones. I did literature review, interviews, and competitive analysis to explore the problem space. I storyboarded service concepts and tested them with staff members. I outlined the final presentation. I wrote and narrated the script for the video.
teammates: Neil Bantoc, Vanessa Kalu, Chaoya Lin, Sara Stalla, Min Zhou
research methods: interviews, competitive analysis, literature review, speed dating (needs validation & user enactments)
deliverables: slide deck, demo video, stakeholder map, value flow model, service blueprint, technical analysis

The Simon Initiative, a new Carnegie Mellon program, aims to improve student outcomes by applying learning science principles to support demands for well-rounded students. This group of academics and administrators needed help bridging the gap between theory and practice, so our class was brought in to develop potential service concepts that will build students into adept communicators.

For an idea to shape the world, it must be shared with others. Carnegie Mellon undergrads are great at developing these ideas but often lack the acumen to effectively communicate them. In courses, they are graded on the content of their presentations, but upon arriving in the workforce, their success depends on how they present these ideas, which has proven a hard bridge to cross.

Carnegie Mellon easily affords students their first jobs, but sees them struggle to move up the career ladder, as evidenced by salaries that are top in their class right out of school but lackluster mid-career. Campus leaders credit the emphasis placed by the school and students on technical competency as displacing the value of soft skills like communication, which often are not valued in course grading. While various support services exist on-campus, students don’t feel they are personalized or convenient, choosing to watch a video from their dorm or suffer in silence. Our team set out to look at the factors that lead to stunted communication skills to inform potential interventions.

Exploratory Research

early stakeholder map

narrowing the problem space

The problem space we were given, to improve student communication skills, needed to be narrowed down to a specific focus. To this end, we learned about the current landscape through interviews with students, alumni, and staff. We also looked at how peer institutions handle communication skill development, such as career and communication centers, alumni interaction, use of peer review, and the frequency of writing assignments.

We found CMU students in the arts, humanities, and business have more opportunities in their curricula to develop as communicators than students in the natural sciences, engineering, or computer science. These technical students take a formulaic approach to writing, struggling to convey larger concepts as a story. Although services exist on-campus to address these issues, such as the Global Communication Center (GCC) and Career and Professional Development Center (CPDC), students either don't know about their offerings or yearn for more personalized experiences.

On the contrary, one service that was particularly successful was the Intercultural Communication Center (ICC), which offers a course on presenting to students for whom English is a second language. The course allows students to frequently practice presenting in small groups and then give a final presentation that results in a video recording and detailed instructor feedback. There is no similar service for students who are native English speakers or need to improve a specific presentation.

our focus: developing presentation skills in Engineering undergrads

We saw presentations as an area of opportunity ripe for innovation due to a lack of current offerings and ample room for technical and service innovation. An early idea that got us excited about this area was a Vine or Snapchat like service for broadcasting practice presentations then receiving feedback. We decided to pair our interest in presenting with a focus on Engineering undergrads as they have limited requirements for communication skill development (a single English course), yet often present design projects in class. At this point, we needed to learn more about this subset of the larger landscape.

We interviewed a variety of stakeholders across campus to learn more about engineering students, their program, and current support for the development of presentation and speaking skills.

stakeholders we interviewed to dig deeper

stakeholders we interviewed to dig deeper

We found presentations in Engineering courses are often evaluated only for content. The quality of delivery is often not a discussion point or included in grading criteria. From discussions with the career center, we have drawn connections between presentation skills and the interviewing process. During job fairs and behavioral interviews, students often lack a reflective quality, struggling to describe challenges they faced or package information within an overarching story. Learning how to explain one's ideas in a presentation had obvious implications for expressing one's thinking during a case interview, in which one has to work out a problem on the spot. A big takeaway from this stage was that students are very busy so everything they spend their time on needs to serve a purpose. If an activity is in support of getting (or keeping) a job, students will gravitate towards it.

We looked at everyone who interacts with Engineering students and their presentation skills and the value they exchange to identify potential opportunities for reconfiguring the value space.

We looked at everyone who interacts with Engineering students and their presentation skills and the value they exchange to identify potential opportunities for reconfiguring the value space.

We looked at how presenting a presentation fits into courses at CMU. Students can take their presentation to the GCC, but they don't have an expert in that area. Although outside the scope of in-class presentation preparation, international students can develop these skills at ICC workshops.

We looked at how presenting a presentation fits into courses at CMU. Students can take their presentation to the GCC, but they don't have an expert in that area. Although outside the scope of in-class presentation preparation, international students can develop these skills at ICC workshops.

CONCEPT DEVELOPMENT & EVALUATION

After understanding the current state, we brainstormed potential concepts, deciding to explore these:

Echo-FinalPresentation-concepts.jpg

storyboarding

We storyboarded out high-level interactions for each idea so we could get feedback from students, staff, and faculty.

speed dating (the nerdy kind)

We used the needs validation process technique from the speed dating method to get feedback on the storyboards.

Prototyping through user enactments

preparing artifacts

conducting the sessions

using feedback to shape final concept

getting our ideas out there

Artifacts

Stakeholder Map

The efforts of two groups of people must overlap to successfully deliver Echo to students. Facilitators allow the service to exist by providing funding, administration, and technical infrastructure and support. Feedback providers provide the "meat" of the service. Crowd-sourced feedback from peers demonstrates to the student a first impression of their presentation. Faculty feedback provides content-specific feedback when Echo is used for in-class presentations. Expert feedback from a Global Communication Center (GCC) consultant provides credible and strategic critique and advice the student can use iterate on their presentation's content and delivery. Echo gives students a "high-density" experience because it mobilizes multiple resources and actors in a short amount of time.

Service Blueprint

A service blueprint was the best way for us to convey how the student's journey through Echo interlocked with artifacts and organizational processes. Because our service is delivered across multiple channels, we decided to use the format presented in Polaine, Lovlie, and Reason's Service Design rather than the traditional five swimlanes.

Technical Analysis

To demonstrate the technical feasibility of the automated feedback portion of our solution, we looked at current speech parsing and body language analysis tools.

Conclusion

After our final presentation, guests from the Simon Initiative recognized that this project is "very CMU", due to its use of technology and data to solve a problem. They agreed students would appreciate this mix of quantitative and qualitative feedback, making an ephemeral act concrete. They immediately asked about the service's operational and development costs, a sign that they want to see this exist. The presentation was shared with university leaders who were also supportive of Echo and are looking to build the service out of the campus's library.