Establishing a Home Across the Globe for International Students

Each year, thousands (800k + in 2022) of students embark on a journey to Canada in pursuit of knowledge. It’s important to acquire a safe study haven so that they can succeed in their studies. This is the story of how I helped them to foster their future neighbourhood, friends and community before setting foot in Canada.

This is the capstone project that I worked on during my UX training at Brainstation®.

My Role

As the lead for the experience strategy and design of the Android app, I steered the project from September 2023 to November 2023. Throughout this period, I presented my work at key milestones to both peers and educators. This allowed for valuable feedback and ensured alignment with project goals.

Below are the UX methods I used.

Discover

Field Studies/user interviews

Requirements and constraints gathering

Hunt for data sources

Explore

Affinity Mapping

Persona building

Journey Mapping

User Stories

Task Flow

Prototyping

Test

User testing

Prioritization Matrix

Designed for Android

Duration: 10 weeks

Prototype built in Figma

Placeholder images on the prototype were generated with Midjourney (AI)

Key Constraints and Assumptions

I came across news indicating that even post-COVID, Canada was grappling with a widespread housing shortage, emerging as a nationwide challenge. Numerous reports shed light on the exploitation of international students by landlords and educational institutions, painting a rather grim picture. This raises questions about whether this is a transient issue or if international students would still need assistance in more stable times. The current situation prompts various uncertainties, but one undeniable fact is that international students deserve a better experience.

The Canadian economy relies on the financial contributions and talent brought in by international students, shaping the nation’s future. Choosing to pursue education in Canada is a pathway many international students aspire to in order to reside in the country.

Addressing the intricacies of the issue required a comprehensive understanding, making it imperative to analyze both historical and current perspectives. This approach was crucial in formulating a solution that holds value for prospective international students in the future.

The Challenge

How do I help international students secure accommodation pre-arrival?

The insights below facilitated my comprehension of the connection between the challenges faced by international students and the significant number of those aspiring to come to Canada. I wanted to help them some how.

Canada hosted more than 800 K international students last year (2022), and applications from international students will reach 949 K this year (2023).

One of the basics of experiencing a comfortable school life is having a place to live.

Accommodation challenges represent the most considerable pre-arrival frustration for students coming to Canada.

The double diamond model

I followed the double-diamond model approach introduced by the UK Design Council and validated by the Nielson Norman Group, which are world leaders in research-based user experience. Please follow along to see how the process guided me through this challenge.

DIVERGE

Field Studies and Interviews

There is a room in my house that I rent. It became available in October as my roommate was moving out. I received quite a few calls from international students looking for a place, yet they were already in school. They told me how their studies kept them so busy but they only had temporary accommodation and still trying to figure it out. I could tell they were worried and did not feel quite settled. They were making new friends with other students and helping each other figure it out. Through observation, and chatting with them on the phone I began to learn quite a bit about what it was like coming to study in another country and the challenges of finding a place to stay.

I reached out to people who went through the whole international student experience and interviewed them. I asked them how they approached looking for suitable accommodation, the tools they used, the problems they encountered between their search and living in Canada and their feelings towards the experience.

International student

Ana, 29, Brazil

Studied Tourism in St. Johns, Newfoundland 

International student

Marcelo, 30, Brazil

Studied Medicine in London, Ontario

International student

Luis, 25, Mexico

Studied Media and Journalism in Toronto, Ontario

International student

Fareeha, 22, Azerbaijan

Studied Business in Toronto, Ontario

Secondary Research

I conducted data research to uncover crucial insights into the behaviours, thoughts, and emotions of international students when it comes to securing accommodation while studying abroad. I recognized the many opportunities to enhance their experience.

School websites remain the primary resource students use when researching where to study abroad.

Students are increasingly looking to connect with current international students to ask questions and get a feel for the student experience.

The number one thing students are looking for from a destination country is that it provides a welcoming environment for international students.

Photo of stick it notes posted on a board.

Affinity Mapping

I collected a lot of information from my interviewees. I wrote each data point on a note card and organized them under the headings: pain points, behaviours, goals and motivations.

After that round, I looked for patterns and grouped them into themes. I chose the theme with the most paint points.

One group I created was called Research and Preparation. There was enough information under this theme to work from.

Here is the list of pain points, behaviours, goals and motivations that helped me to better define my ‘How might we’ statement and to create a persona.

Pain Points

I wish I had a student guide to help me once I arrived.

It was hard to find a place to stay because the city was small and there weren’t enough apartments.

I had no time to learn about the city because of schoolwork.

Downtown Toronto is overcrowded.

It was hard to find the stores and where to buy food.

It was difficult to get used to the city.

Behaviours

I did my research and had a good idea of the type of accommodation I wanted.

I chose Toronto because it’s a multi-cultural city.

I used FB groups for international students to ask where the best places are to live.

Goals and Motivations

I came here because my brother was already here.

I came to Canada because my friends told me it was a good country and that people are nice here.

CONVERGE

How Might We

After my research, I defined how I could help the international student.

How might we proactively inform and prepare international students with the knowledge of their surrounding neighbourhoods before their arrival, ensuring they can make informed decisions about their living arrangements so that they can feel safe, comfortable, and able to succeed while studying in Canada?

EXPLORE

Persona Building

To empathize with the user, a persona was created to support human-centered design throughout the project. The persona was something I continued to refer back to when designing the product.

International student from Brazil

I’m excited to start school this fall. I want a place near transit.

Carlos, Age 26, Brazilian

Carlos is eager to go to Canada and study Health Sciences at the University of Toronto. He preferred living on campus but there is a waiting list and is now trying to explore his options for accommodation.

Characteristics

Tries to spend time researching places to live.

Is under the impression that finding a place will be easy. 

Goals

Wants to live in a safe and welcoming neighbourhood.

Would like to team up with another student to cut down on the rent cost.

Challenges

Unfamiliar with Toronto’s neighbourhoods.

Uncertain what the amenities are like in Toronto from a foriegn person’s point of view.

Experience Mapping

To empathize with Carlos, I imagined what his journey might look like in seeking accommodation. He is desperately searching for online resources that provide insights into Toronto’s neighbourhoods. This is how his experience could go.

I looked for opportunities to help Carlos during his experience.

User Stories

What did Carlos need in order to secure a neighbourhood in Canada? What could he benefit from throughout his journey?

I created several user stories for Carlos and grouped them into epics. The epic I chose to start prototyping for is Neighbourhood Preferences. Here are a couple of user stories from the epic.

As an international student...

I want to input that transit is important to me so that I’m matched with neighbourhoods where transit is accessible.

I want to input how much I can afford for rent so that I’m matched with neighbourhoods that are within my price range.

Student holding a cell phone with a map on the screeen.

Task Flow Diagram

From my user stories, I created a task flow showing how Carlos would select his preferences to get matched with neighbourhoods.

Task Flow

UI Inspiration and Sketching

I collected some design features from apps that could work in my prototype. I also sketched out the screens for my task flow before building the wireframe in Figma.

I will present some sketching below the low-fidelity wireframe portion as my design changed significantly and I had to reiterate my design. The reason is detailed below.

Low-Fidelity Wireframe

Initially, I made a huge mistake in how I designed the first screen for my task flow. After receiving some advice I reiterated the design.

Wire Frame

My first prototype was very wonky. It had a large search bar at the top that would to the screen to add preferences. It followed my task flow but the main screen should have had a map.

I did my user tests on friends and family. They were able to go through the test with some minor hiccups. The UX writing required improvement. Someone with a lot of experience developing products recommended using a map on the main screen.

I was very open to this mentorship and advice and designed another prototype. This led me to evaluate map and search systems which are very complex.

I began to study map systems such as Google Maps and AirBnb. They really nailed Usability Heuristic #7–flexibility and efficiency of use which allows the user to make selections based on how they want the product to work.

An international student, might not want to go through the whole process of inputting their preferences to find their best matches. They may want to do a quick search based on one criterion.

Google Maps works like this: the user can enter what they are looking for and then are given the option to apply one filter for that search or they can hit a filter button that allows them to set multiple filters.

Ex. User enters “hiking trails”
The user taps “top-rated”
The user gets a list of hiking trails that are top-rated for that area.

Google Maps

How would this look for the international student?
The user enters “University of Toronto”
The user taps “Best transit”
The user gets a list of neighbourhoods that offer the most accessible transit.
Users can zoom out on the map which will set the search radius for this filter.

The map will function based on what is relevant to the international student. For example, their search results are based on their school location and they can drop a pin to save this location. The most relevant information for the international student is transit, grocery stores, community, health and leisure. They need to know how these amenities fit in relation to their school and where they are living.

The map will always require testing improvement and development in order for the product to remain competitive and rank high amongst international students. It is an important tool for the international student to gain their bearings before coming to Canada. I can also envision them still using it once during their studies in Canada.

Screen showing search based on transit filter.

Sketching

I wanted to improve my search and open the user up to more options. This was a make it or break it turning point.

Branding the Mobile App

Let’s get an Uber…

I think it’s amazing how Uber is synonoumous with “cab”. The name Uber is derived from the German word meaning “above all the rest.”

I aimed to create a singular word that was simple and easy to remember and became memorable as it became apart of international student’s lives, and the more it was spoken. As long as students were using the app, it didn’t matter if the name had any significance to them.

It had to become apart of their vocabulary. That was my goal.

Wordmark and Logo

I came up with the name “Tern” which is completely metaphoric.

“Tern” takes its inspiration from the Arctic Tern, a migratory bird renowned in Canada. Similar to international students seeking new horizons abroad, the Arctic tern symbolizes the establishment of a new ‘home’ across diverse corners of the globe.

With one of the planet’s most remarkable migrations, Arctic terns and international students alike personify the extraordinary resilience and adaptability required to thrive in unfamiliar environments.

ARCHETYPE

The Scholar

The “scholar” reflects a lifelong dedication to learning and the accumulation of knowledge, whether in the arts, sciences, humanities, or other domains. They have a deep commitment to knowledge and wisdom is valued. For the scholar, it’s about the pursuit of intellectual excellence, a thirst for understanding the world, and the sharing of that knowledge to benefit society
and individuals.

The Scholar is...

Relective

Resourceful

Friendly

Adaptable

Self-motivated

Resilient

Aspirational

COLOUR

Moodboard

With the “scholar” in mind I gathered images that gave meaning to their characteristics. Once I curated a collection of images that I was happy with, I extracted colour samples from one of the images and chose three main colours.

Tints and shades will be created from the three colours. I chose a “cool shade” as the primary colour to convey the “Great White North” and how the students school year would take place in the winter. The secondary colour is warm to represent fall and that it’s the beginning of their school year.

DESIGN

User Interface Library

I constructed a UI library using a method known as Atomic Design. It’s a design system created by Brad Frost.

The UI library is quite extensive and is the “truth” for team members to reference when designing screens for the Tern app. I have shown typefaces and grids below as a sample. My full UI library can be downloaded here for viewing.

Type Styles

One part of the atomic design system is to choose text styles. This is known as a “foundation.” I chose the font Alegreya Sans and it’s serif version for paragraph text. It is a Humanist sans-serif font and has a friendly and contemporary look. The font also adapts well to various design contexts, from editorial and branding to digital interfaces

Aa

Aa

Aa

Grids

The grid layout is shown being applied to an Android Large screen (size: 360 x 800). I used this grid system to build my prototype.

Grid for android

Hi-Fidelity Prototype

Here are the screens from my prototype. Let me walk you through them and show you what the international student’s journey looks like.

The user is on the “Explore” page. The icon is highlighted by a pill to indicate to the user that it is active. The user can zoom in and out of the map using two finger scroll.

The search will include an autocomplete function to avoid manual typing for the user. There will also be a recent search list. The user can clear the item by tapping the “X.” The user can also set their school location and/or neighbourhood to search for amenities based on those set locations.

Once the user defines their search, neighbourhoods and amenities will appear based on relevance. The user can define their search based on filters shown as chips.

The user can toggle between map view and list view. Above is the list view. They can also change their search by hitting back button or hitting “X” which will start their search from the beginning. If the user wishes to continue their journey they can tap on one of the neighbourhood listings for more information.

If the user wants to define their search based on multiple filters, they would hit the Filters chip which would bring them to the filters page. They can define the criteria for the type of neighbourhood they would like to find. As the user inputs their values, the value on the “View 5 Neighbourhoods” will change based on calcuation. This avoids the user from getting a “sorry, no search results found.” If the search returns no neighbourhoods, the button will say “0” prompting the user to change their filter choices. They can also reset by tapping “Clear.”

When the user hits “View Neighbourhoods” button, the next screen is  the neighbourhoods shown on the map and a percentage rating is shown for best matches. The “Filters” chip is indicated as active when they are in this search mode. The user can tap those molecules in order to read details for that neighbourhood. See next screens.

Continuing their journey, the user taps on the neighbourhood that is their highest match. They can view images of the neighbourhood, share, add to favorites, and read valuable up-to-date information.

As they scroll, they can explore amenities at available, view profiles of students that favourited the neighborhood and connect with them to start a potential friendship and roomate. They can also access reviews from this page and scroll through the most recent.

The Future of Tern

There are consequences that come with designing a digital solution. Technology comes with unintended consequences. In order to keep me on my toes and prepare me for the future I drew a card from The Tarot Cards of Tech.

The cards have spoken…

If my product is successful, housing guidance at post-secondary schools would not be neccessary and any online assistance that they provided would become obsolete.

Facebook groups for international students would also lose users.

Realtors that provided services to international would lose business.

Any small company that offered a paid service to international students helping them find accommodation would lose business. Companies such as this are available and often found via instagram and Facebook ads. This was a service that one of my interviewees had paid for and it served them well.

Image of desktop computer, mobile phone and tablet.

Marketing Website for Tern

I created a responsive website to market the mobile app, Tern. If you would like to view the prototypes, select the links below.

I hope that you enjoyed reading my case study. If you would like to discuss UX design with me, don’t hesitate to reach out. I enjoy sharing ideas and knowledge and learning from others. My email is lindsayadamsdesign@gmail.com.

If my work helped you in any way, you can show your support by buying me a coffee.