Evidence + Empathy: How Personas Can Help Universities Design Better Student Experiences During COVID-19

By
  • Melissa Hoelting
  • Leonardo Gonzalez
  • Adelia Schleusz

As colleges and universities reopen for fall semesters, their administrators and staff have been busy preparing their campuses for students to return to class during the COVID-19 pandemic by implementing logistics regarding testing, living accommodations, and class format all to better prevent, and respond to, a potential outbreak. All these strategies are informed by a growing body of evidence on how this virus can be spread and affect those infected.

However, as the past couple of weeks have shown us, campus outbreaks are still occurring under even the most thorough plans. Students are expressing their need for interaction, risking safety for socialization. This highlights the need for a comprehensive approach, incorporating physical and psychological well-being as equally important pieces to consider, overall helping us to understand students and their behaviors better rather than blame them for carefully crafted plans going awry.

Evidence + Empathy

Protecting student health and their need to create and be a part of a community does not have to be a choice or balancing act. While the existing evidence advises on what policies to put into place, what changes to make in the built environment and what behavioral protocols are required to keep a campus safe and healthy, it lacks contextualization. Each campus and their users bring an additional set of factors that requires consideration, providing an opportunity for institutions to personalize their return to learn scenarios.

For both designers and decision-makers, the question becomes: How can we layer empathy to help make students safer while fulfilling their needs?

Evidence + Empathy: Contextual application of existing knowledge and investigation of new knowledge

To allow evidence and empathy to guide the decision-making process, we have developed coronavirus personas of students in higher education to help build an understanding of their thoughts, emotions, and needs. The use of personas encourages consideration of the user by offering a quick tool that is representative of student user groups who enter campus for academic, social, or residential purposes. By generating these “corona personas,” we can glean insights into the impact of COVID-19 on the college experience and allow leadership to put themselves in the students’ shoes to better understand their needs.

Corona Personas

Developing a persona bridges the gap between amalgamated virtual personas and the users’ real emotions – what they may feel toward specific procedures, situations, or services. At times, students may not feel comfortable enough to voice their anxiety or concerns regarding policies and procedures, as well as voicing when they are concerned that they have been exposed, where they were exposed, and who they potentially exposed.

These personas also help to quickly visualize user needs and factors that affect preferences, choices, motivations, and behaviors. This drives a user-centered design approach when developing strategies in response to a variety of potential scenarios. These strategies can impact the design of the built environment while also building an understanding of how it can play a role in student engagement, health and well-being, retention, and most importantly during a pandemic, safety.

The set of personas shared here take a broad look at a range of institutions, living and learning scenarios, and student-types. These are intended to be broad translations illustrating the corona persona development process. This can be tailored to each institution offering customized insights into their students’ goals, needs, frustrations, motivators, and preferences.

Our methodology is to build each student persona based on a series of:

  • Factors – (demographics, circumstances)
  • Considerations – scenarios, problems, opportunities, preferences (all of which are affected by the predetermined factors)

Each institution and its students inform the factors component of each persona, while the considerations respond to these specific factors and an institution’s pandemic response plan. Evaluating a persona’s journey can help identify necessary touchpoints to address well-being and inclusion, offering opportunities for safe social interactions and making school resources more easily accessible.

Below, you will find two detailed personas from the series above.

Sean is an involved upperclassman in his final year of school. As an RA, Sean is a key point of contact with students, both for providing communication to them and the administration. Within his role, he wants to safely provide socialization opportunities for his residents but is also a confidant they will likely report any potential exposure to. He is in need of support due to his growing responsibilities, but also as he transitions to graduation and wants to prepare for entering the workforce.

Jin is a first-year student who graduated high school and began college during a pandemic, experiencing key milestones in an unexpected way. It is his first time away from home and the is concerned about getting the support he needs without putting his family’s health at risk. He needs support to build relationships, get involved outside of the classroom and become familiar with the university’s processes and resources while it is atypically operating.

Campus planners and administrators can map and focus on the user “journey” for each persona, from virtual interactions to important physical logistics and touchpoints. This greater understanding of user perspectives, concerns, and expectations help shape healthy and positive campus experiences, especially as campuses constantly reevaluate their plans and pivot as needed.

Keeping Campuses Open and Students Engaged

Increased awareness and empathy can inform, along with the evidence, decision-making and design interventions. These concepts reveal the underlying “why” behind users’ actions, choices and decisions so that institutions can proactively plan for real needs – even those that are difficult for users to perceive and articulate.  They are relatable, allowing others to internalize parts of the users’ experience in ways that listening to or reading a report cannot.  They pave the way for innovative planning solutions to be revealed, implemented, and tweaked to be even more impactful and effective.

We are here to support your organization during this time. If you are interested in learning more about utilizing coronavirus personas or our other services during this time, please contact Leonardo Gonzalez.

Melissa Hoelting

Melissa Hoelting is a design researcher and information designer at HKS. Her market research focuses on understanding industry trends and their impact on design. She considers the user experience fundamental to design. A member of the HKS research group, Melissa was an integral part of the Flexx study and Lane Tech Sensory Well-being Hub team.

Leonardo Gonzalez

Leonardo Gonzalez is Director of Education and Principal at HKS. A creative leader and storyteller, he leads the conceptualization, development and implementation of design projects such as schools, campuses and libraries with client groups throughout all phases. He believes in designing spaces that inspire learning and community.

Adelia Schleusz

Adelia Schleusz is Director of Education Interiors at HKS. Her experimental approach to design embraces technology, creative materials and natural elements to craft learning environments that enhance student and staff wellbeing. Adelia, who also has a degree in psychology, is a former behavioral health specialist.