In August 2019, I joined School Stories Lab at the University of Notre Dame as sole product designer alongside four student researchers, responsible for launching a website in one year—informed by Dr. Susan D. Blum’s two years of anthropology research documenting the challenges of schooling versus learning—serving students around the world with the opportunity to share their real experiences in the classroom.
"There's a strong mismatch between the ways people learn outside schools, and the ways they only appear to learn in schools."
Dr. Susan D. Blum
Our lab seeks to publish honest personal essays about anything that could reasonably fit under the heading “School Stories.” School may be nearly universal, but individual experiences differ immensely, informed by factors including race, socio-economic status, gender, disability status, nationality, sexuality, age, religion and culture. We especially encourage marginalized individuals from around the world to submit.
How might great storytelling capture the challenges of school?
We knew we would design a digital tool to improve story-collecting efficiency, so our team focused efforts on how to frame that tool to collect great stories. This would reduce the need for researchers to go into the field, freeing up their time for high-value product management tasks.
KEY RESEARCH INSIGHT
I looked at Pixar, the master storyteller eliciting real emotion from their audiences. Pixar stories take you on a journey. Pixar suggests great storytelling:
✓ Talks about universal themes from a unique point of view.
✓ Has honest intent and a clear purpose.
✓ Elicits real emotions without a teaching lesson.
✓ Pares down lofty language to remain focused and connect to the audience as humans.
Designing two happy paths
Our team met with media specialists Randy and Julie at the campus library and learned valuable feedback on how to develop our information architecture. We understood that our project has two happy paths: 1) share your story or 2) read our collection of stories.
Emotion fit to print
The School Stories site needed to compel readers with a large number of text-based stories. I examined comparative digital storytelling experiences that invite story submission (StoryCorps, TMI Project, Refund My Shit Date) and that publish text-based stories (Modern Love, Medium, Humans of New York).
DEFINING THE USER EXPERIENCE
Less is more
I kept these themes from the competitive analysis in mind while sketching concepts for the site and story-collection tool. I aimed to design a product that not only made users happy but was also feasible to develop with my limited HTML & CSS skills in WordPress.
Empowering diverse user journeys
My goal was to design a simple, friendly experience that would support user reading and story-sharing. Below is a look at the final build.
✓ Prominent Submission CTA
Because our goal is to first collect stories, and then share them, our primary CTA invites voices from around the world to share stories about life in schools, past or present, at any level of education.
✓ Really Short Stories (and Submission)
Our three-step submission involves 1) terms, 2) submission, and 3) demographics. We call for stories of about 250 words to support simple and focused storytelling (plus, short stories are easy to digest as a reader). The whole process can take as few as five minutes.
✓ Browse by Theme
We invite all to respond to weekly themes, posted both on the site and on all social media sites. Past themes have included: cheating, dedication, family, friendship, motivation, racism, and more.
✓ Browse by Place
We require all to share the location where each story took place (no other demographic is required). Mapping software wasn’t in the budget for our lean lab, so I invented a free workaround using Google Maps that enables users to read stories visually mapped around the globe.
✓ Browse by Emotion
We invite all to share REAL stories about school. Inspired by Psychologist Robert Plutchik’s work on the nature of emotions, I designed a color wheel to code each story by emotion—that users can understand visually.
Results & next steps
The story-collecting tool succeeded in supporting a diverse, global community of students as it gathered 180+ stories from users spanning 6 continents, 12 countries, and 31 U.S. states during the first month following its launch.
Student researchers shared the stories on social media (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook) and then posted them to the website. When shared on social media, the stories not only prompted high story-submission conversion rates, but also built a validating student community encouraging learning outside of the classroom.
I feel empowered knowing the workflow and system I established has allowed non-designers to maintain the site and grow the project now that I have graduated. I’m excited to follow the lab as it evolves with new content.
“Claire brought both ethnographic sensibility and design chops to a project I’d been developing with a team for two years. Her technical expertise and visual creativity became the linchpin for this project, which finally launched only because of her contribution. Claire Squire is that perfect combination of inspiration and precision that the very best design embodies!"
✎ Dr. Susan D. Blum, Lab Director & Tenured Professor
This project has received generous funding and support from the Department of Anthropology, the College of Arts and Letters, and the Kellogg Institute for International Studies at the University of Notre Dame.
I began this case study with one question: what’s your (school) story? I’ll end it with another: how will you tell it? Let me know on LinkedIn.