Helping Students Go to College: Lessons Learned from the KnowHow2GO Public Service Campaign

In 2007, the Lumina Foundation for Education was launching a public service campaign called “KnowHow2GO,” which encourages students to prepare for college. I was asked to help incorporate a social media component for the campaign. Not yet finished with my master’s in HCI design, I was being handed—on a silver platter—an opportunity to do a high-profile, meaningful job and get paid for it. I dove into the work with the energy and naiveté natural to a youngster ready to change the world. However, I quickly faced a multitude of issues that I didn’t quite expect. This article describes my journey and the main lessons I learned along the way.

Getting to Know the Players

My first meeting with the stakeholders was an eye-opener. There were at least three different people inside the foundation who controlled how the campaign should work and would evaluate its delivery. In addition, the technical implementation partner had a key person and a whole team for support, the content partner had two key people, there was a facilitation and evaluation partner team of four, and there were teams in several states that had teams of up to six people each. I was overwhelmed by the number of people involved in what had seemed like a straightforward project.

I remember sitting there with all those stakeholders. The discussion facilitators had thoughtfully provided a variety of items, including play dough and pipe cleaners, to spark our creativity. I twisted pipe cleaners and formed shapes of the play dough into a contorted map of all the players. My creation was a symbol of both my frustration and the budding realization that I needed to better understand how all the pieces fit together. As the meeting progressed, I wrote down people’s names, affiliations, and project involvement.

At first I misunderstood who had the decision power in the project. I thought the electronic outreach director had a final say, but the situation was more complex than that. I would describe it as “design by committee.” But instead of just responding to the committee’s requests, I was an active member of the committee and had to sell my ideas, backing them up with good reasons and data. I also started to pay particular attention to the electronic outreach director and the subtle ways she helped build consensus.

One particular challenge I quickly noticed was the combination of private non-profit organizations (like Lumina), private for-profit organizations (such as our technical implementation partners), and public non-profit organizations (such as the state education agencies). A conflict situation arose when my team recommended WordPress as a free, open-source alternative to a proprietary content management system. Our idea was met with initial resistance in part because the for-profit implementation partner had their own system with which they were familiar and for which they would charge us to use.

We supported our case with data including the number of well-known players who use WordPress and the number of developers who are familiar with it, which would enable faster and cheaper customization. In addition, we emphasized the free nature of the platform—a big plus for future financial sustainability.

Finding a Champion

One important part of a project that crosses organizational boundaries is to have a champion—someone who understands the role of user experience. This person will advocate for you and introduce you to the right stakeholders. I had a fantastic champion in the electronic outreach director. However, even a great champion needs to have good reasons and data to present to other stakeholders in order to make a case.

Lumina is a data-driven organization. They expect those who work with them to provide data to inform their decisions, though the data they prefer tends to be more quantitative in nature. As a qualitative researcher, I needed to learn what information I could provide that would convince others. I didn’t expect to get a good answer by asking the stakeholders directly, so I was left to trial and error. In the end, using concrete examples from user testing, including some poignant video footage, did the job.

Once I had the stakeholders’ attention, I wanted to push for a radical redesign—or at least some major changes to the website and to how social media were used. Unfortunately, this just wasn’t possible. Yet, we were able to influence a lot of incremental changes along the way. Micro-sites and other features were added to address previously identified weaknesses and increase the impact of the campaign. Though a few navigational issues were never solved, all of the small improvements over a period of a year made the site more usable, more suitable to the audience, and more appealing.

Understanding the Users

The goal of KnowHow2GO.org (see Figure 1) is to help students go to college; achieving this goal could have a major impact in our world. But how do we serve and help large, often diverse audiences? In the case of public service campaigns, we can do this by getting information into peoples’ hands and giving them something to act on. But first we need to understand what information they need and how it should be presented.

image of a homepage

Figure 1. Homepage of KnowHow2GO.org

Students may see going to college as leaving everything they know behind, which can indeed be scary. Many of the students the KnowHow2GO campaign tries to reach come from families where no one has attended college before. To address the lack of familiarity problem, we set up a virtual campus tour on the site, easing students into the idea of visiting a campus.

The initial copy for KnowHow2GO.org was written by a group of highly educated people and, not surprisingly, ended up being difficult to understand by the intended audience. I remember a study participant who was taking a quiz on the website. When she got to the question about how likely a student was to get into a “competitive college” if their grades were poor, she turned to her friend and asked if he knew what that meant. He didn’t. Although the participant was familiar with both words, she didn’t know their meaning in the particular context. There were more examples like this one.

Those not used to working with qualitative data may not be convinced by what a few users have to say, so we decided to perform a reading-level analysis. A quick run through an online tool showed the reading level of the site was eleventh grade to college level, even though the content was aimed primarily at grades eight to ten. Eventually, everyone agreed that the language had to be modified to better resonate with the users, and the copy was changed little by little.

KnowHow2GO is still alive and well. It has many state partners implementing what we devised as a team, using WordPress to power their websites, and reaching out through various online media. Making all of this happen wasn’t easy, but every student who has gone to college because of the campaign has certainly made it worth the effort.

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