After college, I spent a year working for Boston Public Schools (BPS) through the Americorps Vista program. As part of my responsibilities, I helped families register their students for school. To register a student for BPS, parents must visit a Welcome Center to provide custody documents, proof of residency in the City of Boston, up-to-date immunization records, etc.
Enrolling a student one of the 137 schools in the Boston Public Schools system can be a difficult process to navigate. Current experience involves long wait times, unclear expectations of necessary documents, and relies on paperwork, where human error is likely to occur. I remember one particularly busy day where many families waited for up to 8 hours in the Welcome Center and left without even beginning the registration process due to the lack of Chinese translators.
As part of the application process for Fresh Tilled Soil’s UX Apprenticeship program, chosen applicants participated in a five-day design sprint to solve for a problem within the realm of education. My prior experience with BPS struck me as an important problem to solve so I designed an app that parents can use to jumpstart the BPS registration process at iPad kiosks at Welcome Centers.
Waiting rooms at the Welcome Center are typically noisy and hectic with kids. For many families, it is a cultural norm to make a decisions as a family and sometimes entire extended families accompany parents to register a student. It wouldn’t be unusual to see the grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, cousins crammed in one cubicle.
Process began elsewhere
Parents had to start planning for their visit beforehand whether it was finding coverage for work or childcare or researching schools at home. Even for parents who thought they did significant research before their visit, it fell short. Sometimes they knew to visit the Welcome Center, but arrived without necessary documents or with outdated documents and had to make another visit.
I wanted friendliness to be a core component of the tone and visuals. To avoid information overload, I dissected important information into digestible blocks, stated clear expectations before each step, and utilized icons. I also placed the document check in the beginning of the process to ensure parents didn’t waste more time if they were missing any documents.
Initial usability tests
I conducted usability tests with a prototype created in InVision to test the app’s ease of use and the document check function. BPS can only accept proofs of residency that follow strict stipulations so I created A/B tests to see which messaging would encourage parents to check for outdated documents. To prevent potential frustration and encourage positivity, parents were also prompted to use the Welcome Center’s resources to obtain documents via Internet or fax machine if they were missing any documents. Users unanimously felt the swipe function to advance to the next screen was not intuitive, even when onboarding was provided.
After I was accepted into the program, I was given additional challenges to continue further iterating on our initial design sprint app and further develop UX skills.
I continued interviews with parents from all over the country inquiring about how they decided on their children’s schooling. Their children went to a mix of public, parochial, and private schools in cities, suburbs, and small towns. They relied heavily on word of mouth for school reputations and made visits to prospective schools, taking location and distance into account. Preferences ranged all over the board from immigrant parents who prioritized ESL programs to parents who sought staff specializing with learning disabilities. However, none of these parents sent their students to a district that used a computerized lottery system, which is how BPS assigns school seats to students. I realized I needed to look specifically at BPS families to have a better representation of their current experience.
The BPS audience
Many BPS parents and guardians are not native English speakers or don’t feel comfortable speaking English. Forty-four percent of BPS students speak a language other than English as their first language. The most spoken languages for BPS families include Spanish, Haitian creole, Cape Verdean creole, Chinese, Vietnamese, Somali, Arabic, and French.
Seventy eight percent of BPS students qualify for free- or reduced-price meals due to income status. Families living along or below the poverty line will have significantly less resources than middle class and upper middle class families, whether it’s time or ability to navigate the system. One parent argued with a registration specialist on the phone, accusing BPS for putting her student in a particular school because he was a Black student. Despite the specialist’s attempts to explain that the computer algorithm wasn’t capable of racial biases, it was clear that there was an intense distrust of the system.
As I continued work on the app, I focused on my most dangerous assumption that parents knew which schools they want their student to attend. It was common for parents to ask the registration specialist what was a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ school and it became clear that the framework needed to change to ‘which school is the right fit for my student and family?’. Parents didn’t know what characteristics they needed to look for in a quality school. In addition to being aware of their options, parents also needed to understand what would be most important for their unique student.
I iterated on my original language prompt and created a test with directions in Chinese with my English-speaking participants. I also included a questionnaire-like feature in the school choices section to help parents prioritize school characteristics using distinctions used by BPS’ Discover BPS website, an incredibly helpful, but underutilized resource.
My test results revealed that navigation needed to become more explicit about flow and scrolling. There was further confusion with the “Continue” buttons to advance to the next screen. A previous interview revealed that a parent felt embarrassed to ask questions about schools so I included “Why might this be important to me” and “Learn more” links to explain school characteristics. Parents loved the links and how they discovered diverse school offerings they didn’t know BPS provided.
Parents felt unclear about how much they were able to act on their school characteristics selections. They didn’t know if they were locked in by their selections and wanted to see how lists changed as they edited their preferences. There also needed to be a way to rank to their preferences. It didn’t make sense to have a busy working parent’s preference in uniform policy have more or equal weight than their preference in a school with after school programs.
I included inputs for basic student information in the beginning of the registration process so that the app would only feature relevant options based on the student’s grades to minimize confusion. There was no need to include AP classes as a priority if the student is going to Kindergarten.
The navigation needs to explicitly communicate the fluidity or progression of registration steps. It also needs menu options that allows parents to save, email, and print their progress if they have to unexpectedly pause their registration.
Beyond the screen, I need to further research the phsyical flow of the Welcome Centers and develop the look and location of the kiosks. Furthermore, parents' pain point of visiting the Welcome Center is still not solved. Due to potential fraud with digitized documents, I recommend mobile Welcome Center alternatives, perhaps in the form of a vehicle that visits neighborhoods to accommodate busy parents.
While some families will be delighted to receive a letter in the mail with the name of their first or second choice school printed on it, BPS cannot promise everyone their top ranked school. There simply are not enough open seats for everyone to get what they want. While the app guided parents to think about their students’ educational needs, it didn’t prepare them for potential disappointment. The app will need further work on onboarding parents’ expectations and familiarize them with BPS’ Home-Based system of assigning students seats.
I believe the parents of BPS need more than an app to equip them and their families for educational success. Necessary changes are structural and go well beyond a screen. However, this project reminded me that despite moving professionally in a different direction after working in public education, I can still continue to strengthen my community and create more equality in the world.