Operation Student Success
How do we tackle the issue of high drop-out rates in higher education and strive towards increased graduation numbers?



Entrepreneurial Project
UX/UI Designer


Tim Bielecki (Account Manager)
Tyler Scherr (Researcher)
Will Payne (Engineer)
Ben Jones (UX/UI Designer)

February – April 2017
Orca Pathways is an insight platform allowing higher education institutions to empower their students and faculty, ultimately increasing the success rate of graduations.
I was part of a 4-person team participating in a startup incubation competition tasked with creating a product that would solve the problem of below-par graduation rates at community colleges.
Product Designer
Product Strategy, User Research, Interaction, Information Architecture, Visual Design, Prototyping, & Pitching
We all assume (myself included) the vast majority of higher education students go on to complete their degree(s) and successfully graduate. This is not the case and is especially apparent within the community college sector. My own journey through the higher education system was not smooth so I understand how easy it might be for students to fall by the wayside.
Our team was tasked with turning around this problem as part of a larger competition sanctioned by The Startup Collaborative in Omaha, NE. The four person team consisted of a researcher, account manager, engineer, and myself leading the UX/UI strategy and in collaboration we developed a product strategy. I feel very fortunate to have been involved in this journey as this has allowed me to explore new areas of creativity and contributed to professional growth. Here are some key achievements from this project:

Taking an idea to a prototyped product

Taking an idea through to a prototype is both exciting, satisfying, and at times disappointing. Ultimately we placed second in the incubator competition but did not secure funding and the product was never beta tested in a live environment. This work and the dynamic of the team drove me to explore and improve further my skills in the development of a UX/UI strategy.

Wearing many hats, at the same time

Unlike regular in-house, agency or freelance projects, this start-up venture required everyone to pitch in beyond their scope and the was done in our spare time outside our full-time jobs. I dedicated hours to conducting research, sketching ideas, creating deck presentations, coding, and marketing the product to potential clients.

Pitching to investors and clients

The initial kick off for this product was part of a two-week competition. Although we did not win, we were still invited to utilize the incubation’s facilities and resources which included pitching to investors and possible clients (one of which was the Metro Community College (MCC) in Omaha, NE).
Understanding the Problem
From the get-go, we were hit with a ‘cry for help’ from a senior representative of Metro Community College asking for the concept of a product to be developed that would help their decrease in graduation percentages. They didn’t know why this was happening but they did know it was incrementally becoming worse over time and comparatively to other more affluent institutions, they were falling very short.
Our initial thoughts immediately turned socioeconomic influences, and how that would steer student’s commitment to their degrees. Of course, that was part of of the issue but after conducting research through questionnaires in a sample cohort, interviewing faculty, and reviewing published papers, we found that finance and personal burdens were just the tip of the iceberg.
“50% of college students start their college careers without declaring a major.”
Gordon, 1995
“40% of recent college graduates had never visited their university’s career offices. Among the 60% who did, only 17% reported finding the experience ‘helpful.”
Gallup-Purdue Index Report 2016
“75% of students change their major at least once during college, and the average college student changes their major three times.”
Gordon, 1995
“11% of employers believe college graduates are adequately prepared for the workforce.”
Gallup-Purdue Index Report 2016
“Career counselors on average, are responsible for advising nearly 3,000 students at a time.”
2016-17 Career Services Benchmark Survey Report for Colleges and Universities, National Association of Colleges and Employers
“Graduates have a 45% chance of working a job that doesn’t require a college degree.”
Forbes Grads Paper, 2017
“A recent national survey found that 85% of jobs are filled via networking.”
LinkedIn, 2016
“I’ve changed my major twice, in the first semester or my freshman year.”
MCC freshman student, 2017
“Keeping track of my cohorts is not intuitive, even with specialized software. I worry that I can’t keep up with my failing students.”
LinkedIn, 2017
Research Findings
After we gathered information from students and faculty through questionnaires, conducting interviews, and researching publications with both students and faculty, some key data points were discovered:
  • Faculty have no intuitive way to keep track of students within a large cohorts
  • Students appear not to be visiting career services
  • A small percentage of students that visit find the experience useful
  • Career services are failing to find jobs for students
  • Counselors on average service 3,000 students
  • Students change their majors at least once
  • A large number of jobs are filled through networking
  • Employers think graduates are underprepared

Our findings showed the problems that MCC were experiencing did not entirely relate to a student’s socioeconomic status and were also not limited to them and community colleges as a whole.

Market Research
This was the first time I had really thought about this issue from the viewpoint of an entrepreneurial or a consumer so I had no idea if there was, if any, products on the market addressing this problem. After further research, I found that there were existing companies in the space: Blackboard, Ellucian, and Myhub to name a few but these platforms catered to faculty and didn’t offer career path insights to students (in 2017). Further, MCC and many other institutions had recently invested in one or more of these existing products and were reluctant to give these up or invest in the development of an additional product (first place recipients received funding).
User Personas
We created two user personas based upon the research data we collected from interviewing students and faculty currently at local community colleges and students looking to enrol in higher education.
Product vision
For us to be able to develop a product that would solve all of the pain points discovered in a single product would be untenable. So we needed to use the data collected to determine a single product that would best help MCC increase their graduation percentage.
We wanted to give students insight and clarity into what their potential chosen majors would consist of in learning content and timelines, as well as showing tangible career opportunities post-graduation. This in theory would reduce the risk of students changing majors due to unsatisfactory experiences and unexpected surprises.
We also recognized that faculty expressed they were underpowered and falling behind with efficiently monitoring student’s progress and preventing dropouts.
This would be a white-label product, educational institutions would have the application branded in their specification to fit within their existing assets. Initial high-fidelity designs would be branded through the parent company and used as demos for client meetings.
Product MVP

We came up with the idea of using a pathway or tree-style interactive interface that would show student’s potential pathways through different majors and the potential career opportunities when they had graduated. The data for this interface would be collected in two different areas:

  1. The content for the majors would be supplied by the educational institutions
  2.  The career opportunities would be data taken from alumni and online data repositories

We would also create a parallel product that would be a tool for faculty to monitor student or cohort progress via a quick-glance platform.

Where would we get the data from?

We would need to pull from multiple sources of data to make the product viable. For the student major content, data would come directly from the institution on a year by year basis. For the careers section, data would come from Alumni networks through Facebook, LinkedIn, and the institutions themselves.

We understood that student participation was crucial to the success of their progress and the product as this would be ultimately optional for them. Therefore, making the product appealing to students in an interactive way is paramount. Enter the use of data visualization through D3JS coding technology.  Below is a quick introduction along with an example of how the interface would work and look.
Secondary product features

With the implementation of D3JS coding technology, we created 2 other smaller functionalities that would sit along-side our MVP:

For students
  1. A study group organizer, to promote a working community outside of the classroom
  2. A progress monitor that would use the same interface as the MVP to show the student their performance, whether they are meeting all targets, failing some or falling dangerously behind.
  3. A direct course to careers connection interactive platform that provides a quick and clear graphic of prospective career opportunities in correlation to major courses.
For faculty

The ability to message a cohort or an individual student, with the purpose of discussing their progress status.

White Paper

In preparation for pitching to educational institutions, we brought all our research and development data together to create a white paper.


From the flow-map I created a low-fi version of how the UI of the product would look and how the user would make their way through and interact app. At this point, we all made suggestions and edits in order to push the product to be A/B tested.

UI Guide

I created the UI elements, sections, and templates. I then created the high-fi front end version that we could take to client meetings and presentations.

Final UI Design
Outcomes & Personal takeaways
On the surface it was disappointing that we never managed to get the product into a live environment. We did however place second in two startup competitions, made substantial progress with MCC as our potential first client, and made numerous connections with students, faculty, and the start-up community.
Narrow my focus more
In hindsight, we probably tried to cover too many of the pain points we discovered, too early and this muddied the water with a concept that was brand new. This was a invalueble lesson to focus on one MVP, bring that to market and then branch out.
First impressions are key
Hackathons give us the oportunity to develop a dream product to address a problem, and this is where clients care mostly about how their users will interact with our creations. Being careful not to make the product too complex, no matter how sexy, is key to a successful conclusion.
Collaboration makes for better outcomes
2 heads are better than 1, well in this case, 4. This was the perfect collective, all bringing different skills to the table that we could push our product so far in a short space of time. It requires alot of care bringing the right people into a small team.
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