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Blindspots: Growing Student Perspectives Through Self-Directed Exposure Wesley Lauka School of Information University of Michigan

Ben Mullins School of Information University of Michigan

Phillip Tularak School of Information University of Michigan

School of Information University of Michigan 4322 North Quad 105 South State Street Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1285

Abstract Blindspots is a system that fosters the sharing of career-oriented stories in an e↵ort to broaden first-generation students’ exposure to the career paths connected to majors. Being the first person in one’s family to attend college is a significant achievement, but brings with it certain challenges. Exposure to stories of those who are in a professional position can broaden narrow perspectives and reshape understanding to unknown obstacles. Based on our research, soliciting stories from the crowd can help inform student perspectives, opening up new possibilities through the sharing of experiences.

Copyright is held by the author/owner(s). CHI’13, April 27 – May 2, 2013, Paris, France. ACM XXX-X-XXXX-XXXX-X/XX/XX.

Author Keywords First-Generation, Exposure, Storytelling, Alumni, Students, Crowd

ACM Classification Keywords H.5.2 [Information Interfaces and Presentation]: User Interfaces - Graphical user interfaces (GUI); Interaction styles (e.g., commands, menus, forms, direct manipulation); Prototyping; User-centered design

Introduction Choosing a college major can be a difficult task with significant long-term consequences. It dictates future career paths, defines identities, and has lasting financial implications. Despite the wealth of informative resources available to students, the journey from choosing a major to a career is often filled with blind spots. Without relevant guidance and exposure to the obstacles and opportunities that await, students can make drastic leaps before asking the right questions of themselves and others [5]. Unfortunately, in the case of first-generation college students, fewer opportunities exist for career-related exposure, which is vital to thinking through the outcomes of the decision [9]. These students, comprising up to one third of national undergraduates [2], often lack access to

Figure 1: As a person is exposed to the perspectives of others, their narrative on a topic grows, creating a broader perspective than one without the exposure of the crowd.

larger, domain-knowledgeable networks that other students benefit from. This can be o↵set by providing them access to a specific crowd, one they may soon find themselves a part of, an institution’s alumni. Positioned to leverage the crowd and networks of LinkedIn, Blindspots presents to students short narrative responses by alumni, drawing on a range of perspectives. It exposes the panorama of experience between the first few college decisions and the realities of a job that waits on the other end. Blindspots o↵ers the benefits of gradual exposure and a camaraderie in the crowd to better prepare students.

Establishing the Conceptual Problem Space Values such as culture, community, economic status, and education are key attributes that a↵ect an individual’s available knowledge resources. One’s perspective and view of the future is limited to the knowledge available [7]. Lacking a family-oriented community on which to draw exposure related to higher education, first-generation students are more likely to appropriate a generalized narrative of their aspirations. The key question becomes how to access the di↵erences within the crowd to enhance an individual’s understanding.

Problem Identification

The Envisioned Solution

Framing the Social and Economic Impact According to the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, 85.9% of first-generation students indicated “to get a better job” as a very important factor when considering to attend college. Furthermore, “to get training for a specific career” has continuously been the third most given reason at 77.6% for the past few years [4]. However, the selection and pursuit of a career path without comprehensive understanding of what it entails can lead to regrets, especially in the current economy, with education costs rising 60% over the last two decades [5].

System Overview Blindspots is a collection of brief stories crowdsourced from alumni. Users are first presented with a selection of stories that allow them to begin exploration, or they may search for a topic of interest, which will present them a more focused selection of stories. After the completion of the first story, users are presented with the option of selecting between two “paths” to explore. These paths represent navigation to either closely or loosely related stories, each path presenting the user with three stories to choose from. The brevity and diversity of these stories allows users to step through a wide range of perspectives in a short period of time.

Our initial suspicions regarding the existence of a career/major selection problem was supported by our own anecdotal evidence. We all knew college graduates who wished they had known certain things before making their career choices. As our research later revealed, a significant amount of the information identified as critical was information embedded in contextual exposure. It was not information they were guaranteed to receive, it was something they picked up along the way.

Blindspots is designed to reveal variables users did not realize they sought. This takes advantage of “the crowd” in the purest sense. The value doesn’t come from filtering the crowd. Instead, the value comes from the accumulated information received from a wide range of individuals (see Figure 2).



Figure 2: The Blindspots system creates an environment for student to explore a wide range of stories contributed by di↵erent alumni professionals.

Flowing from Contributor to Consumer On the contributor side, an institution’s entire alumni network can contribute short stories based in the topics/domains on which they are qualified to speak. The system asks directed questions, based on the contributor’s LinkedIn profile data. The amassed stories are continually linked together, marking stories as related to the topics and ideas discussed by the contributors. Then, on the consumer side, students are presented with a single story, navigation options, and comments which have been left on the story. The navigation takes the form of two options. From any story a user can choose to take a “left turn” or “right turn”, reflecting on a desire to explore closer or further away from the content of the current story. Each direction presents the user with three options for a next story to view (see Figure 3). Users may want to review content they experienced on Blindspots at a later date. To facilitate this, users can access a sequential history of the stories they have read, and label specific stories as “favorites”. Stories also provide users the opportunity to “connect” directly with the author via LinkedIn’s direct mail service.

User Centered Research To gain the design perspectives needed, our research was broken into two phases, story elicitation from working professionals, and semi-structured interviews with first-generation college students at the University of Michigan. We chose to make first-generation college students our primary target audience, as research suggests first-generation students have a greater likelihood of facing obstacles that Blindspots can help overcome. First-generation students are twice as likely to report

significant concerns about financing college, making choice of major a more critical decision [4]. This data also shows a higher percentage of first-generation students citing “more money” as their top reason for attending college (76.4% vs. 69.8%), yet the proportion aspiring to get a masters degree or higher is consistently 10-15% less than non first-generation students. Even accounting for di↵erences between fields, this suggests that first-generation students may not be aware of all the factors involved in meeting their goals. Story Elicitation to Professionals A “story elicitation” was designed to better understand what type of data individuals would share about the journey to their career, and to determine what questions could inspire rich responses. Utilizing affinity-based techniques [6], we formed core themes around what would contribute to making a professional’s experience reflectively rewarding. These themes were: • Context: current professional standing, to ground the contributor’s experience • Story: the specific personal narrative • Missing: what the person believed would have made the biggest di↵erence in their career • Made A Di↵erence: what experiences or choices had the biggest impact from a career perspective The resulting questionnaire was distributed through multiple channels including an alumni mailing list and Twitter. Receiving 25 quality responses, the elicitations revealed a willingness to invest a significant amount of time sharing their stories, averaging approximately 300 words for each narrative. We found considerable variation in what people wished they had known, and most respondents felt strongly about the topic.

Figure 3: The Blindspots Story View, showing the “Left Turn” dropdown menu. The user is presented with three options for the next story to be viewed.

Interviews with First-Generation Students Three experience-driven interviews were conducted, providing information into the motivations of first-generation students and their selection of majors. We sought to identify what they felt contributed to their success, as well as what they regretted not knowing sooner. Participants indicated that their parent’s desire for the them to be economically secure was a large factor in the decision to go to college and their selection of majors. Participant 02 stated, “I wanted to be a doctor because my family wanted me to be a doctor.” However, there was a disconnect between what the participants’ parents saw as desirable, and what they enjoyed or felt fulfilled doing (a feeling not limited to first-generation students). Participant 02 indicated that as a result, they were not having a valuable college experience. Luckily, Partcipant 02 had the opportunity to meet her freshmen roommate’s mother, whose experience as a lawyer became an invaluable reference. Those interviewed repeatedly mentioned almost-missed opportunities, attributing much success to “luck.” Participant 01 remarked, “I wish I had had more people telling me what I needed to be thinking about earlier.” In the absence of a support structure, most of these instances of luck could be credited to being in the right place at the right time.

The Design Process Figure 4: A user engages with the initial Blindspots paper prototype.

Formalizing Design Imperatives To ground our design initiative, we assembled constraints, or imperatives, based in our research and conceptual framing. The highest priority constraints were the following: • Build on the quality of crowds that are already in place

• Increase incentives and lower barriers for participation for both content contributors and consumers • The system must be distinct from resources already available via search engines. Blindspots focuses on information that, while ultimately helpful, the user is not actively searching for • This is not a system that provides instructions or advice, it should facilitate exposure to a wide range of perspectives and experiences empower the user to chart their own path In regards to the first constraint, creating Blindspots within the career and education-oriented LinkedIn community brings several benefits. In addition to not requiring users to register with a new service, access to a user’s LinkedIn profile allows Blindspots to ask questions about specific entries on a profile, increasing the likelihood of a targeted, and thus unique, beneficial response. Translating Research Findings into Interactions Blindspots represents a simple contributor/consumer relationship, centering on the presentation of small stories to the student user (consumer) as written by professionals (contributors). Through iterative, low-fidelity design we attempted to pare down the system interactions, focusing on the relationship between the user and the story content. The main living artifact of the design process is an integrated wireframe/user-flow (see Figure 5 and Figure 6), representing the entire system. It allows global and local interactions to be visualized and discussed, while emphasizing the desire to ease the cost of movement through the stories. This led to the decision to limit stories to a short, focused length, allowing engagement costs to decrease and encouraging movement through the system. The level of attention needed to invest in each

story being enough to maintain interest and value, but not overwhelm the user. One of the most difficult areas of design was the consumer’s entry point. The current design provides the user a small sampling of stories to provoke potential starting points, while also including a user-input field for establishing a starting point. With a focus on exploration, the system needed to provide a structure to ignite an interest in movement without strongly filtering the knowledge within reach.




Validation 7











Figure 5: Wireflow diagram showing paths through the system from the Contributor side.

Paper Prototyping the Design Solution Three users were run through a series of tasks on a paper prototype of the system using the think-aloud protocol [8]. Findings showed that users were confused by the initial navigation button labels (see Figure 4). This behavior indicated a design flaw in the alignment between the UI and the goals of the system. It was also observed that users were confused moving between stories, not understanding why they were taken to a particular one. The users did comment that the stories were valuable, and found the ability to explore the topic area through them an interesting and useful presentation of the information. Iterating on User Feedback User feedback lead the team to redesign the interaction model of the local story navigation. The combination of large arrows and vocabulary of “left turn”, “right turn”, “straight ahead” confused users, leading them to mistake it with global navigational tools. This was remedied with more actionable phrasing and more relevant, detailed iconography. This also informed the elimination of the “safe choice” option, which was found to discourage exploratory behavior. Finally, to lessen disorientation moving between stories while balancing the need for exploration, a secondary menu was adopted. The

secondary menu presents users with the titles of three potential stories, o↵ering an informed choice to the user.

Discussion Motivating Users Motivation problems exist in any crowd-driven system where a critical mass is important. By leveraging LinkedIn and the contributors’ associations with the University of Michigan, Blindspots takes advantage of identity-based commitment. Identity based commitment describes how people associate themselves as a member of a group, i.e. gender, geographic, nationality, political party, et cetera [3]. This self selection and identification with groups gives strength to the system as participants are more likely to stay engaged with the system - even without specific friend connections. Additionally, the service o↵ers another method for alumni to give back to the institution. Evidence to career paths, accounts of specific personal experiences, and potentially mentorship, can provide professionals with a means of enhancing the value of their alma mater. Furthermore, our preliminary observations suggest a willingness within first-generation students to give back as they progress through their education. Participant 01 indicated that she credits much of the valuable information she had obtained regarding her field to being a peer advisor, helping others find resources. Technical Feasibility Blindspots leverages LinkedIn’s existing API, o↵ering access to relevant job and education data in a users profile. Contributors only need to provide stories, as demographic information used to organize and classify data can also be extracted from their LinkedIn profile. Providing users with both similar and unrelated options of







what story to read next requires a means of determining level of similarity between stories. Extracting relevant data from stories such as sentiment, emotions, certainty, and subject matter can be largely automated. For example, the Insights API from OpenAmplify [1] can automatically extract this data from stories, and the results determine the stories available to be viewed next. Extending the System While the solution discussed addresses a very specific demographic, it is easy to see how the solution could be used across educational institutions, organizations, and even outside of college.








Figure 6: Wireflow diagram showing paths through the system from the Consumer side.

There is no shortage of online advice and opinions regarding college and career choices. This information is helpful and important, but not a replacement for the nuance o↵ered by exposure. Blindspots aims to create an online environment that elicits and makes available the type of information that comes through exposure. By implementing carefully constructed constraints, Blindspots removes the focus from seeking advice from the crowd, and shifts it to learning from their stories. Stories o↵er answers, or at least an entrance, to questions that readers are not necessarily aware they even had, and have the potential to be more engaging than rote advice.

Acknowledgements We would like to thank our advisor, Professor Sarita Yardi for her continued feedback and guidance. We would also like to thank Professors Eytan Adar and Mark Newman,

and the entire School of Information community, especially Nikki Roda and Gierad Laput.

References [1] OpenAmplify. [2] Supporting first-generation college students through classroom-based practices. Tech. rep., Institute For Higher Education Policy, Sept. 2012. [3] Burke, M., Kraut, R. E., Resnick, P., Kiesler, S., Ren, Y., Chen, Y., Kittur, N., Riedl, J., and Konstan, J. Building Successful Online Communities: Evidence-Based Social Design. The MIT Press, 2012. [4] DeAngelo, L., Hurtado, S., Pryor, J., Palucki Blake, L., and Tran, S. The american freshman: National norms fall 2011. Tech. rep., Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA, 2011. [5] Deparle, J. Poor students struggle as class plays a greater role in success. The New York Times (Dec. 2012). [6] Holtzblatt, K., Wendell, J. B., and Wood, S. Rapid contextual design a how-to guide to key techniques for user-centered design. Elsevier/Morgan Kaufmann, San Francisco, 2005. [7] Kahneman, D. Thinking, fast and slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2011. [8] Lewis, C., and Rieman, J. Task-Centered User Interface Design: A Practical Introduction. 1993. [9] Munson, S. Exposure to Political Diversity Online. PhD thesis, University of Michigan School of Information, 2012.

Blindspots Abstract  

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