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CoHeart .

Project Overview .

This project has explored the experiences of introverted, international graduate students, whom we refer to as IIGS, during their academic and cultural transition periods when first moving to the U.S. Without local social support, social stress can impact their mental health. Our project aims to help these students create local support networks within their academic programs to address this issue.

Time Frame: September to December 2022

Project Team Members : Rachel Baker, Will Gelder, Iris Sun, Abhishek Patil

My Involvement : UX UI Design, Usability Testing, Data Visualization, Qualitative Coding, Data Analysis, Concept Sketches.

Tools : Figma, Procreate, Adobe Creative Suite, Qualtrics, Tableau, Miro

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The Problem .

Introverted international graduate students (IIGS) face several challenges when transitioning to the U.S., including the need to establish a supportive social circle regardless of cultural background. However, they may encounter invisible barriers in various social contexts, which can diminish the value of program-organized social events for individuals.

Project Goal .

Generate an intervention that guides these individuals through the initial steps of establishing connections - gently steering them to step outside of their comfort zones and build their confidence throughout the process.



To learn about the social barriers encountered by IIGS and their methods of establishing local support networks with institutional and community assistance. 

User Research.


Event Observations

With the aim of gaining familiarity with the problem space we require contextual data surrounding IIGS and how they behave within a range of social events.



We interviewed both IIGS and the organizations that facilitate their meetings and events. We want to gain insight into how IIGS establishes social circles and the social value derived from organized events. 

Synthesized Findings .

We used ATLAS.ti for coding our qualitative data.


Shared Interests

IIGS prioritize shared interests for connections, evident from interview and survey data where shared interests and a desire to learn new skills were top desired traits in a friend.


Collaborative Activities

Collaborative activities like sports and gaming are most effective for shared interest connections, supported by interview and survey data indicating that they facilitate the 'next steps' to solidify friendships.


Shared Cultural Lived Experience

Survey data showed IIGS desire for cultural connections, with 'same/similar cultural background' as a desired friend characteristic, and cultural differences mentioned as a barrier.


Stay in Your Comfort Zone

Survey data shows comfortable actions are successful for friendship, disproving the assumption that IIGS need to step out of their comfort zones.

User Personas & Empathy Maps .

To distill our insights from surveys and interviews of the IIGS user group, we created three user personas: anxious introverts, social introverts, and cultural introverts. This help us to pinpoint their specific needs, identify design opportunities, and gain a deeper understanding of the primary challenges.

Challenge . 

How might we help IIGS create social, academic, and professional connections during their first semester of university, as they navigate a new cultural and academic environment?

Ideation . 

Based on the research as well as the proposed design challenge, here are the goals we want to help our users to achieve:


  • Helping IIGS to connect with others with low emotional risk

  • Pairing people with common interest and cultural background

  • Provide a system that support a low pressure way to make the “next step” after the first encounter


Buddy System

The Buddy System matches incoming students with a former student and a local guide for support. Users complete a survey for matching, get an orientation checklist, and receive alerts about shared assignments.


Cohort Facilitation

Cohort Facilitation fosters friendships and opportunities for IIGS. Students evaluate comfort zone and interests, and are paired for conversations. Directors plan tailored projects and events based on shared interests and goals.

Feedback Sessions

We obtained user feedback on the sketched concepts through structured sessions, which included targeted questions and opportunities for open-ended feedback.

Buddy System

  • Collecting user info and buddy preferences (gender, age, location, goals, interests, schedule, engagement) is crucial.

  • Comfort with English is a very important factor for only some IIGS.

  • Former IIGS buddy pairing based on shared culture may not be possible for international students from underrepresented countries.

Cohort Facilitation

  • The comfort zone assessment can be a way for IIGS to reflect on their changing comfort levels.

  • Anonymous conversations with a conversation prompt are helpful for IIGS initial socializing.

  • Sound-only communication is not accessible to people with auditory disabilities.

Design . 

After carefully analyzing the feedback data, we have selected Cohort Facilitation as the foundation for our design to help users establish connections in their school program. While we initially contemplated incorporating two ideas, we ultimately prioritized Cohort Facilitation but may include certain aspects of the buddy system in our design.

User Flow Diagram

I created a diagram to help myself and the team visualize the navigation and hierarchy of each step, as well as identify the essential steps that we need to prototype for the wireframe.

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Hand-Drawn Wireframe

  • We prioritize optimizing our design approach by gathering feedback from users early on in the process.

  • To quickly obtain feedback, I create a hand-drawn wireframe of our design and hold feedback sessions with users.

  • This approach allows us to refine and improve our design before committing significant resources and time to development.

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Final Prototype . 


Our proposed design is CoHeart, an online socializing platform that can be implemented by graduate school programs, as a way for a new cohort of a program to meet in a low-pressure, virtual setting.

01 Onboarding - Help users to identify their goals

Before the first semester begins, a program director sends an invitation to all newly enrolled graduate students asking them to sign up for the platform. Users take a personality quiz that asks for basic information such as interests, and cultural background, along with nuanced questions related to professional goals and defining their social comfort zones.

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02 Avatars - A comfortable social buffer

Graduate students, including IIGS, create avatars to represent themselves. This includes a nickname, animal type, colors, clothes, and accessories. They also choose a voice modification filter for Meet-and-Greet sessions. Using avatars instead of real identities helps users communicate more comfortably.

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03 Meet-and-Greet Tutorial

Director moscat will introduce Meet and Greet's features and how it works, giving users and idea of what to expect.

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04 Meet-and-Greet Session

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05 Building Various Connections 

IIGS can connect through chat sessions based on cultural or professional backgrounds.

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User Testing . 

We conducted user testing on our final prototype with a group of 3 UX designer experts and 6 IIGS users. Our objective was to measure and validate the effectiveness of the solution's communication tools in enhancing the level of positive affect and comfort experienced by participants when meeting someone for the first time.

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Firstly, we conduct the evaluation session with UX design experts through Zoom and then perform usability testing with our users in person.

Cognitive Walkthrough

Our goal was to assess interface usability and accessibility for first-time users and identify any learning or usability gaps.

​We evaluated the effectiveness of our design solution by considering these four questions:

  • Will the user try and achieve the right outcome?

  • Will the user notice that the correct action(s) is available?

  • Will the user associate these action(s) with the outcome they expect to achieve?

  • Does the user receive appropriate feedback to see that progress has been made toward their intended outcome?

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Usability Test

We recruited six IIGS participants for usability testing of the prototype. Each testing session was conducted in-person, with the moderator and role-player observing remotely via Zoom while participants shared their personal computers' screens.


Evaluation Findings . 

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Emojis aid IIGS in expressing emotions without words.

Users commonly use emojis to convey positive emotions such as liking, loving, agreement, empathy, and humor, while angry or sad reactions are seldom used to express true dislike.

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General - Style

The prototype's style delighted users, making them feel comfortable and playful. It also encouraged some to be more at ease with making typos in their chats.

Our prototype uses muted warm tones, which experts indicated needed to be checked for accessibility.

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All users expressed that the prompts helped them in making conversation.

Experts and users agreed that users desire more control over prompt timing to navigate topics smoothly, without feeling rushed.

Reflection . 

The importance of empathy -

Designing for introverted individuals whose first language is not English was not a easy task. While it presented unique challenges, it taught me the importance of empathy when working with users who may find it difficult to express themselves. In order to create effective solution, truly understand user’s perspective and needs is really important.

Design without assumptions -

During the project, I realized that assumptions can be misleading, and thorough research is crucial to developing the design solution. Initially, we assumed that helping introverted individuals step out of their comfort zones would be beneficial. However, we learned that it is more effective to help them grow within their comfort zones instead of forcing them to be uncomfortable.

© 2023 by Iris, Jhih Rou Sun 

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