Researching college applicant needs

In this case study, I’ll talk about how our team used personas and proto-personas to understand the goals and needs of the people who participate in the college application process.

While gathering requirements we had regular access to our clients, but we hadn’t talked to college applicants or their support network. We especially felt unclear about the guidance counselor’s work and needs.

Client: College application software company
Role: User research lead
Tools/methods: User interviews, Sketch
Date: Early 2015

Counselor interviews

To fill in our knowledge gap, we needed to speak directly to counselors. We asked someone who was well-connected in the counselor community to help us meet them. When we ran out of leads there, we cold-called schools and asked to speak to their counselors.

A few hung up the phone on us, but we eventually found five counselors who were willing to come in for interviews. We asked them a broad set of questions about their work and life and used that data to develop a guidance counselor persona.

Counselor persona


Because of potential issues around working with minors, we couldn’t speak directly to college applicants. Instead, we asked the counselors about their students.

During these conversations, we also learned more about the needs of a third potential persona, the teachers and community members who write recommendations for college applicants.

We created new proto-personas for those two user types from the information we gathered during the counselor interviews. While we knew not to trust these without validation, they helped us by illustrating how the needs of the counselor, applicant, and recommender were intertwined.

Feature map

Another deliverable we created that was helpful to the team was a roadmap showing when an associated high-level feature would affect each of the different personas. This allowed us to visualize how each feature set needed to be released at a particular time to support the given users.

Feature map


The counselor persona and the derived proto-personas helped us build features to help them deal with the complexity of the college application process. We used them to fill out our list of features, and test new features against. We continually checked how a new feature would affect each of the different personas.