Case Study β€” Spring 2023

My role

Product Designerβ€” User Research, Wireframing and Prototyping, Visual Design, Iterative Design


  • Ingrid Zhu, UXR
  • Sherlock Ziyao Ai, UXR


4 months


Pili is a digital prototype developed to address the lack of diversity and inclusion in activities and discussions beyond STEM lectures at Cornell University.

As a product designer, it was crucial to approach the project with a comprehensive strategy that emphasizes user-centered design, accessibility, and community engagement. This approach ensures that Pili effectively addresses the needs of diverse users and fosters a more inclusive environment beyond STEM lectures at Cornell University.


Hey, so what’s your major?

Project Overview

As a female in STEM, I found myself feeling disconnected from my peers and even intimidated by the academic environment in large STEM lecture halls. This sense of isolation made me wonder if others also yearned for more meaningful connections.

Work Breakdown Structure

Below is work breakdown structure aimed at guiding the development of the project.


Dreaded syllabus week.

Literature Review

Exploratory research, including extensive secondary research and literature reviews, laid the groundwork by identifying systemic challenges that underrepresented STEM students face in academic settings.


Limited Representation

8% of the STEM workforce comprises of Hispanic workers


Gender Gap

28% of the STEM college student population comprises of women


What about @Cornell?

57% of Cornell undergrad students risk diversity disparities in the workforce.

From Oops to Opportunity

These statistics unveil the systemic challenges related to diversity and representation in STEM, which have the potential to directly contribute to the feelings of disconnection.

User Interview

To discover how these systemic challenges and limitations could translate into real-life experiences, 8 hour-long structured interview with Cornell minority undergraduate STEM students was conducted. Below are sample interview questions.



Small Fish in a Big Pond

In large STEM lectures, the challenge of initiating connections can be particularly daunting because the sheer size of the class often means that students don't even know the names or faces of their classmates.


Varied Expectations

Some emphasized their desire for study partners who can help them excel academically, while others expressed the need for a social support network to navigate the challenges of STEM coursework.


Diversity Matters, Duh.

Students emphasized the critical significance of diversity, reflecting on their involvement in team-based STEM courses. However, with Cornell's diverse international student body, achieving inclusivity presents unique challenges for a broader range of students.



Large lectures often result in initial awkwardness and superficial conversations, coupled with the challenge of finding like-minded peers and initiating meaningful dialogues.

Hit the Books

Structured interviews with Cornell minority STEM students provided firsthand accounts and humanized our understanding, revealing the need for a versatile platform that nurtures both academic and social connections.Β 



Desire for Connection

Students may struggle to find like-minded peers or study partners, which could impact their engagement and academic success.

Diverse Objective

Different student relationship goals (such as seeking lifelong friends or study partners) can result in interactions that don't align, leading to a less than optimal experience.

Sense of Isolation

Similar to their peers, minority students frequently feel lonely or nervous in large classroom settings. A lack of diversity intensifies this, contributing to detachment and isolation.

Competitor Analysis

To inform our design and development process, we analyzed existing solutions addressing community-building in education. GroupMe and EdStem both fall short in fostering holistic student interactions, highlighting shortcomings in their ability to cater to the multifaceted needs of STEM students.



Question and answer forum for students, targeting professors and staff for communication.

πŸ‘ Academic Focus

πŸ‘ Clear Communication

πŸ‘ Resource Sharing

πŸ‘Ž Limited Real-Time Interaction

πŸ‘Ž Teacher-Centric




A popular group messaging platform, often utilized amongst students

πŸ‘ Easy group creation

πŸ‘ Shift to community focused through groups

πŸ‘ Limited Visibility- Degree of privacy

πŸ‘Ž Unorganized Interaction

πŸ‘Ž Shallow Engagement

πŸ‘Ž Narrow Scope/Interaction

Generic communication can only go so far.

In our investigation, a glaring trend emerged: educational institutions overwhelmingly rely on generic forms of communication. However, this widespread approach has led to a critical void in the educational technology landscapeβ€”a lack of a centralized, community-based platform crafted to foster meaningful connections. Existing applications prioritize mass communication, neglecting the individual interests and needs of students. This deficiency deprives students of tailored resources that could align closely with their educational objectives and personal passions.



Focusing solely on STEM-oriented users risks disregarding diversity found within STEM courses, highlighting the importance of inclusivity across disciplines. Personalized features based on user interactions can ensure that the platform resonates with all students, irrespective of their academic focus or background, enhancing their educational experience.


Beyond hellos and goodbyes.



How might we facilitate meaningful connections and alleviate emotional challenges commonly experienced in disconnected, large STEM lectures?



Pili enables students to fostering diverse bonds and provides a space for collaboration beyond the classroom, ultimately enhancing the sense of belonging and reducing feelings of isolation in STEM education.

Flow Chart

A flowchart was used to visually map out the sequence of steps in the process, facilitating clear understanding and communication among team members.

Lo-Fidelity Sketches

Low-fidelity sketches helped in visualizing and refining design concepts before moving on to more detailed design iterations.

Hi-Fidelity Screens

Aimed at alleviating students' pervasive feelings of isolation and anonymity amidst overwhelming class sizes and the impersonal nature of large STEM lectures


Streamlined Connectivity

Streamlining course management, Pili imports schedules seamlessly, saving students valuable time and effort that can be redirected towards their academic pursuits. Pili aims to connect students with diverse backgrounds and interests to address the problem of social isolation and lack of diversity in academic settings.



Networking Nexus

Upcoming Courses: Students can choose to add a buddy for class companionship, meeting through shared interests in the application, eliminating the uncomfortable waiting game.

Study Sessions and Study Buddies: Collaborative study sessions and the ability to connect with study buddies provide opportunities for students to engage with peers from diverse backgrounds, fostering collaboration and knowledge sharing.

Networking Events: Networking events offer a platform for students to interact with professionals and peers from diverse fields, potentially expanding their networks and exposure to diverse perspectives within STEM.



Inclusive Connections

Pili's chatroom feature goes beyond conventional group formation by grouping students not only based on their classes but also on their interests and preferences.

By facilitating connections based on interests and preferences, Pili enables students to meet others who they may not have encountered otherwise in their academic circles, promoting diversity and inclusion.



On First Name Basis

Pili allows students to further enhance their connections by adding friends and starting chats. By adding friends, students can expand their social network within the platform, fostering deeper connections with peers who share similar interests or academic pursuits. Starting chats provides a space for students to engage in one-on-one or group conversations about topics that matter to them.

Full Prototype


Design System

The design system for Pili comprises a comprehensive set of guidelines, principles, and components to maintain a unified look, enhancing usability and user experience.


Meeting our user needs.

Usability Testing

After developing our prototype, we engaged 5 target group interviewees in usability testing, which included 3 tasks (account creation, group chat matching, connection-making), followed by post-test interviews to collect emotional experiences and project feedback.

Iteration Ideation

The prototype received positive responses, with users noting its ease of use. However, given more time, iterations would have been made to incorporate feedback gathered from the user testing sessions.


Avatar Integration

As avatar creation was not included in the prototype, some participants raised questions regarding this feature. Conducting additional testing would be necessary to further explore the use of avatars or other approaches aimed at reducing discrimination based solely on appearance and promoting inclusivity within the platform.


Enhanced Group Chat Integration

During the usability testing, a participant discussed the potential need for implementing dividers within the course group chat. They suggested creating categories for General, Homework, Questions, and Lectures, which could provide a more organized and efficient way for students to interact within the platform.



During the usability testing sessions, two participants discussed the importance of providing better support for minorities within educational institutions. They highlighted initiatives such as offering scholarship or local opportunities based on demographic backgrounds as a means to contribute to increased inclusivity.


Public Chatroom Functionality

Though not shown in the prototype, a participant discussed wanting to explore the flow of creating and setting up public chatrooms within the platform.


For All Schools

While not directly addressed in the user testing, exploring ways to make the platform more adaptable and scalable to transcend the bounds of Cornell and be utilized for all schools is crucial. This could involve incorporating features that accommodate diverse institutional structures and requirements while maintaining a seamless user experience across different campuses.


No project is flawless.


The following reflections offer insights into the challenges I faced, areas for improvement, and the evolution of the project's scope based on feedback and experiences throughout its development.


What a Journey

The team battled a significant challenge due to uneven work distribution caused by one team member's limited involvement, requiring the rest of the team to take on extra responsibilities.


Not Enough Time in a Day

I would have spent more time exploring the user interface design to improve the overall user experience and accessibility, as well as explore iterations following user testing.


Broadening the Scope

Our initial interviews focused on STEM undergraduate schools, but our findings underscored the significance of a diverse composition within STEM courses. With additional funding, I would have conducted larger-scale studies involving students from various majors enrolled in STEM courses. This insight prompted us to broaden our project's scope to cater to a wider audience, ensuring inclusivity and relevance across diverse academic disciplines.