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Using a chatbot to engage student leaders at Rice University

The brief

“TXI helped us create a product that we thought would be effective, rather than steering us in the direction of a preferred design.”

Tom Kolditz, Founding Director of the Doerr Institute for New Leaders at Rice University

How do you grab the attention of students in a world full of distractions? That’s the question that brought Rice University to TXI. The school had recently launched its Doerr Institute for New Leaders, and needed to raise awareness while connecting students to leadership-building opportunities on campus.

As we dug into user research, we quickly realized we weren’t going to have any luck getting students to look up from their phones. So we took advantage of the problem. Together, we developed a chatbot that would put the opportunities right in students’ hands.

User testing helped us shape the chatbot experience until it felt like second nature, not a chore. As students texted in details on their academics and interests, the chatbot fed the data into a backend program, which paired them up with personalized leadership opportunities.

All of this was done with Rice’s IT team right by our side, so we knew for sure that the University would be able to continue using and updating the chatbot long after TXI wrapped.

The challenge

Design a product dynamic enough to capture a 19-year-old’s interest

It was our work on a similar project that brought The Doerr Institute to TXI. Years ago, we built a platform for the nonprofit WomenOnCall to connect professional women to volunteer opportunities. The Doerr Institute figured we could apply the same thinking to help them engage students — but what they needed went a step further. Where WomenOnCall’s users were seeking volunteer opportunities out, the Doerr team had to find a way to connect with students who might not even know there were leadership opportunities available.

To figure out how to do that, we started with research. The Doerr Institute staff knew their audience — they work on the same campus as the target users after all, and they had copious research on hand. What they hadn’t done was apply the systematic, UX research tactics TXI builds projects around.

We couldn’t start building for users until we knew what they wanted. So we worked with the Doerr team to find the real user needs the fastest way we know-how — with a Google Design Sprint.

  • Solidify and put ideas into practice Since Doerr had its own team of developers, our job was to help them maximize their internal research and help them build the right thing for their audience.

  • Bridge needs of the institution with student’s needs Understanding students and bringing the Doerr team along through the process in a lean way required us to utilize design sprint methodologies to ideate, test and validate.

The solution

  • Design a solution meeting students’ where they are, their phones
  • Create a product that students can use on their schedule
  • Give our product a voice, just not one that reminds them of mom
  • Enable the client’s developers to create tools that outlast us

TXI brought lean startup and agile development principles along with a lot of discipline for executing them.

Conrad Caplin, CEO of Pronto

The outcome

Building a scalable and maintainable solution

One of our two goals from the start was to build a product Rice could takeover. The Doerr Institute hired us because they needed help solidifying an idea and putting it into practice, quickly. But Rice University already has its own systems and its own team of developers.

We had the chatbot itself — a custom Rails application built around the communications platform Twilio — plus a website for displaying those personalized leadership recommendations and a backend where Doerr staff could update the chatbot’s logic and add recommended programs. We worked with the Rice IT team to develop the code and QA standards we employ in other projects, so they could persist that level of quality after the project ended. That allowed Rice to own the product, so the chatbot could evolve without TXI’s involvement.

The results

Design with a handoff in mind

When Rice first reached out, they made it clear their purpose was to build a useful tool and market the Institute’s new student-focused resources. That’s why we worked so hard to make the chatbot incredibly easy to use — in a way, it was an ambassador for the entire Doerr Institute.

The chatbot let us reach students where they live. The Doerr Institute was able to communicate its value and essentially start conversations with students all over campus. Now they can text with students to learn what they care about — and adapt their programming to suit — without the experience ever feeling forced.

Let’s start a conversation