NYC MySchools

Discovery & Strategy

Discovery

Multiple complex, inconsistent admissions processes confused families and increased costs for the city. We aimed to simplify and standardize them while bringing it all online.

In NYC, students apply to schools each time they enter the next grade band — when they start kindergarten, then move to middle school, and finally begin high school. This means families deal with the process repeatedly. And parents with multiple children are forced to go through different admissions processes almost simultaneously — not to mention optional programs like 3-K, pre-K, gifted and talented, specialized high schools, etc.

Each of these applications is administered by an independent team at the Department of Education. Over time, this led to many differences among the processes that caused confusion for families. The city hoped to bring more consistency, and asked for our help.

I led an extensive discovery process to bring our team up to speed on the landscape of disparate systems, products, and perspectives.

We reviewed dozens of documents, forms, guides, websites, and the annual directory’s hefty tome to inform the requirements of a centralized system that would replace them all.

I and my team of UX designers interviewed stakeholders from many teams at the DOE, attended family information sessions and school tours, and discussed priorities with a consortium of student, staff, and community representatives.

I implemented a flexible, centralized research repository that allowed us to efficiently analyze our findings.

We needed to quickly process the firehose of information we were receiving. I initiated our research team’s use of the app Dovetail, where we collected materials. This allowed us to develop and evolve a note tagging system to find common threads and take action on them.

Tagged snippets of research in Dovetail.

The project encompassed not just the public-facing product, but also new tools for guidance counselors and administrators to manage applicants and to run an algorithmic matching engine to assign placements. With our survey of the existing business systems in hand, along with many discussions with our dev team, I diagrammed our recommendations for a new, unified system.

My diagram of our proposed business system, used to confirm our understanding of the current system and validate our plans for the new architecture.

With our high-level business system plan validated by the client, and our research in hand, we were ready to begin defining our product goals and requirements. But before diving into detailed requirements gathering, we needed to gauge interest in an opportunity we identified early that could strongly differentiate MySchools among its competitors.

Performance through personalization

The Challenge

Despite multiple existing school search products, none effectively addressed the overwhelming amount of information involved.

Families struggled to understand the complicated and varied criteria that schools use to admit students. After the already-exhausting process of digging through thousands of options to find suitable schools, parents had to complete a complicated worksheet for every one in order to calculate their child’s likelihood of getting accepted.

Families were asked to fill out this worksheet for every school their child even considered, which should include at least twelve.

Skipping or misunderstanding this step often led to applications with too many selective schools, narrowing the student’s chances of acceptance at any of their choices.

We knew from the outset we needed to tackle this problem above all, in order to improve the process and outcomes for families.

The Goal

Beginning with our pitch, we identified personalization as the differentiator that would make MySchools not just the official search platform, but the preferred one.

From our initial interest in the project, we were excited by the promising opportunity an official platform posed — to leverage  student-specific data for personalized school discovery, and to seamlessly connect to families’ actual applications. What if students could browse directories tailored to their unique criteria, and could then easily apply to their choices within the same app?

I developed these ideas in hypothetical mockups to present in our pitch. The Department of Education cited our user-centric thinking as instrumental in the decision to award Blenderbox the project.

Pitch concepts I developed gave each school a personalized color-coded rating based on a combination of student-specific factors. The constituent criteria that make up each rating were broken down on the school’s detail view.
The Approach

With the project won, I refined the pitch concepts to validate personalization as our guiding differentiator — tailoring eligibility, match chances, and preference filters for each student.

While such a dynamic directory was a technical challenge, I successfully advocated for its inclusion, since it would be a major improvement over the one-size-fits-all printed directories of the past. With this strategy, we aimed to grow adoption as not just the official application platform, but also the school discovery tool most preferred among the numerous other options.

I designed wireframes for the directory’s school data to demonstrate how we would customize it for individual students. I also developed summarized views of the personalized information for families to quickly compare their options among many schools. While it was decided that the color-scale ratings from the pitch concept were too risky, I developed an icon system that similarly offers users quick insights into their eligibility and offer likelihood.

This work solidified stakeholder buy-in for personalization as our key differentiator, which we upheld throughout the strategy definition and design process.

Product ownership & strategy

On the agency side, I was the primary product owner, developing the vision for the user-facing product and ensuring the design met our strategic goals.

The project’s scale and tight timeline meant that many on our team wore multiple hats. As the UX director and lead on the discovery process, I was the de facto product owner on the agency side. I established our strategic vision:

MySchools empowers all NYC families with understandable, personalized, and equitable school discovery and applications.

I communicated business goals and requirements internally, advocated for our users, and collaborated with project managers to roadmap features.

Primary Goals:

I helped define our detailed requirements, including specifications for configurable admissions logic to feed personalized directories — our core differentiator.

Understanding admissions logic requirements — with M&M's.
Documenting functional requirements — one of many planning exercises I participated in.

MySchools serves all of NYC — including families who don’t speak English, those in temporary housing, and users with impaired vision.

On the front-end, MySchools needed to be top-of-the-line, meeting the highest accessibility standards and fully translated into ten languages (including ones read right-to-left), with the ability to add more at any time. Many users rely solely on mobile devices for internet access, so the site also needed to be fully functional across all screen sizes.

The custom-built language switcher and right-to-left layout, as we ultimately implemented them.

Behind the scenes, policies often change as the city tackles equity issues like segregation, poverty, and accessibility. I contributed to database planning and its front-end implications in order to support future changes to admissions criteria.

Policy changes happen frequently, and MySchools needed to implement them quickly.
Process

UX management

In addition to my strategic role, I directed the UX team and managed resources, including multiple product designers.

After defining our functional requirements, I assigned feature owners, and then closely oversaw their UX design work throughout the process, ensuring it fit interaction patterns which I established at the outset.

I roadmapped multiple simultaneous streams of design work in order to meet the tight timeline. This division of labor also proved efficient for the client, as they were able to assemble only their relevant team members for feature-specific meetings.

UX work streams, estimates, and assignment planning
I partnered with project management as we developed Gantt charts and planned sprints to meet our deadlines.

I also instituted our UX team’s workflow — introducing them to shared Sketch libraries and Google Drive File Stream to keep our work in sync.

With so many screens to design, staying organized across multiple designers — including some who worked remotely — was crucial.

A fraction of the team’s final wireframes and designs.
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