Improving the Student Enrollment Experience

An award-winning research and design work featuring public education system in San Francisco
Role: Product Designer
Duration: 14 weeks
Activities: Qualitative and Quantitative Research, Design Workshop, Visual Design, Prototyping
Tools used: Figma, Sketch, Tableau, Google Surveys, Sheets and Docs

Gathering context

San Francisco has a unique way of assigning kids to public schools. It has a complex equation with too many variables to count — race, gender, ZIP code, parent's income — but right to education is an incredibly important part of that equation.

Public education is a driver of equality and this system was put in place for exactly that reason. It provided an opportunity especially for low-income students and students of color, who don’t have the same opportunity.

This project aims to identify and address the problems faced by families as they navigate the enrollment process for public schools in the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD).

Understanding the system

Families prepare a ranked list of their preferred school. This ranking is fed into an algorithm called the Student Assignment System which outputs a school assignment for the student based on the number of seats available in a particular school and choice rank in the application.

If more students request a particular school than there are seats available, then the assignment process uses a series of preferences, called tiebreakers, and random numbers to assign students to the limited number of openings.

Why trust? Though the system is put in place to bring out positive outcomes for ethnic diversity, there are adverse effects that make parents angry and frustrated with the system. These include not getting a school of their choice, difficulty in understanding how the student assignment algorithm works and lack of transparency. This adversely affects parents’ perception of the school district.

An adverse consequence is that parents who can afford private or chartered education, choose to leave the school district, while continue to remain in a school that doesn't fit their child’s needs.

Empathizing with parents

We had the testimony of SFUSD about what they think that parents feel, say and do. However, we wanted to hear from the parents themselves.

We were able to identify the problems encountered by these diverse set of parents by distributing surveys in 6 different languages - English, Chinese, Spanish, Vietnamese, Arabic and Tagalog - that received 569 responses, conducted 17 semi-structured interviews and 12 usability sessions.

User persona

Uncovering the truth

The surveys indicated that the EPC counselors were the least used source of information. Interestingly, in the interviews, some parents mentioned having an extremely positive experience just because of being helped out by an EPC counsellor.

Parents feel overwhelmed at the beginning of the application process and frustrated by the end.

The affinity mapping led to the following 6 design principles:


Provide actionable data and maintain transparency in our processes, helping families take charge of the enrollment process.

Let’s figure it out together

Offer guidance in a friendly and reassuring manner to work with the user through the process, providing information that is digestible and easy to consume.


Understand that every child and family is unique and create personalized recommendations by taking their needs into consideration.


Make education accessible to every child in San Francisco regardless of their ethnicity, gender, socio-economic background or immigration status.


With consistent and reliable performance, showcase SFUSD has your best interest at heart.


Help families clearly understand their own expectations from schools and inform them about SFUSD’s offerings and processes.

Design decisions

We decided to solve for the beginning of the application process where the parent / guardian is trying to find the school that will fit their child’s needs. This is a crucial stage for the parents which determines the expereince in the rest of the enrollment process.

We brainstormed and sketched the solutions which were converted to a low-fidelity prototype.

Visual language


Lato aligns with the design principle ‘Let’s figure it out together’ by setting a formal yet reassuringly friendly tone. The semi-rounded details of Lato a feeling of warmth, while the strong structure provides stability and seriousness.


We used the bootstrap 12-column grid layout for responsive web design that is popular among many web developers. This grid system adds flexibility to any web design because the 12-columns divide evenly into 6-columns (halves), 4-columns (quarters) and 3-columns (thirds). This makes adapting to a variety of layouts much easier. It is well understood by the developers, making it easier to implement from design specifications.


Parents expressed the need for a friendly, supportive figure throughout their journey that would ease their stress. We wanted to design an experience that is approachable yet formal for our users. Thus, we decided to choose friendly counselor personas such as Dorothy who would provide helpful tips and nudges to the users at different stages of the process.

Going beyond the screen

Diversity in ethnicity, socio-economic status, comfort with technology calls for a solution that is beyond the ‘one size, fits all’ framework. We acknowledged this early on in our project and provided well-rounded solutions that can reach both online and offline families.

A print solution for resource-constrained parents who don't have access to the online solution.


In the year 2017, SFUSD enrolled 54,063 students in its public schools. For the TK-5th grade level alone the number of enrollments were 22,725. These staggering numbers indicate the potential reach of impact of our solution and recommendations to SFUSD.

The project resulted in two meaningful bodies of work the online School Explorer solution prototype and an offline workbook. Along with three companion deliverables, namely user personas, journey maps and design principles, the team also identified areas of improvement like trustworthiness and transparency of the system to uplift SFUSD’s perception among parents.

In addition, we provided a list of short-term and long-term recommendations to the school district which have influenced policy changes and incorporated in initiatives by SFUSD.