Illinois app seeks to create ‘frictionless’ student experience


Sydney Laput

The Illinois app has made improvements over the summer with the fourth version being released in July.

By Yuzhu Liu, Assistant Features Editor

Here is what you get at Levi’s Stadium.

On the day of a football game, an app will show you the route from your home to the parking lot. When you arrive, it has your ticket ready on the home screen. After the ticket is scanned, it shows the way to your seat, the availability of nearby bathrooms and food ordering served in minutes. At the end of a big day, the app guides you back to your car to take you home.

The Illinois app is now bringing this experience to the University.

The idea started when Andreas Cangellaris, former dean of the College of Engineering, and professor John Paul, who designed the technical Levi’s Stadium (home of the San Francisco 49ers), met in 2017.

“Andreas said, ‘gosh, do you think it would be possible to do for a university what you’ve done for a sports stadium?’ and JP said, ‘I think we could,’” director of Rokwire William Sullivan said. “For Levi’s Stadium, it was all about making the fan experience wonderful. On our campus, it’s all about the student experience — to reduce as much friction as possible, open doors and make things easier.”

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Sullivan said the intensive research and design started in August 2018. Thanks to the efforts of engineers, designers, researchers, content experts and students, the Illinois app officially released its fourth version at the end of July.

According to Sullivan, the design team conducted multiple focus groups with students to learn about their needs.

“A lot of our efforts are trying to understand the barriers to students’ success,” Sullivan said. “What are the hurdles that students face on a daily basis? What are the annoying little problems that get in the way of a wonderful, successful experience here at the University of Illinois? And how can we use this technology in these tools to reduce those hurdles?”

Coming to a campus much larger than their high schools, many new students feel overwhelmed and find it hard to navigate different buildings, especially ones with unfamiliar acronyms.

To solve this problem, Sullivan said the Illinois app worked with the Office of the Registrar to connect students’ course schedules to Google Maps, where students can now look for their day-to-day routes to classes, including locations of accessible entrances.

To Sullivan, the most significant change in the new version is its first steps towards personalization. While everyone had the same home screen last year, users can now decide what they want to prioritize on their “favorites” page to better suit their needs.

“The whole idea is thinking from a student’s perspective about the challenges or frustrations they’ve got and breaking it down into pieces,” Sullivan said.

Kathryn Courtney leads the Illinois app’s student affairs features. Courtney mentioned that one of the most used tools is the University housing’s dining menus with over 10,000 views a day. Students can use this tool to view the menu items, as well as to set filters to only see the food options they want with a list of about 25 common ingredients to exclude from their diet.

A brand-new feature of the app is groups. Courtney said the Illinois app has prepopulated several groups for residence halls at the beginning of the semester. She said she sees endless possibilities for these groups to build University housing into more inclusive communities as the groups automatically include all residents, as opposed to opt-in social media channels.

Joe Grohens, Rokwire’s communications director, encourages faculty to use quick polls in groups as a simple version of iClicker. Besides the academic and residential groups, entertainment ones are also springing up. Grohens said he is a member of Illini Squirrel Enthusiasts, currently the largest group in the Illinois app, and always enjoys seeing the photos of squirrels roaming around campus.

Speaking of the meme joke group “ur mom but better,” Courtney laughed.

“We have created a platform that allows creativity, and we support the idea that people can create communities of interest to them,” Courtney said. “And with that freedom comes, I guess, the ability to be silly.”

Sullivan said the team is now bettering the events feature. He noticed that with over 300 event calendars published by various departments and RSOs on campus, people can easily miss things due to an overload of information.

According to Sullivan, the Illinois app is now categorizing different calendars and allowing people to identify their interests, tag events and set reminders.

“One of the things so attractive about coming to the University of Illinois is it’s got this great diversity with way more to do than you could never even begin to think of accomplishing, but there’s a cost to that as well,” Sullivan said. “The cost is you don’t even know about what you might want to do. So, we’re working to make it easier for people to understand what events exist that they might be interested in.”

The new version highlights wellness features, led by Mel Fenner. This includes daily wellness tips, a to-do list for better time management and wellness rings of healthy habits.

Fenner said that despite tons of wellness resources on campus, students usually assume they don’t exist, as they rarely hear about them. He said the team aims to create a smoother process for students to get help without having to dig deep.

“The space in the middle between needing and obtaining has traditionally been very difficult because students may not know where to start,” Fenner said. “Our hope is that when a student is seeking that information, we have it all centralized and ready for them to take advantage of a lot easier.”

Fenner said an ambitious goal of the wellness features is to flip the traditional medical mode, where a patient must call their doctor and wait until the doctor is available.

“We’re hoping that the doctor or the nurse or the counselor is able to reach out to you and say, ‘hey, we noticed that your engagement on campus has been dropping, you haven’t really been going to classes frequently, or you haven’t been dining as often, we just want to make sure everything is okay,’” Fenner said.

He said the team is now talking to doctors and medical providers to figure out where technology fits and where a human practitioner engages in the process. Though there is no detailed timeline, Fenner believes the Illinois app will continue refining this new tool and preparing to serve the campus in the foreseeable future.

Apart from promoting students’ wellness, the Illinois app is now pursuing two other initiatives, including global joint learning and research participation, Sullivan said. According to Grohens, the app’s feedback channel keeps receiving suggestions on new features, including MTD bus schedules, class assignments, library integration and interactive campus tours.

Sullivan said the Illinois app always welcomes people to bring their ideas on what should come next.

“(The Illinois app) is really making this huge place a little bit smaller and a little bit more manageable,” Sullivan said.


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