How Might We Improve Educational Experiences for Recent Immigrants?

My team and I set out answer this question using the Human Centered Design (also known as Design Thinking) process and set of principles. Human Centered Design is largely about making sure you are answering the right question by deeply understanding the people who would use your design (your target audience), as well as the context in which they live (i.e. social structures, culture, socioeconomic status).

The Human Centered Design process is also designed to limit the influence one’s assumptions about the world has on one’s design choices. Design choices should come directly from information about the people and ecosystems involved, which is one of the reasons research, and how research is conducted and synthesized, is so vital to the design process. Without research, one makes many assumptions (consciously and unconsciously), and the design might not actually solve the problem or help the target audience.

To solve a problem, you must truly understand what the problem is.

Here is a case study of the research process (and the distilling and synthesizing of that research) as a means of getting to the heart of what this population wants and needs and why, in order to come up with an effective way to improve educational educational experiences for recent immigrants.


Questions we set out to explore:

Insights into the immigrant experience

  1. What do recent immigrants experience in their everyday lives as well as in educational settings (including practical considerations and emotional experiences).
  2. What are their motivations, hopes, dreams, obstacles, and constraints (cultural, religious, practical and economic).
  3. Do different immigrant groups vary by location or origin? How?
  4. Explore educational background, economic status, culture and religion.

The existing educational ecosystem

  1. What kinds of educational experiences are currently available to recent immigrants?
  2. What kind of innovative education programs are out there that we could learn from?
  3. What are some success and unsuccessful cases in education programs? Are there gaps in education programs?
  4. What environments do people learn best in?

Solidifying a Target Audience

It was difficult to choose an immigrant group to focus on because there is a large diversity in language, background, economic, educational and social status among the immigrant population in the San Francisco Bay Area. Ultimately, we decided to focus on the large Spanish speaking immigrant population, although much of what we discovered about the immigrant experience can apply across different immigrant groups.

Research Plan

  • Immersion Locations: We sat in on Adult Literacy Programs where we could experience and observe our target audience in a natural setting.
  • Interviews: Experts such as coordinators from literacy programs and adult education programs/schools, ESL teachers, target audience members.
  • Secondary Research: Background research, success cases/unsuccessful cases, types of programs available locally and in different states, related legislation and funding mechanisms, what other countries do concerning educating immigrants.

Research Insights

Why do people emigrate?

  • To seek better educational prospects for their current or future children.
  • To seek better career options and more economic freedom.
  • To join immediate and/or extended family.

Interview Highlights

We conducted in depth interviews with a group of young people that emigrated to the United States at a very young age or were the children of immigrants.

  • They talked a lot about the isolation of their school’s ESL programs, and the experience of being made to feel different from native English speaking kids. The motivational factor for these young people to learn English as children as largely social. They wanted to be able to interact with their friends or cousins who had been raised in the U.S.
  • They also shared their parents experience of immigrating to the U.S. They told us that some of their parents, and the parents of friends, learned English only after starting to work in an environment where they needed to interact with English speaking people.
  • This lack of integration with the host society hindered these parents from helping their children with schoolwork and preparing them for college. They were not familiar with the college application process or other processes in the school. These parents could not advocate for their children the way native English-speaking parents could, due to language and culture barriers.

Research Synthesis

We converted our research findings into concise insight statements. These insight statements were then grouped and themes emerged.


How Might We?

We then took the most insightful and inspiring statements and rewrote them as actionable questions that we could use design to answer. We brainstormed various solutions to each question decided to move forward with a solution for answering #2.

  1. How might we enable community building where people of similar backgrounds can connect to share experiences and resources?
  2. How might we educate immigrant adults to help integrate into their host society?
  3. How might we harness a student’s desire to communicate and participate in social and cultural activities to improve ESL curriculum?

Our Solution

We decided to focus on our idea of creating a virtual reality/set of online games that would help immigrant adults integrate into American society.

Our research told us that our studied adult immigrant population want:

  • Privacy
  • To feel safe from judgement and shame.
  • To learn practical life skills in a way that does not take too much time away from their work and family lives.
  • To learn from people of similar backgrounds as them.

Therefore, we thought that a set of virtual reality games, where people have avatars, could be a novel way for recent immigrants to anonymously learn English and social norms wrapped up in pressure-free “play.” The player could share only as much as he or she wants to, thus maintaining a healthy anonymity. Furthermore, the avatar would help the player feel like he or she was involved without compromising his or her anonymity and privacy.

Design Constraints

We reviewed various options available to us and the virtual reality part seemed to be expensive to develop. We decided that creating a virtual reality game could come later, after we develop and test prototypes that will help us find out if this idea is something our target audience wants.

We also discovered that low income families tend to have smartphones more than they have computers. We were also concerned that computer access could be a problem in our population. Low income people tend to have smartphones more than they have computers and at the very least, there are computers at public libraries. Therefore, we wanted to create something that could be used on a smartphone and a computer. Since the game might be used in public, we decided against requiring the participants to speak out loud during the game.

Solution - Prototype

A learning portal with easy to understand situational videos and games in different languages, so recent immigrants can to practice being in different practical situations in a safe and confidential environment.

Initially, we thought we would start with designing a learning portal with simple games that teach situational norms and English language skills. The player sees a video showing how to navigate a social and practical situation, such as how to open a bank account, how to navigate a grocery store, how to navigate a restaurant, etc. After watching the video that is in the player’s native language, the player practices the situation they saw using his or her avatar in a game format. Players learn English words and phrases within a practical context.

User Journey

Next Steps

We made sample advertisements to test the concept and to see if the advertisement was something our target audience would respond to. We also wrote scripts for potential instructional and a few low fidelity videos. Although we got good initial feedback, we had trouble finding people to test our design at the time. To move forward with this design, we would need to test and then iterate.

To test this design concept, we would need to show our example advertisement as well as develop more prototypes to show our target audience. We would need an example instructional video, along with a prototype of how a game would go. A set of drawings of the game (with a person acting as the computer) would suffice in getting a sense of what is working and what is not.