IN THIS ARTICLE
- 1. Focus on something you’re passionate about
- 2. Address a real pain point
- 3. Write a clear problem statement
- 4. Design a solution that meets the user’s needs
- 5. Think about monetization
- 6. Ensure you have a logical information architecture and user...
- 7. Focus on good microcopy and CTAs
- 8. Make usability a priority
- 9. Be prepared to discuss your designs!
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After deciding immigration law wasn’t the right career path for her, Rachel Millman returned to her Virginia hometown and started a passion project: a cooking website called Sear and Simmer. “Eventually, I realized I was doing UX design, so I started exploring how I could make it into more than just a hobby,” says Millman, now a product designer at Bonterra.
Using her newfound design skills, she created a more sophisticated version of Sear and Simmer for her capstone project while enrolled in Springboard’s UI/UX Design Bootcamp.
“I presented this project in a slide deck during the interview for my current job,” she says. “I’m really proud of this project, which definitely showed during the interview.”
Capstone projects allow students to apply the skills they’ve learned while creating portfolio-ready work samples to show prospective employers. Design case studies demonstrate the candidate’s problem-solving approach, knowledge of design principles, and ability to make educated tradeoffs.
Projects also enable students to broaden their skillset. “For people who are new to the industry, it’s worth getting exposure to as many different areas of design as possible,” says Meg Clayton, a senior designer at Keurig-Dr. Pepper and a mentor for Springboard’s UI/UX Design Bootcamp. “It helps you figure out what you like so you can land a job where you love coming to work every day.”
The purpose of the capstone project is to simulate real-world parameters. But how do you know if your work meets industry standards? Springboard students have their capstone projects regularly reviewed by their mentor, a seasoned industry expert with whom they meet weekly.
Without a mentor’s guidance, it’s hard to know if you’re producing work that would impress a hiring manager, or simply ticking boxes on a grading rubric. We created this guide to help UX design students ensure their capstone projects are up to par.
1. Focus on something you’re passionate about
When you choose a topic you care about, you’ll have more empathy for the user—especially if you have a personal experience with the pain point you’re seeking to address.
“I always recommend students choose a topic they’re passionate about or know quite well,” says Aida Nogués, a product designer at Sage and a mentor for Springboard’s UI/UX Design Bootcamp. “They have to interview users about the topic, so it’s best if you know a little bit about the problem you want to solve.”
Hiring managers often lament that most design candidates have virtually indistinguishable portfolios—new designers often default to travel planning apps, productivity apps, and reimagined versions of Airbnb or Duolingo.
Go beyond the obvious. Start with a human problem, not a digital product. Instead of asking, “How do I design a ground-breaking fitness app?” think, “Why do middle-aged professionals struggle to maintain a workout routine?”
Asking broader, more practical questions enables you to consider human-centered factors:
- How much free time does the average working professional have?
- What other responsibilities keep them from pursuing their fitness goals?
- How do they feel about their current fitness levels?
- What is their main motivation for getting fit?
Josh Abenojar, a former US Navy officer and a graduate of Springboard’s UI/UX Design Bootcamp, decided to create a reading application for kids called Tiny Tales. The app functions like GoodReads—users select their preferences and a machine learning algorithm provides tailored recommendations.
“As the father of two toddlers, I read to my kids often,” says Abenojar, a senior consultant in user experience design at Booz Allen Hamilton. “This project solved a problem I personally relate to and I can see myself working on it further because the world is moving towards reading on devices.”
2. Address a real pain point
Top-performing digital products have a clear value proposition: they ease a pain point, solve a problem, or bring joy. Research the problem space, frame the problem to be solved, and gather primary and secondary data to validate the significance of the problem.
Say you’re designing an app to help new parents divide childcaring duties. You might search for studies, research papers, or data sources to validate your idea. For example, this study shows that sleep deprivation increases the risk of postpartum depression by a factor of 3.34 for women who have given birth in the last three months. That’s a secondary data source.
Gather qualitative data by interviewing new parents to learn more about their struggles with maintaining sleep quality, sharing childcaring duties, and keeping up with work responsibilities. You can use some of their quotes in your UX design case study.
A pain point is commercially valid if:
- It affects a significantly large sample of the population
- The affected population would find value in solving it
You can still start with a personal problem; just make sure it’s not too niche. Brenden Martin, a graduate of Springboard’s UI/UX Design Bootcamp, loved the convenience of ordering ahead using Starbucks’ mobile app. He noticed the small businesses in his local area lacked this digital infrastructure. For his capstone project, Martin built a coffee ordering app called Joe Coffee, which enables local coffee shops to get discovered and offer mobile payments. Joe Coffee is now a multimillion-dollar startup, with a highly-rated app on Google Playstore and Apple’s Appstore.
“I took the first MVP [minimum viable product] I had and completely revamped it and made it a far better experience,” said Martin.
Commercial viability isn’t a necessary condition for a capstone project, but considering the “size” of the problem and its business value shows prospective employers you’re business-minded.
3. Write a clear problem statement
Write a concise description of the problem that needs to be solved. Explain the background of the problem, whom it affects, and how it impacts the organization.
Include the 4Ws using the information you gathered in the ‘Empathize’ phase (the first phase of the design thinking process).
- Who – Whom does this problem affect? Dig up as much demographic and psychographic information about them as you can from primary and secondary sources.
- What – Define the problem from the user’s POV, the source of the dissatisfaction, and what could be gained by solving it.
- Where – Define the root cause of the problem.
- Why – Explain why the problem matters. What results will the user achieve by handling this problem using your solution?
Your capstone project should be based on an easily understood problem you can explain in under 30 seconds. Remember the tagline Apple cofounder Steve Jobs came up with for the iPod?
“1,000 songs in your pocket.” It doesn’t get any simpler than that.
4. Design a solution that meets the user’s needs
The purpose of a solution is to help users achieve their goals. Understand what problem your user wants to overcome and what result they wish to achieve (i.e. where they are now versus where they want to be). The ‘5 Whys’ technique is a problem-solving method often used in UX design to understand the root cause of an issue or pain point.
The technique involves asking “why” five times, or as many times as necessary, to get to the core issue. Say the head of e-commerce operations at your company asks you to investigate why 30% of customers abandon the checkout process. Here’s how the ‘5 Whys’ process works:
- Why do users abandon the checkout process? Shipping costs are unexpectedly high.
- Why are shipping costs unexpectedly high? The system doesn’t provide an accurate estimate of shipping costs before checkout.
- Why are shipping estimates inaccurate? The system doesn’t have access to real-time shipping data.
- Why can’t the system access real-time shipping data? The integration with the shipping company’s API is malfunctioning.
- Why is the API malfunctioning? The API documentation was not updated to reflect recent changes.
By asking “why” multiple times, the root cause of the problem is revealed. In this example, the root cause is the outdated API documentation, which leads to unexpected fees, resulting in user frustration and cart abandonment.
5. Think about monetization
No digital product can succeed without revenue. An idea is commercially viable only if it’s monetizable. “Whether you’re working on a product that serves a niche audience or a broader one, think about how the app can be profitable, be it through advertisements or subscription fees,” says Nogués. “Solving a niche problem can be profitable as long as it’s important to the user.”
One of her students developed an app to evaluate student performance using the Montessori method for their capstone project. While this method might be considered niche, “all the Montessori teachers in the world could use it, which would make it profitable,” Nogués adds.
While the primary focus of a UX design capstone project is to create meaningful and delightful user experiences, incorporating monetization strategies ensures the viability and longevity of the design solution.
Business models for mobile apps tend to fall under these categories:
- Freemium – The basic app is free, but premium features are gated.
- Pay to download – Users pay a one-time fee to access the app.
- In-app purchases – Users can buy virtual goods within the app, such as premium add-ons or credits to perform certain actions.
- Subscriptions – Users pay a monthly or annual fee to access the app.
- Sponsorship – Advertisers reward users for completing in-app actions. Users don’t pay to use the app (revenue comes from advertising).
6. Ensure you have a logical information architecture and user flow
Information architecture (IA) focuses on the organization, structure, and labeling of information within a design. It involves determining how content is grouped, organized, and presented to users.
“Think about app navigation before you even start wireframing,” says Nogués. “This helps you structure the app and ensure you have the right components. Don’t wait until you’re working on your high-fidelity prototype.”
- User flow refers to the sequence of steps or interactions that a user takes within a design to accomplish a specific task or goal. It focuses on the user’s journey through the digital interface.
- Task completion ensures users can smoothly and efficiently complete their tasks. By designing clear and intuitive paths, designers minimize friction and confusion, enabling users to accomplish their goals without unnecessary obstacles or detours.
7. Focus on good microcopy and CTAs
Build microcopy into the design process; don’t treat it as an afterthought. The purpose of UX copy is to help users navigate the product. UX copy entails the following:
- Calls-to-action – Encourage the user to take a specific action, such as purchasing an item or subscribing to a newsletter.
- Headlines and subheadings – Inform the user what information the screen contains or what task(s) they must complete.
- Button copy – Tells the user what action will be executed if they click the button (eg: ‘Talk to agent’ or ‘Buy now.’)
- User documentation – Provides instructions on how to use the app and troubleshoot problems.
- Error messages – Informs the user that a problem has occurred and recommends next steps.
- Prompts – Provides helpful hints and tips if the user appears to be struggling or idling on a page.
- Push notifications – A pop-up that provides an alert or notification, such as an order status update.
UX copy is concise, jargon-free, and uses familiar language. It’s yet another opportunity to show you understand user needs in your capstone project. For example, instead of flashing a pop-up error message with ‘ERROR’ or ‘INVALID’ in all caps, use friendlier, non-confrontational text like ‘Oops! Please double-check your password and try again.’ Don’t forget to include alternative options for the user, such as ‘Reset your password’ or ‘Try another sign-in method’ so they don’t feel like they’ve hit a dead end.
8. Make usability a priority
Usability depends on how well design features accommodate user needs and context. In other words, usability refers to ease of use and the overall user experience. The user flow must be intuitive–users shouldn’t be confused about what the app does or what they should do next. A capstone project with a good design has a shallow learning curve, allowing users to grasp its functionality quickly.
Ask friends or family members to try your prototype. Ask for their feedback. Did they find it easy to create an account? After onboarding, did they know what to do next? Were they able to accomplish tasks within the app? Take note of this feedback and continue iterating the product. Mention any iterations you made based on user feedback in the case study for your capstone project. This shows hiring managers you know how to pivot and iterate your design.
9. Be prepared to discuss your designs!
When you start interviewing for your first UX design job, hiring managers will ask about your portfolio projects. Be prepared to present your capstone project. The goal is to demonstrate how you solved a design problem. Here are some key talking points:
- Explain the problem. How did you discover and validate the problem?
- Explain the solution. How did you validate your solution through user interviews?
- Highlight insights from your user research. Show the hiring manager how thoroughly you understand your audience. Explain how user feedback influenced your design solutions and resulted in a more user-centered final product.
- Walk the interviewer through your design process. Discuss the design deliverables you created and the thought processes behind each one. Explain how each component addresses specific user needs. Mention any iterations you made based on user feedback.
Case studies can be quite technical, but the best ones tell a good story. Frame your case study as a narrative, taking the audience through the journey of your project. Describe the challenges you encountered, how you approached them, and the decisions you made along the way. Weave a compelling story that demonstrates your problem-solving abilities.
“Storytelling is really powerful, so take the time to develop a narrative and a strong problem statement,” says Nogués. “The hiring manager wants to know why you did what you did and the process you followed. Your solution has to be based on problem-solving and data, not something abstract.”