Building a sense of community and belonging among graduate students

Building a sense of community and belonging among graduate students


Mental illness is a growing concern within graduate education and work-life balance is one of the major factors that contribute to an individual’s physical and mental well-being. We wanted to design a solution that would help improve work-life balance among graduate students and potentially reduce their stress and anxiety levels.

UX Designer & Researcher

Astha Khurana, Shravya Simha

10 Weeks


Circles is a community-building app for Ph.D. students. Circles is composed of 3 major features that tackle different pain points of our user group.

Circles 2_iphonexspacegrey_portrait

Create and manage circles

Meetup Page_iphonexspacegrey_portrait

Organize and attend meetups


Flaunt & Applaud

Create and manage circles: On Circles, users are a part of different work communities called ‘Circles’. Users can create new circles and add people from their organization to these groups. This builds a sense of community and belonging for the students and encourages them to build meaningful relationships.

Organize and attend meetups: Students can organize and rsvp different events such as readathons, writeathons, practice presentations, etc which not only helps them be more social it also empowers them to be more productive during their workday.

Flaunt and Applaud: Users can flaunt their achievements and applaud others on their achievements helping users feel more appreciated for the work they do.

The Process

User Research

With our research, we wanted to study the prevalence of stress and anxiety among Ph.D. students and the factors that cause it. We also wanted to understand their definitions of work-life balance, the current practices they employ to improve it, and the problems they face while doing so.




A total of 5 current Ph.D. students at different stages of their program were chosen for a 30-40 minute long semi-structured interview to get a deeper insight into their lives. 

The interviews were followed by an online diary study with 4 additional Ph.D. students who were prompted to make a diary entry 3-4 times a day for one week.



What does a typical day look like for you? 

What is work-life balance according to you?         

Where do you draw the line between work & life? Is there a clear demarcation? 

How do you strike a balance between the two?



We wanted to get a snapshot of the life of a Ph.D. student. 

Participants were asked to note down the activity they were doing, whether it was work or life related and how it made them feel. We also asked other questions that might affect their mood like where they are, who they are with and why they are feeling the way they are. 

Major Research Findings

We analyzed our interview and diary study data using Miro to categorize our insights into four major themes.



Participants who were able to make good progress towards the work they are doing during their workday and felt more productive were generally more relaxed during their personal hours. Whereas people who didn't feel productive usually carried their stresses and their worries home and weren’t really able to enjoy the rest of their day.  




Students wanted the advisor to clearly communicate what the deliverables and the goals are and what is expected from the student before every meeting. In addition, the participant wanted to feel more appreciated for the work he has done, the goals he has fulfilled and the time he has put in to achieve them.



We were able to find a very close relationship between a student's stress and anxiety levels and his work environment.  In cases where the community and the lab-mates were competitive, it was natural for students to work longer hours and take their work home. Meanwhile, a relaxed working environment motivated participants to focus on their personal life.



Students who were better at dealing with stress were more self-aware and took intentional steps to make sure they were happy and relaxed by the end of the day. They were very clear about separating their work and life and made sure both of these got equal importance.

A Look at our Users

Based on our research insights, we were able to create a Primary and Secondary Persona. Our personas focus on the users’ personalities and lifestyles, motivations, needs, and frustrations.

Coming Up With The Idea

For ideation, we decided to use the motivations in our personas along with our research insights as our starting point. We ideated by using the crazy-5 technique, where we focused on one insight at a time and sketched five different ideas in 5 minutes. This resulted in a total of 10-15 sketches per motivation and about 60 sketches in total. 

IMG_20190408_204615 (1)

We were finally able to come up with a bunch of design ideas that focused on one or more of the 4 research insights mentioned above. We finally decided to move forward with the idea of designing an app that helps build a sense of community and belonging for Ph.D. students - Circles


Why Circles?

We noticed that students who had a positive work environment were happier and more satisfied with their work. They wanted to feel appreciated for the effort they have put in and loneliness emerged as a major indicator of negative emotions. Through Circles, we wanted to



To understand the scope of Circles, we decided to create key lo-fed wireframes of the app. These wireframes were essential in helping us understand the flow of the app and led us to the low fidelity prototyping phase.


Low-Fidelity Prototypes

We created paper prototypes and tested out the different features of Circles with 3 different testers who were all current Ph.D. students at the University of Maryland, College Park. We used the Think-Aloud technique along with direct observation to evaluate the usability of the screens. 

VVC-2 copy

Based on the feedback, observations, and recommendations we were able to understand the flaws with our prototype which helped us move forward to the next and final stage of the design process.

Bringing It All Together

We started out by creating a Moodboard to get a feel of the visual direction we wanted to take. After defining a clear design language, we moved on to create our Hi-Fidelity Mockups on Sketch and later collaborated on Figma to give the design some final touches.



The On-Boarding process of Circles is fairly intuitive and straightforward. The user has to enter their details along with an optional short bio and interests. User is also added to their university’s circle by default. Once signed up, she can view her feed and meetups.

Add People To Your Circles

On Circles, you are a part of different work communities called ‘Circles’. Users can add people from their organization to different circles. The app works within an organization and can be accessed only by the students and professors of that organization. Circles helps instill a sense of belonging and community to students.


Create Meetups

With circles, students can create meetups to organize events like Paper Presentations, Readathons, and Writeathons. Circles promotes in-person interactions with your peers and helps you be more productive by leveraging your work communities.

Get Invites And Attend Meetups

A user is notified of an event when the event organizer sends an invite. The user can then RSVP to the event, and also check for possible clashes with other events that she has responded to. Circles enables users to work together with their peers and ultimately feel productive.


Share Achievements

Users can Flaunt their work and Applaud others on their achievements. Circles helps to create a more supportive work environment by motivating peers to appreciate and value each others contributions.

Circles Video Prototype


My biggest learning from this project was creating a product from start to finish: from conducting user research to defining design requirements and developing prototypes and testing them with actual users to know why things don’t work the way we think they will. I learned the importance of capturing in-situ data through diary studies and understood how different it was from retrospective interview data.

What will I do differently?

1.  While brainstorming ideas we focused a lot on the motivations in our personas, taking them way too literally. It limited our ability to come up with an idea that's truly transformative. If given another chance, I would ensure the team takes a data-informed (and not data-driven) approach to design.

2.  Although we were able to evaluate the functionality and basic interactions using paper prototypes, we weren't able to test out our hi-fidelity mockups. Another round of usability tests, focusing on visual design and interactions, would ensure a truly user-centered experience.

3.  A complete design system along with the moodboard would have ensured the consistency of visuals throughout the app.

Thanks for checking out my project! Cheers!

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