What does it take to stay sane at school?

User Research

- Stella Tu
- Irina Sthapit
- Rachel Rossi

- Ethnographic Interviews
- Behavioral Prototypes

3 weeks
Conducting interviews
We conducted 4 user interviews on Stanford students, and found (surprisingly) that all interviewees had a fantastic ability to “stay sane” at school. What we found to be at the core of their ability to do this was their high understanding and awareness of “who they were”. This grounding in their identities shaped what they did in the outside world– both for their careers and also for their hobbies. Their ability to move away from the terminology and categories that society has given us to describe ourselves was key to their sanity.
Rachel's story
We were particularly moved by Rachel, a 25-year-old undergraduate student at Stanford who is studying women's health. ​​​​​​​
Q: You mentioned when you started becoming interested in being a doula, you were also interested in what femininity meant to you. Could you explain?

A: I think at different times of my life I would have a different answer for you, like this is what femininity is…but I know to me, like personally …it’s more nurturing that side of myself that is the very intuitive non-linear part of my brain. Maybe somebody could describe that as the yin of the yang, the darkness, maybe the process of not knowing. In some ways it can be very archetypical to me like the archetype of the crone that is old but wise, the archetype of the mother who is giving herself totally to her child, even if she is also working and doing other powerful things in the world, it’s the act of service…”
- Rachel, Stanford student
Rachel's self-care is enabled by what she calls 'femininity' . What we found compelling about Rachel's story was that, while other participants described "diverting" or "enriching" activities that served as breaks from their daily student life, Rachel remains sane by using her "outside time" to invest in her self-care, not only as a means to focus on the next activity but as a formative part of her identity.
In fact, we got the sense that her life could be described as the Rubin Vase (below). Within this image, her femininity is a purposeful negative space in the background, inherently forming a well-defined foreground that is what we see about Rachel at the macro level: farming, nurturing, and being a doula - her forms of self-care.
What if we could re-conceptualize femininity as a mindset that enables self-care?
When the boundaries of societal norms define our identity, we become transactional and career-focused. But what happens if we let who we are - our virtues - define societal norms?
Testing a behavioral prototype
Our study focused on having one group of 4 people primed with a virtue-based identity (through an exercise that asked them to “Describe one or more of your values, and tell us about a time that you embodied that value”) and another primed with a career-based identity (“Describe a career milestone that you’re proud of”). Each group had one round of practicing their introductions to one another. Next, we mixed both of your groups to see how a virtue vs career conversation would sound.​​​​​​​
In order to measure their relative emotion at each phase of the study, we asked participants to jot down the name of a song that embodied how they felt.
Our hypothesis was that in the career-career conversations, we would induce a competitive, stressful environment for the participants. The virtue-virtue conversations would feel awkward at first (as it is not part of our social norm), but our goal was to make you feel safe through some coaching and practice. Finally, the career-virtue conversation would result in the virtue-primed individuals feeling grounded/less affected by the stress of the career group.
What we found was extremely interesting:
- Career-career conversations became “transactional” once common ground was found. This impacted future conversations in the career-virtue environment, where the user braced for a similar “transactional” conversation.
- Virtue-virtue conversations felt safest because of a similar understanding of the prompt (we created a “virtual” , though temporary, norm here)
- Virtue-career conversations in most cases converged on career-related topics (ie “mainstream” conversation) because that was a point of familiarity for both people.
- The moment a virtue person spoke to a career person, they “stepped out” of the displacement study by explaining, “My prompt was virtue-based, so I am….,”  rather than “Hi, I know this is a bit weird, but my name is Tulsi and I’d consider myself an honest person.” This was a weakness in our study, albeit interesting, where we could have provided more instruction/scaffolding around how to introduce yourselves.
Introductions had more of a positive effect on the ability to relate to others rather than on self-grounding, as we had originally hypothesized.
Career and virtues are not mutually exclusive, but asking people to talk about virtues as opposed to careers somehow violated a social taboo. Why is it that we “can” talk about one and not the other, if they are derived from the same origin?
Next steps
This project was a short sprint focusing on using behavioral prototypes as a qualitative research method. If we were to take this project further, here are potential next steps:
Iterating on the displacement would be helpful to understanding how stricter instructions for introductions (to avoid sharing your prompt before you introduce yourself) would change the temporary “norm”.
We would also like to explore our proxy to sanity. Our study seemed to have very little impact on participants after 24 hours (based on survey results), but sanity should not just be a measure of how you feel at a single point in time, but rather a mindset that grounds you throughout life.

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