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Building meaningful connections

MA 22/23
wellbeing, prevention, connection, support, community, students, university

Our UniConnect service design project aims to create a transformative and engaging platform for first-year university students in the UK. Recognising the challenges faced by students in transitioning to university life, UniConnect focuses on facilitating connections, fostering social engagement, and supporting personal and professional growth. 

As a society, we celebrate independence and individuality. Through UniConnect, we also aim to celebrate seeking help and support.

By leveraging the principles of service design, the project aims to deliver a seamless and meaningful user experience, empowering students to form connections, find support, and thrive in their university journey.

Additionally, the UniConnect service will help universities to ensure the right resources and solutions are invested in to create maximum impact.


During a 10-week period, we worked closely with university students, psychology experts, existing solution providers in the market and industry experts. We also built a small community of about 15 designers, who are passionate about this space and problem, and came together to ideate and brainstorm on the solution. In addition, we are working with a potential partner organisation who is interested in our insights and implementation details.

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Preventing mental health problems

Research shows that 74% of mental health conditions begin by the age of 24.1 Almost all treatment and support available for mental health comes into picture once it deteriorates. We wanted to question this space and understand how design can help in prevention by promoting mental wellbeing. This means helping individuals before the onset of problems, before they reach the age of 24, and ideally during adolescence. However, as this is an academic project, we realised working with kids could bring with it ethical challenges. Therefore, we concluded that the earliest age we could focus on is around 18-19 years.

At this age, a person transitions into adulthood, and it often coincides with the time a lot of people go to university for the very first time. The university is then a health setting that can have a positive or negative impact on the wellbeing of the people in it. This made us narrow down our focus to first-year undergraduate students at the age of 18-19 in UK universities.

Research and Insights

We started our research with a focus on discovering what we mean by 'mental wellbeing' for students. As students ourselves with no expertise in the area of mental health, we realised that speaking directly to users at this point could be triggering and have negative consequences, so we decided to rely on secondary research and expert interviews at this stage. We talked to psychologists,  had conversations with a college principle and teachers, listened to talks by spiritual people, and read endless research papers. We also did a contextual enquiry with an established service provider who designs mental wellbeing solutions for employees. This was to build as clear of an understanding as possible before we moved on to user research.

Key learnings

  1. Mental wellbeing, unlike mental health, cannot be measured. Wellbeing relates to the extent to which an individual is feeling good and functioning positively, it is subjective to the individual
  2. Transitioning from school life to university life has a large impact on students

Based on these learnings we started our primary research. We talked to some of our users regarding how they felt about life at university, making sure not to get into the mental health history of any student. This helped us keep our research ethical and non-triggering. During primary research, we reflected a lot on our position as designers and discussed any biases we may have with the help of our tutors. This was to avoid any confirmation bias and perceptions to impact our learnings, given that we ourselves are university students. Our primary research helped us with profiling our users. We uncovered their pain-points, emotions, expectations, motivations and the analysis helped us with our key insights. We also learned that "mental health" and "wellbeing" are loaded terms and trigger a particular response in our users.

Key insights

  1. Universities do not have any legal duty of care for the mental health of students. This means they are free to implement support that they see fit and this support system, even today, is motivated by the fact that universities are the first ones to be held responsible in case of any student incidents
  2. All help available today relies on students to take initiative and reach out. This contradicts the finding that many students are not likely to open up about their problems to their universities
  3. While self-care was widely recommended by experts for mental wellbeing, most self-care methods today are done in isolation
  4. Students in their first year of university may struggle with their identity and figuring out where to fit in. Before university, they had an existing support system of people who knew them and cared for them (parents, friends, teachers, etc.).  After joining university, like a pond fish dropped into an ocean alone, they are overwhelmed by this new life of opportunities and possibilities, where they are 'on their own'. We uncovered that although their existing support system does not disappear entirely, its nature changes once the student is further away from it, which may result in gaps in their perceived support.


What are we solving?

Based on our research, findings and insights we identified a need for a service that:

  1. Helps build stronger relationships
  2. Builds a support system
  3. Meets students where they are
  4. Helps with personal growth

These needs also defined some service values for us: empathetic, fun, and safe


UniConnect is a service idea that engages with students, understands them and helps them make friends even before they join university. It involves 3 key touchpoints/interventions.

1. Introduce and match

UniConnect engages with students before they join university. This could be in the form of an email, a video and through student stories. The service leverages the excitement and anticipation of students joining the university to submit a fun questionnaire. The questions will be based on hobbies, interests and university plans, with a mix of deeper personality questions. UniConnect will use AI to analyse the responses and then match 3 to 5 students in a group. We suggest this matching should also give users some autonomy to choose their group mates or give preferences.

2. Meet your group and choose the challenge

Once students join the campus, they are given a fun activity to reveal their group mates and meet in person. We believe, knowing that the groups are made on the basis of their own responses will give a sense of belonging and compatibility to the group members. Once they meet, each group is given some time-based activities. We suggest students should have the option to choose the activity they feel using some guidelines by UniConnect. These activities will be a mix of group based and individual. We realised that our users are of two key archetypes "Social Butterfly" and "Personal Growth Seeker"; thus the activities by UniConnect should be designed accordingly.

At this point we also strongly recommend a "my-time" - a dedicated time slot in the university course calendars. Students will use this time and space for the activities. We believe this will not only help with time pressure on students, but also make universities care and share responsibility for their students' wellbeing. Also, it will help students perceive their university with more positive attitude.

"It makes me feel that my university cares about me" - Student

3. Reflect and encourage

Post every activity, the groups will be asked to reflect and share. This area is still to be detailed out. We know that we do not want to use any reward system or hook models here, but would rather like to try and identify any internal motivations for this.

After a certain time, the groups would be shuffled. We suggest to shuffle only a few group members depending on the level of satisfaction with the group. After this, the groups will again get new challenges. Unlike freshers weeks and other freshers activities, we foresee UniConnect to be a campus companion that stays with our users throughout their university journey.

Additional ideas

To come up with some more ideas, we brought together a group of 15 designers to critique and brainstorm on various ways to develop the service. This took the form of a 3-hour workshop conducted by us at the RCA campus. In these 3 hours, attendees were given various tasks including critiquing our ideas, building on our ideas and thinking outside the box.

Additional key features that we recommend to support the service:

  • Dedicated time slot in the university calendar
  • A non-clinical 'mood test' that will help students and groups to reflect on their emotions and normalise them by sharing similar emotions
  • Integration with university resources and communities
  • Knowledge hub for common problems like budgeting, time management, personal habits, relationships etc.


Meaningful connections can help students with their new university life and mental wellbeing

While we have arrived to what our service idea could look like, we are now working on the details of each touchpoint and testing the prototypes with real users. We are also working on identifying a revenue model for the platform considering financial pressure as one of the key reasons for the mental health problems in the students.

Do you have something that you would like to share? An idea or an opinion? If you want to know more about our project, please visit our exhibition show.


Our proposal is based on our intensive research and we received tremendous support from our tutors and mentors for it.

Special thanks to

Alex Barclay - Guiding us and helping with resources and connections

Richard Atkinson and John Makepeace - For helping us with ethical research methods and approvals

Joshua Chauvin from Koa Health - For mentoring and market insights



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