Making it Easier for Parents to Navigate Boston Public Schools

Listening to parents and prototyping ideas amid the transition to simpler and more informative digital services

If you’ve ever had a tough time navigating a big public school system, you’re not alone.  Parents in the Boston Public School system often face confusion around who to contact with questions and where they should even start—which phone number, website, or office contact should they use?

But it doesn’t have to be a big hassle!

Our team of 5 Harvard students spent 12 weeks diving into the Boston Public Schools system and researching the family experience. We finished the semester with the opportunity to pitch the folks in charge—the executive suite at Boston Public Schools—with our suggestions for how to improve that experience. 

 Team member John LaRue interviewing a parent

Team member John LaRue interviewing a parent

Our Process

After over 50 user interviews, we learned firsthand from students and families just how much clear, consistent and easy to access information matters.

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One student—call her Letisha—had a new legal guardian who needed to approve school paperwork for the coming year, but the system didn’t yet have the new guardian on file, and instructions on the website indicated the process had to be verified in person. She took time off school, caught two city buses, and traveled several hours in order to reach central headquarters, only to uncover a huge setback: She didn’t have all of the necessary forms filled out and ready to make the guardianship transfer official.  Solving her problem would mean more buses and more time out of her schedule—and it doesn’t have to be that way.

After weeks of user research, we narrowed down the challenges with navigation to three core pain points:

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If families can find answers or make considerable progress on the first try, everyone has a better experience. 

Parents and guardians try several ways to find those answers—online, by talking to school staff, and by talking to other parents.  Once they find a method that works, that’s where they’ll start the next time they have an issue. And as we learned, Boston Public Schools has several teams working hard to answer incoming questions—but even inside headquarters, getting the right information depends on having relationships with people in other departments.

The Problem Statement

How do we make sure someone like Letisha has the right forms before she travels for hours on bus? Can she avoid that journey completely? How can we help families and staff navigate the complexities of the Boston Public Schools system?

Learning through User Testing

We envision the Boston Public Schools (BPS) making continual improvements. If BPS can help families help themselves by providing the information they seek more effectively, it could reduce the number of incoming phone calls and free up time for the BPS staff team to use in other areas—like building relationships across departments, or giving more attention to families with more complex questions.

The Boston Public Schools updated their website midway through the semester—and our team took the opportunity to think through ways to help BPS capitalize on and push forward this positive momentum. 

 A side-by-side comparison of the BPS website (left: January 2018; right: May 2018)

A side-by-side comparison of the BPS website (left: January 2018; right: May 2018)

We went to welcome centers and libraries and coffee shops around Boston to find parents and watch the way they used the current website.  These field tests helped us understand how people look for information, and where they get stuck.  Some behaviors were very common— like prompting a search when a parent has typed in a question into a search box and pressed the enter key.

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Based on our learnings, we sketched out a couple mockup designs, aiming to make a simple, fast-loading landing page, with prominent links to the most-used sections of the website. We took some educated guesses with our prototype, but the important thing was not the specific layout so much as the approach—fixing the things that make customers stumble, and listening to how real people use the website.  

Below is the final mock-up after whiteboard brainstorming, paper prototypes, testing with users, additional prototyping, additional user-testing, then finally developing a higher fidelity prototype, the team culminated on the below screens.

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Key Recommendations

This prototype incorporated our three recommendations.

#1 -- Audit family-facing resources to minimize jargon

Design the website to clearly explain only the necessary information, and target it towards parents and families who may not have an intimate understanding of the educational system.

#2 -- Streamline the web experience for key questions from parents and families

Orient key information based on how families search. There are a few basic things we learned that parents search for—forms, questions, school bus times, etc. These are the objects around which a website flow can be designed.

#3 -- Tackle quick wins early on to instill parent and family trust in the BPS digital tools

Small changes to the website will encourage customers to come back to the website when they have questions in the future, rather than call BPS because they feel confused.


We also had recommendations to BPS that focused on internal information sharing, including continuing to test and scale internal systems (like a customer relationship management system) and processes that will make it easier for BPS staff to help parents.

It’s our hope that the next time you need an answer from the Boston Public Schools, you’ll be able to easily find it online, which will hopefully put a smile back on your face.

Chris Kuang, Ayna Agarwal, John La Rue, Molly Thomas, Ben McGuire

 Molly Thomas and John LaRue presenting to officials from City Hall and Boston Public Schools

Molly Thomas and John LaRue presenting to officials from City Hall and Boston Public Schools