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Deep DIY Research Is Behind this Entrepreneur’s Winning Financial Aid App

It was only through deeply listening to kids and families that this Social Innovation Award winner developed an app, Unicoin, to hack college financial aid applications.

October 15, 2018
Laura Zingg

Laura Zingg

Editorial Project Manager, One Day Studio

Laura Zingg

Laura Zingg

Editorial Project Manager, One Day Studio

Cece Claridge (Miami–Dade '13) won a Teach For America pre-pilot track Social Innovation Award for developing Unicoin, an app that helps college-bound students hack the financial aid application process and overcome its complexity. “I never thought I would be a huge financial aid nerd, but it’s one of the biggest barriers for my students getting to college,” she says.

Here’s how she interviewed hundreds of students and families to authentically inform her app design.

She systematized her effort. Claridge was already helping students apply for financial aid in her classroom but wanted to reach many more. She designed a questionnaire and sent it to all the students and families with whom she was working. “I needed more info on what they needed. It was more about building on my current system and consistent record keeping—things that teachers are already good at.”

She leveraged her relationships. With five years of teaching experienceat the same school, Cladridge had built an extensive network of current and former students and parents. When she needed to reach many more survey-takers, they trusted her enough to reveal personal information and discuss sensitive topics like their finances.

She took her time with gathering insights. Claridge spent two years gathering family feedback, working in bits of evening and weekend time while teaching. When her research led to the idea of creating a financial aid app, she taught herself how to code and attended coding boot camp. “I knew there should be an app for this, but I didn’t have the skills to make it,” she says. “Learning how to code was huge. It meant that I could move forward and create a solution.”

Illustration by Elan Harris

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