Staying Sane at UC Berkeley 



The following case study is the result of a group project completed in Michael Barry’s class at UC Berkeley, Needfinding in the Wild. This course was focused on learning how to empathize with a user and finding non-obvious insights to produce meaningful solutions. Our final assignment was to understand what sanity means at Berkeley with a concentration on students’ environments.


Collaborators: Cindy Zhu, Inaara Charolia


Help students achieve sanity at UC Berkeley with original methods or by replicating successful methods



  • We conducted extensive interviews with 4 Berkeley students to understand what sanity means to them at school. We framed this question in terms of their environment, including the people they surround themselves with.

  • The most common answers we encountered were that students felt sane when they had emotional stability and a lack of stress.  

  • One story that stood out to us was that one of our interviewees, Anjeli, told us she doesn’t tend to make friends with people within her biology/pre-med major. We noticed a similar pattern in interviewees who had competitive majors.



The purpose of clustering was to identify our user’s key needs. We came up with the following:

  1. UC Berkeley students need to experience a lack of judgement in their own choices.

  2. UC Berkeley students need to feel unthreatened in their career paths.

  3. UC Berkeley students need to expose themselves to different world views.


This lead to our non-obvious insight:

You can maintain your sanity more effectively by surrounding yourself with people who don’t share your career-based goals than with those who do.

Deeper Insights 

We then looked back at the information and noticed an interesting exception throughout our interviews. Anjeli talked about the one situation in which she did make friends within her biology/pre-med major; it was through her club, The Suitcase Clinic, which offers free medical care to low-income and homeless individuals in Berkeley. Anjeli said she connected to people in her club because she valued being apart of a socially-conscious community within the biology/pre-med major, as she said many of her peers outside of The Suitcase Clinic were often focused on academics and getting into med school.


Anjeli’s case was not unique as we noticed similarities in two of our other interviewees. When our interviewees talked about having relationships with people within their majors, there was usually some kind of shared distinction that set both parties apart from the other people in their majors.


This lead to our “game changer” or problem statement:

It will be a game changer if we can make people within the same major focus on what makes their goals distinct rather than focusing on their shared goals.

Concepts/Prototyping Phase 1


For our first displacement, we chose to tackle institutional issues that pushed students to concentrate on their shared career goals. We revisited the concept of a major and proposed that all students should curate their own majors at UC Berkeley. This way they could choose course loads that were interdisciplinary and unique, but still career-focused.


People would be less anxious if their course load was tailored to specific career goals and distinct from other students.

User Testing 

We asked one of our interviewees, Anjeli, to craft her own by major by making a 4 year college plan and taking any classes she wanted. The only requirement was that she took at least 13 units a semester.


  • After making the mock-up schedule Anjeli felt she would be more engaged in her classes because she was able to take ownership of her learning. Additionally she liked that she could curate her curriculum to the highest capacity with an end goal in mind: to be a professional neurologist in India, specifically treating women.

  • She liked that she could meet people from different academic backgrounds in her classes

  • However, Anjeli still didn’t feel like this would get rid of the comparison within her classes or in the pre-med community, at Berkeley. She mentioned that she would still compare herself with people in her classes for grades. Furthermore she felt that pre-med students would opt to pick the most challenging biology classes in order to look impressive to medical schools, which would entirely defeat the purpose of building your own major. This made her question the mock-up schedule she created, and if the classes she chose were challenging enough.


  • Feasibility of implementing the “build your own major” idea at UC Berkeley, a publicly funded school with 30,000 undergraduate students

  • “Building your own major” has the potential to cause more anxiety amongst students, as people may take this opportunity to overachieve instead of exploring the interdisciplinary benefits of choosing their own curriculum.

Our Pivot: Concepts/Prototyping Phase 2

Brainstorming + Concepts

After completing user testing on our first prototype, our group chose to pivot. We brainstormed and consulted with Professor Barry, as we began to look at the bigger picture and the root cause of the competition at UC Berkeley: the desire to obtain a lucrative job. We looked at a variety of students’ experiences, including our own, and elite company expectations, to come up with the following assumption:


Schools, such as UC Berkeley, perpetuate the idea that if you have good grades and challenge yourself academically you will be able to get a high-paying job, as companies look for applicants that are well-versed in the field. However, in actuality, top companies look for graduates that can think differently and can offer them unmatched value. A technical education can only take a student so far in their career if they don’t understand “how to think”. Furthermore, a technical education in a leading field such as computer science or pre-med doesn’t necessarily teach students “how to think”, which is a common assumption. Therefore, there’s a tangible gap in what UC Berkeley offers students and what’s actually expected from students in the long-term, causing heightened anxiety amongst students.


Additionally while developing our displacement, we sought inspiration from the Confucius ideal to “teach students in accordance of their aptitude” (500 B.C).


For our second displacement we proposed to make UC Berkeley’s education as personalized to one’s strengths as possible, with an emphasis on thinking styles.


This type of education will create less anxiety as students will have an incredibly personalized path and a better understanding of their strengths. Additionally companies will directly be able to hire for what they want.

User Testing 

Our group mapped out potential evaluation systems for the second displacement and then conducted an interview with another UC Berkeley student.

 Students will be assessed in the following learning styles:

  • Critical thinking

  • Logic/Math

  • Problem Solving

  • Interpersonal Skills

  • Design-Thinking

  • Visual/Spatial

  • Linguistic

  • Potential distinguished areas (e.g. society and policy-thinking, musical-rhythmic thinking), etc.

  Quantitative Perspective                            

​ - Each class provides an opportunity                   

 to gain points in a particular skill (e.g.                  

 90 points critical thinking)                                                                                                                                    

-Students will be assessed and will                    

accumulate points in each area 

New Evaluation Model For School System:


 Qualitative Perspective

-Students are required to

 provide a portfolio project

 exhibiting their skills in                       each learning style



  • The student said they were happy with how personalized the system was and that they would feel much less pressure in being compared with other students

  • “I would actually get to focus on improving my skills instead of worrying about doing well on tests”   

  • The interviewee felt tech companies would like this model as it would help them differentiate herself and her capabilities


  • Feasibility in shifting to this system

  • Difficulty for companies in scaling a portfolio-based model (qualitative work)

Next Steps 

  1. Conduct more user testing with diversified class examples

  2. Reach out to sought after companies and begin scaling interest

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