Minerva Students Collaborate with South Korea’s Naver to Design a Student-centric Mobile App
Minerva students from the Classes of 2019 and 2020 began their fall semester in Seoul, South Korea, as the country entered its final months of preparation for the Winter Olympics Games in PyeongChang. To accommodate the hundreds of thousands of international visitors the country expected to host, the government upgraded public infrastructure to ensure it was capable of handling high volumes of visitors. Businesses, meanwhile, increased and modified their services to take advantage of the forthcoming tourism boom. South Korea’s technology sector, which is primarily based in Gangnam, the neighborhood in which Minerva students lived, also saw in the Olympics an opportunity. In the coming months it would prepare to highlight its thriving technology sector and debut South Korea’s latest inventions, from robots that guide passengers at the airport to self-driving busses capable of shuttling visitors from the ice skating rink to the mogul skiing event.
Naver, the primary search engine platform used in South Korea, was no exception to this technological showcase. The company sought to design a mobile application to help non-Korean-speaking tourists find local activities while in Seoul, given the number of English-speaking visitors to South Korea has increased significantly over the past several years. Students in the Classes of 2019 and 2020 fit Naver’s target demographic for this mobile app: an internationally diverse, primarily English-speaking, and app-using population that had recently arrived in Seoul. In addition to fitting well within the target demographic, Naver was attracted to the diversity of interests and academic backgrounds — a mix of Business and Computational Sciences majors — the student team represented. Thus, Naver and Minerva students formed a partnership that aimed to create a simple and dynamic mobile app to solve an unmet need for South Korea’s international visitors.
Minerva students met with the team at Naver to receive an overview of the project and scope of their collaboration. As the students learned, the company aimed to build a tourist-friendly mobile mapping app, which it would ideally debut in advance of the Winter Olympics, that would enhance the experience of international visitors during their time in Seoul. At the time of their meeting, a mobile service that sufficiently addressed the market need for an English app of this nature did not exist.
After the introduction, students were tasked with researching the app’s market audience. What seemed to be a simple initiative became increasingly complex the deeper they dove. First, they had to define the target user. Should the app be geared toward tourists visiting for the Olympics? Or, should it be more evergreen, developed for all visitors of Seoul? There was also a third option to consider; they could create the app to include both populations — Olympic tourists and future visitors who would want to see the city’s historical sights, cafes, and other landmarks.
Since the majority of apps they were researching were, understandably, in Korean, the team also faced language and communication constraints. As it so happened, one of the four Minerva students to collaborate on this project was Korean and spoke the language. He and the team’s manager at Naver, who is fluent in English, were able to help the other students navigate this language barrier throughout the collaboration. Since the app would be used in Korea, it was critical for students to be able to research the factors that make Korean apps successful, though the one they were designing would be used by English-speaking visitors.
Designing an app was a new experience for most of the students. To avoid becoming overwhelmed and to set themselves up for success, they decided to break the project into separate stages. First, they elected to focus their target audience on a specific subpopulation. Stemming from their own experiences as young, global travelers, they were drawn to the idea of designing the app for users with similar interests to many young, English-speaking exchange students, namely those who are tech-savvy and eager to explore the unique aspects of a city on a budget.
The team also realized they could utilize their cohort’s vast knowledge and recent experience moving to Seoul to better understand the difficulties international students face as newcomers to a foreign country. So, the group created a survey for their Minerva classmates, as well as students from the local Hanyang University. A recurrent response was that students found it difficult to access local events and city happenings, especially in interest-specific niches, such as plays or recreational sports. The survey results also revealed that students faced difficulties navigating the language barrier, were unfamiliar with the regional cuisine, had limited finances for travel, and did not receive adequate help from the city’s existing tourist services. As it would be infeasible for a group of four students to address all of these issues in just 10 weeks, the team decided to proceed with designing an app that curates inexpensive and neighborhood-specific, cultural, recreational, and entertainment experiences for tourists.
Hoping to gain useful insight about their own app, students met with the team at Naver Labs, a research division of Naver, to share their research findings and learn from the progress Naver Labs had made on a similar app. From this brainstorm, students were able to further refine their plan. In order to help non-Korean-speaking users navigate the city, the app would utilize both a location-specific search function and hashtags for easy browsing. Finally, it would also list prominent locations, by popularity, and include a coupon scheme to encourage students to engage in more activities in the city.
During the final two weeks of the project, student and team member Adrian Goedeckemeyer used his app development experience and familiarity with the Google Maps app program interface (API) — which the team used for the mapping app’s map, coordinates, and directions functions — to implement the their prototype. Meanwhile, another team member, Shpend Bekjiri, created the user interface (UI). This process was guided by the team’s Naver manager, who introduced them to more rigorous UI design processes and provided them regular feedback. As a result, the UI featured a sleek design with color-coded addresses, emoji, hashtags for easy sorting capabilities, and a way to connect to one’s social media platforms. Additionally, team members Namrata Haribal and Jin Kim refined the details of the group’s business plan and marketing strategy.
At Symposium, an end-of-semester gathering that showcases students’ collaborations on various civic projects, the team presented their final prototype to Civic Partners and the larger Minerva community. The result was a mobile app — dubbed #GottaGo — that suggests neighborhood-specific activities to young, English-speaking adults visiting Seoul. Users would be able to use the app to find current events and attractions recommended to them based on their personal preferences. The events were curated by international student organizations, including those at Minerva and Hanyang University, where international student offices were already responsible for curating events for their visiting students. By allowing these student groups to add their experiences to the app, they were able to reach a larger audience and add to the list of events curated through #GottaGo.
From investigating a problem in the city to establishing a practical solution, the team gained valuable experience in developing a new app concept from the ground up, as well as designing an app and gaining project management experience. Moreover, they learned firsthand the critical importance of iteration, research, and design thinking when creating a smooth user experience — and they did this within the context of a large and prominent company, which in itself enabled a number of learning experiences. The joint project was a meaningful interaction between Naver and Minerva during the students’ semester in Seoul, and helped contribute to an exciting effort to revitalize South Korea’s tourist industry.