UXDI Project #4 Retrospective: New York Cares Mobile App

Project 4 was a group project exploring an area of opportunity with an existing brand. Our team chose New York Cares.

New York Cares is a non-profit organization that facilitates volunteering opportunities all over the city. After becoming a member and going through a short orientation, users can access all kinds of volunteering opportunities. Everything from Kids to Seniors. Helping teens prep for their SATs or walking shelter dogs.

There’s a lot of good work going on. But while New York Cares has a lot of people becoming members, very few of them actually go on to sign up for volunteer opportunities. In 2015, there were over 63,000 members, but at any given time, less than 10% of them were active.

This has resulted in a lot of events not being fully staffed. New York Cares has needed to implement a new feature on their website called “Hot Projects.” Whenever an event is only a day or two away, its listing is bumped up to the top of the site to let members know there is an immediate need.

To determine the direction of our project, we wanted to find out why so many people weren't volunteering. They seemed to have good intentions by signing up with New York Cares. But why weren’t they following through?

As for New York Cares’ current platforms, they have a desktop website that is just OK. Users search for opportunities by setting certain filters (dates, location, and interests). Locations are divided by every neighborhood in all five boroughs. So, it can take a while to scroll through all of your choices, especially if you are selecting multiple areas or interests.

It’s also relatively easy to filter yourself out of any opportunities. For example, if you select Coney Island / Mondays / Mornings / Animal Care, nothing shows up. There’s no way to see how to adjust the filters to find the next best thing. Should you adjust the days? Location? Users can spend a lot of time just searching for the right opportunity.

New York Cares also has a responsive mobile website, but it’s poorly designed. We ran 3 usability tests and they did not turn out well. We asked users to complete one simple task, but the mobile site is incredibly difficult to navigate. We ended the test after a few minutes, because the users were getting nowhere and becoming frustrated.

So, we were initially looking at this project as a website redesign and restructuring their information architecture.

We started with an online survey asking about people’s volunteering experiences. After receiving 54 responses, we started discovering some common themes.

When people find a cause they care about, 52% prefer to volunteer, while the remaining 48% prefer to donate. 52% had volunteered 1 to 3 times in the past year, while the remaining participants had either not volunteered at all (28%) or had volunteered more than 4 times (20%).

As to why people weren’t volunterring, the primary reason was they were too busy (73%). The second most popular reasons included being unable to find volunteer opportunities (27%), or that volunteering was inconvenient (27%).

We also found that participants typically found volunteering opportunities through friends and family (65%), school or work (55%), or social media (38%).

At this point, we were still thinking that the focus of our project would be reworking the search and sign-up process to be easier and more efficient. We also started thinking about ways to expand the current listings on the website to maybe include reviews or photos from previous attendees. Something to put a new volunteer at ease and give them an idea of what to expect at a new event if they were going alone.

We also found that the majority of participants had volunteered with friends or family (80%). However, friends and family were not the most important factor when participants decided on events to attend. The three most important factors (all at 83%) were a cause they are passionate about, days and times they were free, and the location. Again, this supported our earlier assumption that volunteering needs to be convenient to the participant; but we were also happy to learn that the cause of the volunteering event is equally as important.

From the survey results, we moved into user interviews. We approached respondants who had volunteered less than 3 times in the past year, or have never volunteered at all. These interviews would help us to better understand the motivation behind the responses, as well as how influence users.

We interviewed three men and two women. We also interviewed a New York Cares team leader and a current New York Cares volunteer, both women, in order to better understand the perspective of those who had worked with the organization.

The team leader revealed that New York Cares does not “have as many young people as we do older, retired or almost retired people who clearly have more time to devote to volunteer opportunities.She also told us that even at events that are filled up, there arealways no shows.”

Through this discussion, we learned that potential problems included getting younger people to sign up and commit to events and ensuring those who signed up actually attended the event.

The New York Cares volunteer explained “the people who volunteer…they always volunteer, it’s very consistent.” Through these two interviews, we wanted to find a way to tap into a younger generation of volunteers.

Because users had placed such a strong emphasis on convenience, we decided that optimizing New York Cares for mobile would be the best approach. Through our competitive and comparative analysis, we also found that native mobile applications were significantly more efficient at enabling users to complete their tasks than mobile websites.

We tested users on a competitor’s app to discover which features were working, and which were not, as well as how easy or difficult it was for them to find the information they needed.

We asked four users to complete a task on the Golden mobile app and the New York Cares mobile website.

The task for both Golden and New York Cares was to find an opportunity to mentor a high school student. We recorded their phone interactions and commentary in the process.

Only one user was able to pass one of the tasks on the Golden app!

The takeaways from this test revealed consistent obstacles:

  • Hamburger menus that didn't include useful information or directions
  • Search results that were irrelevant or misleading
  • Event titles that were obscurely named or not descriptive enough
  • No clear way to sign up for an event
  • Too many taps to complete a simple task

These findings further proved the importance of simplifying our application, while still providing the information that users needed to accomplish a task. We also wanted to ensure that relevant information was at the focus of the events page. Users don’t want to waste time scrolling through hundreds of results.

This is also when we had our Ah-ha moment!!

As I said before, we were initially looking at this as an information architecture based site redesign. But, we wanted to try something different.

After a long day of user interviews and wireframe sketching in a Bushwick coffee house, one of our team members checked in on Swarm. We started talking about gamification and some of the apps that use those features. There are apps that give you “badges” or “stickers” for visting a certain restaurant. Or exercising for a longer amount of time. These badges weren’t actually worth anything, but lots of people would modify their behaviour to collect as many stickers as they could. And, there were often ways to “compete” for badges with your friends.

We started thinking about ways of tapping into people’s competitive nature. Maybe we could add gamification features to our app to help motivate users to volunteer.

Before we left the coffee house, we sent out a quick survey with just 3 questions asking if people used apps like this and were they motivated by them. We also asked if they were ever motivated to do activities they saw their friends doing on social media feeds.

50 people responded. 68% had used apps to motivate them to exercise or complete an activity. 62% completed app activities so they could receive “awards.” And 58% were inspired by a friend’s activity they had seen in various newsfeeds.

So, we knew we were onto something. We decided to make this the main focus of our app.


Our primary persona is Brandon. A 33-year-old teacher who lives in Harlem, and has volunteered 3 times in the past year.

Brandon is passionate about giving back to his community, but he finds it can be time consuming to search through volunteer opportunities. Brandon prefers events that are related to causes he cares about, or based on his personal interests. He enjoys the “volunteer culture,” and will attend events either solo or with friends.

He doesn’t post much on social media, but he believes that sharing events with his social network could be a great strategy for creating buzz and generating more volunteers.

Our secondary persona is Chelsea. A 23-year-old recent college grad living on the east side in Yorkville.

Chelsea is interested in volunteering, but she’s overhwhelmed by the search and sign-up process. In the past, she’s found opportunities through events organized by her school or friends. She doesn’t want to attend an event alone.

She is hoping to find opportunities that will help build her resume and develop her professional skills. She is trying to find herself, and is hoping that volunteering will help her find meaning.


We started our design process with some competitive analysis. Volunteer Match is a mobile site with a lengthy sign-up process for volunteer opportunities.

Golden is a volunteering native app. It has some of the gamification elements we were looking to add. Note how the sign-up process is SO much easier.

We then put together a comparison chart to help us with our feature prioritization.

For comparative analysis, we looked at Classpass, a fitness app that helps you search for and schedule exercise classes.

And, we looked at Meetup, a social app that lets users search for real life socializing opportunities based on their interests.

We also made a features chart for these apps.

We also did a heuristic evaluation of New York Cares mobile site and its competitors. Note New York Cares’ extremely low score.

From all of our findings, we were able to build our app map.

We then moved on to selecting the color palette. We took some of the site’s existing colors and did some tweaking to make them more friendly and tranquil.

From there, we moved to sketching. We decided to divide and conquer the screens between team members.

This is the beginning of our newsfeed, including the addition of a pop-up screen where the user can sign up for events.

We also went through SEVERAL iterations of the icons in the nav bar. For the Newsfeed page, we started with a clock icon. But users didn’t understand the meaning. We tried a globe, but that didn’t work either. We finally found success with a “group of people” icon.

We also went through several versions of the event page.

Finally, the Profile page went through several iterations. We went through several changes on which categories would be featured, and what icons would represent them.

In the end, we came up with an app we were very happy with, and more importantly, passed all of our usability tests.

For next steps, I would like to look into the following:

  • Creating an in-app messaging system, so volunteers can easily communicate with each other, or talk directly to team leaders. (For now, tapping the “Contact” button for the team leader results in a new email.
  • Determine a place within the app where a user’s likes can be stored and accessed later.
  • I also think an Apple Watch app would be a great companion to the mobile app.
  • Finally, I’d like to work out the best way to integrate the “game” elements with the desktop site.

Another great project to work on. It always helps when you’re passionate about the subject matter!

New York Cares Team:

  • Eric Osborn
  • Lindsey Ullman
  • Gail Rankin