Designing UX in a Co-Living Space

Identifying needs and setting the stage for accelerated serendipity in Tokyo

Back Story

In January, I moved to Tokyo and joined IMPACT Japan (Intilaq) — an NPO and local hub for innovation and social entrepreneurship. Along with daily operations, the organization opened a co-living house to host innovators and other creative people from around the world. The organization had the broad goals of connecting guests to local innovation, accelerating serendipitous meeting and collaboration among guests, and building a global innovation network in Tokyo. I looked to implement a human-centered design approach to understand the needs and hopes of guests, reach mutual goals, and create an overall awesome guest experience.


a) Identify the goals and major pain points of our guests.

b) Prototype and iterate upon initial insights.

c) Reach mutual goals.

Identifying Needs


During my first 6 weeks as house manager, I immersed myself in daily life at the house and took notes on guest interactions, house culture, and how guests used the space. It was important to me to spend as much time as I could afford at this stage to best understand my design context.

User Interviews

After welcoming and building rapport with guests, I conducted a number of semi-structured and informal interviews in regard to their perceptions and experiences in the house. Creating a relaxed and safe environment for guests to speak candidly was important at this stage.


Distilled from my interviews, I created a couple of personas to organize and uncover patterns in guest goals, behaviors, and pain points. This process was also useful when later referencing and designing for the different types of guests we host.

Meet Alex
and Tracy!

Through observation, interviews, and personas, a number of initial insights emerged. First, it was clear that basic needs were met — Guests felt the house to be spacious and comfortable, have good amenities and be in an excellent location. They also were delighted that our organization was offering this experience for free.

In addition, guests noted three consistent pain points:

a) Lack of culture— Guests often wanted to engage in the house experience but felt that there was not an established house culture to guide behavior. Guests noted that they were unsure of house goals and expectations and could not clearly understand how the house project was linked to our brand and organization.

b) Lack of sufficient guest interaction— Guests felt unable to easily engage others in the house and felt uncomfortable that they did not know others who were staying. It became clear that our guests were busy people; either away exploring Tokyo, at meetings, or working at different times throughout the day, and serendipitous meetings at the house would not occur often enough.

c) Lack of access to local innovation and innovators— Guests felt that they lacked opportunities to connect with locals and local innovation via our organization. At the moment, the organization was connecting guests with locals on a case to case ‘concierge-style’ basis and lacked a consistent experience provided to all guests.

Ideation & Prototyping

After identifying these pain points, I broke each one down into smaller chunks. I went through a number of brainstorming sessions, mapping user journeys and creating affinity maps to arrive at these initial prototypes:

Addressing House Culture:

Friday Community Lunch — I invited our guests to our Friday team lunch. With the understanding that food brings people together, making lunch with our guests would be an organic way to implement the collaborative, friendly culture we wanted to establish. It was important for lunch to be casual and fun but also act a sacred space where guests could feel safe to get know one another and share their thoughts. Although we often began by talking about projects and work, the informal setting set the stage for more natural conversation that ranged from sharing every-day life stories to sharing personal passions and life goals. I intended lunch to become a ritual and a meaningful experience that guests could take away with them.

Community Guide— Next, I designed a foldable community guide for guests to have upon arrival. The guide highlighted our organizational mission, provided information about the house and it’s goals and noted useful information to get started. When thinking about the guide, I wanted to tell a concise but comprehensive story of our organization, providing enough information that our guests could easily explain the purpose of the house and the role of guests in building our network. It was also important that the guide be able to fit in one’s pocket, backpack, or purse, for easy reference when guests were traveling around Tokyo, meeting with others. From the typography, card design, and tone of voice in the copy, I wanted to highlight our forward-thinking culture and set the tone for a good stay.

Front of folded Community Guide
Folded community guide on size A4

Welcome card— Last, I made a welcome card for guests that went next to the door of their rooms upon arrival. The card welcomed our guests and extended our mission statement for the house. I wanted to clearly lay out our value proposition and explain exactly we wanted to offer them as an experience.

Welcome card printed on size a6
“[Our House] is a place to call home, a space to co-live and collaborate, and an opportunity to become inducted into the Tokyo innovation ecosystem”

Addressing Guest Interaction:

Room Mailboxes — Understanding the reality that guests were not always in the house at the same time and thus were missing potential opportunities to meet, I prototyped room mailboxes to try to improve interaction. I wanted guests to be able make introductions and connect with one another even when away from the house and believed that room mailboxes could foster this opportunity. Upon arrival, guests would be encouraged to say “hello” by leaving a post-it for another guest to get a conversation started. The mailboxes orchestrated introductions and were also a way for our team to leave notes and share information about different Tokyo events and meet-ups with our guests.

A mailbox next to the Nebuta guest room.

Community Board— Upon arrival, I asked guests to snap a polaroid to add to our wall. They then filled out a brief description of themselves, their interests, and what they could share with others on a card and posted the card (with photo) on our board. When thinking about guest interaction, I wanted visually lay out our network and use the board as a tool to connect. I believed having pictured cards would help guests feel part of our community and allowed them to easily make introductions to people in the house and others our greater network.

The initial prototype for the community board

Online Network— Last, I invited guests to a Facebook group as an extension of our network. I believed that house alumni and prospective guests could use social media as a tool to make introductions, share about their experiences in Tokyo and potentially meet and collaborate. Online social networks continue to be powerful ways to keep people connected and I wanted to experiment with our own online community.

Addressing access to local innovation

Curated Tokyo Guide — I created a set of curated Tokyo guides with categories highlighting different types of local innovation. The goal was to create the guides to highlight our values and set the stage for unique, meaningful experiences. I came to the decision to make a set of short, categorized guides from the insight that guests were often busy and often had a short time in Tokyo. I wanted to make it easy for guests to quickly browse through the guide and pick and choose categories or specific places that interested them. Making small, post-card sized guides seemed like the proper strategy — the guide was sized to fit in a back pocket for easy, on-the-go reference. Categories included: make & craft, tech, media & design, architecture, work, and ‘getting started’.

Make & Craft Guide font & back size A6

Japan Travel Guide — Many guests planned to travel after their stay in Tokyo. As a way of taking our user experience beyond our house and completing a user journey, I prototyped a foldable Japan travel guide to provide guests with a reference for adventure and exploration around the country. I mapped out a northern and southern itinerary and highlighted areas of interest specific to innovation as well as top locations recommended by my team. In addition, I added essential Japan travel tips, useful phrases, and our house address with information about posting mail, creating an opportunity for guests to continue their relationship with our house and organization as they travel and explore more of Japan.

Folded Japan Guide back, front, & inside printed on size A4


After testing my prototypes, I found that guests reacted most positively to the community board and Friday community lunches. Upon entry, guests would often stop to browse the community board, look for friends in common and begin to get a sense of who were as a brand from the beginning. In addition, guests would often mention about team lunch in messages to us after their stay and projected a sense of inclusion. In the future, I think it will be important to continue Friday lunch and prototype other in-house events such as saloons or meet-ups where guests can have further contact with our team and others from our network.

Messaging via the mailboxes was semi-successful. When prompted with an initial message, guests typically responded and/or passed on a note to another guest but if not prompted, guests would not use the mailboxes. Looking forward, I would like to streamline this process and create more consistency.

The Facebook group to extend our network was not significant in extending our network and I would advise focusing on other avenues. Guests joined the group but did not engage on the group thread. Perhaps social networks can be effective but we will need to find an alternative strategy.

Last, I prototyped the guides to follow a user’s journey from beginning (community guide), middle (Tokyo guide) and end (Japan guide) but was not able to do a full test examining the outcomes. Nonetheless, from team feedback, I stand by my hypothesis that the guides will be helpful to our guests and help build our brand.

What’s Next

I just concluded my work with IMPACT Japan and will be returning to San Francisco. I passed on my work onto my teammates so they can continue to iterate on my initial prototypes and go forward developing the house user experience project. It was exciting to have the opportunity to try UX outside the confines of the web and this helped me develop an understanding of alternative UX scenarios can be applied.