Aura: The Protohack Project

On October 6th, 2016 I participated in the Protohack hackathon at the General Assembly campus in San Francisco. The event was advertised as:

“(a) jam​-​packe​d 12-hour​ ​hackathon with education, inspiration, networking, and prototyping. Start the day with an idea and at the end of the day you’ll have 90 seconds to pitch your idea in front of investors, developers, product people, and more. Walk away with a prototype, pitch, and awesome prizes to take your product to the next level all without writing a single line of code.”

Intro presentation the morning of the event.

First Impressions

I was looking for a project for social impact because I want to make the world a better place (of course). The event had no set theme so the pitches were super diverse. A few initial pitches were for:

  • an SMS or video based app to enable people suffering a crisis to reach out and communicate with an empathetic person
  • an app for people to discover local, spontaneous, artsy events
  • a dating app that would connect people based on their sense of humor

Finding a Team

After hearing a lot of pitches that didn’t fit in with the project for social impact theme, I approached a table of three people talking over a list of ideas. I asked them what they were ideating and they went over a few of a the ideas they had on the list. A few of the ideas were:

  • an application to find restaurants and local businesses geared toward an Asian market
  • an app to teach users accents
  • a platform for users to find subscription services, and for small businesses to provide them
  • a savings and investment app which rounded the user’s change from purchases to the nearest dollar and put that money into a separate account to be invested or saved or donated

The last idea resonated with me the most. Facilitating donations to trustworthy causes and charities sounded like a project for positive social impact. The group was still deliberating which topic to choose. We discussed each idea in terms of the problem it would be solving and then voted on our three favorite ideas. The final consensus was the donations app. That is how I ended up joining what would come to be known as team “Aura”. Our four person team was formed: Kader, Kassi, Marco and myself.

Researching the Problem Space

Now that we had a group and an idea it was time to discover if our idea was viable. We decided to send out questionnaires via our social networks and also hit the street to do some one on one interviews.

We wanted to find out if people donate to charities or causes, how much, how it makes them feel, and any pain points associated with the experience.

I wanted to ask participants, directly, if they would be interested in the idea of using our app. My instinct was to explain the concept and straight up ask them if they would be interested! But Kassi informed me that is a no-no in UX interviews.

Asking participants outrightly if they would be interested in our product prompts most people to give the most pleasing answer: yes. A yes is what we’d like to hear. Not being upfront to spare our feelings has no consequences for the participant, but serious consequences for the quality of data collected.

So instead our questions were pointed at trying to find participant needs and problems.

Why do you donate?

How do you find suitable charities or causes?

What about donating do you find difficult?

We sent out our questionnaire to our respective social networks and hit the street for to find participants to interview. It was a comfortably warm Saturday afternoon and there were plenty of people outside in San Francisco’s Financial District. The four of us split up into groups of two to conduct our guerilla interviews. Kassi and I approached four diverse participants:

  • a pastor (with an adorable baby)
  • a retiree
  • a nurse
  • and a college student.

We were very fortunate that everyone we approached was friendly, cooperative, and agreed to answer our questions. Even the most standoffish individual, the nurse, warmed up to us by the end of the interview and started sharing pictures of her deceased dogs (R.I.P.).


After the interviews we regrouped, checked out the action on our online questionnaire, and compiled and compared our findings. We ended up getting 15 participant responses in total.

We found that most people interviewed donate money to causes or charities. They do it to support the causes they believe in, and to make the world a better place. Almost all participants mentioned that transparency of the cause or organization played a major factor in their decision to donate to that organization. There is also a social factor to donations: people donate to their friend’s causes, and find out about worthy causes through their social network. Five participants said that they prefer donating to individuals. Our findings told us that trustworthiness would be a huge factor in getting people to donate with our app.


We signed up for a 15 minute session with a product mentor who would guide our product concept direction and help us define our MVP. It was in that meeting that it became apparent that not everyone in the group was on the same page. Two of us thought we were designing an app that took spare changes from purchases and put it into a separate account to be donated to charity. The other two thought we were making an app that allowed the user to send payments to charities, without the spare change aspect. Oops! We ended up agreeing to go forward with the “Venmo for donating” idea.

Designing for the User

We started by sketching out some wireframes and toying around with feature ideas on post-its. Once we had a decent idea of the layout sketched out we opened our laptops. I think it’s worth mentioning that in this 12 hour event, we didn’t start pushing pixels on the screen till around three hours before the final slide deck was due.

Sketching wireframes

Based on our data, we decided that the best way to get user’s trust would be to partner with reputable, existing charities. Users can find causes to donate to a number of ways:

  • Having a social feed where the user can see the charitable activities of other people in their social network would not only inform users to causes that they may not otherwise have found, but it will also be a way for a user to boost his or her favorite cause to the group. We decided that it would be gauche to show dollar amounts.
Discover charities via the search bar, taking a quiz, or through viewing your social media feed
  • A search bar allows users to enter the name of the cause directly.
  • Lastly, the user can take a quiz that matches users to causes that align with their personal beliefs and values.
  • The user dash displays data visualizations of users donating over time
  • Going to an individual charity’s page shows more information about where the donation is going. It would also include information about the breakdown of the organization’s financials so that users can be assured their donations are going where they should be.

The Pitch

As Kassi and I designed the user interface of the app, Kader and Marco started practicing the pitch and making the Google slides to go along with the presentation. The pitch mentor’s advice to them was to make the pitch as human as possible: put a face on the problem to get empathy from the judges. With only 90 seconds time given to present to the judges, the pitch had to be perfect. The 90 second pitch breakdown:

  • (30 sec) Explain your business problem (concept) and what steps you took to prove it today (validation).
  • (30 sec) Show key slides/storyboard of your prototype design
  • (30 sec) Talk about your next steps (business model)

The Final Pitches

Our group was selected to go tenth out of twelve groups. For me the pressure was off because I did not present the pitch. We left that to Kader and Marco, who are more business oriented.

Aura wants to make donations easy to help hurricane Matthew victims.

When it was team Aura’s turn to pitch, Marco and Kader did great. Their practice paid off. They hit all of the major points clearly and succinctly in the (too short) 90 second window. They told the story of Lisa (a dramatized version of myself). Lisa lives in California, but she wants to donate to help hurricane Matthew victims in Florida. She’s a first time donor and isn’t familiar with the donation process. So she goes to the app store on her smartphone. She downloads the Aura app where she’s able to check out a number of charitable organizations giving money for hurricane Matthew relief. She’s able to see the breakdown of how the donation money is being spent, and read reviews of the charity from other donors. She donates feeling confident that her donation will serve to help the cause.


Working with people from different disciplines and skillsets, especially people who come from business oriented backgrounds, was a real eye-opener. The main focus of these projects for business oriented individuals concern if a business model is scalable and profitable. My main concern is whether or not the product makes the world a better place, if it makes life easier for people, or if it brings joy to its users. All well and good, but probably not a way to run a business.

Team Aura
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