Immersion Studio in the University of Washington’s MHCID program is a rapid 5-day sprint from prompt to presentation, occurring a week before classes start. On Monday morning, we got to know everyone in the program, and before lunchtime we had split into groups and started to narrow in on our problem space.
Prompted with promoting civic engagement by means of computer-supported cooperative work, my team became interested in donation behavior–particularly surrounding individual donations to food banks. Quick desk research revealed a ripe problem space, where we learned that the supply and demand for food donations both exist. Yet food banks and shelters simply didn’t have enough food for all who sought help, which eventually lead us to our problem statement…
We created CarePack, a mobile app that lowers the barrier to food donation by making it possible from the convenience of the home. Donors can record their donations, place them in a container outside their door, and have them picked up by a local food bank truck once a week. In the process we track valuable information about donation contents and behaviors that benefits both the donor and the charitable organization.
CarePack is a simple product with a simple goal–get more food into the hands of people who need it. The interface reflects our minimal approach, where the primary call to action on the home screen guides the donor to jump into the donation process.
Adding a new item to the pack will open up the phone’s camera, and the product is automatically added when its barcode is recognized. A search function allows manual input of the product.
Once the pack contains at least ten items, the donor confirms their address, is notified of the next available pickup time, and can leave a short description of the donation container. A truck-driving charity worker sweeps the neighborhoods once a week, using a separate interface to coordinate pickup routes and track the donations as they move from doorsteps to shelves.
Since we collect information on all the foods donated, we can provide information on community donation hotspots, calculate human-readable statistics (like the approximate amount of meals the donor has provided), and potentially provide tangible rewards like a tax break accumulator.
So, how did we get there?
Our secondary research consisted of analyzing academic papers and popular media articles, as well as observation of online food sharing and donation communities like the Buy Nothing Project. Here’s some of the most interesting insights that we gleaned:
✱ People often donate out of convenience, not necessarily to do good
Although most of us understand donation as the right thing to do, the process is often impeded by factors of convenience. We need to be in the right place and the right time, with the items in hand–which is why food drive barrels usually show up inside grocery stores. But when’s the last time you ran into one of these barrels?
✱ People will donate more if there is a visible outcome
We learned about the importance of a visible feedback loop, where there’s transparency about the donation process. When a donor sees what happens to the donation, or has some way of understanding its impact, they will feel more involved in the process.
✱ Household food waste isn’t as subject to social pressure
Though we focus on unopened non-perishable goods, which account for a much smaller fraction of household waste than spoilage and cooked food, we became interested in the lack of social pressures surrounding excess food.
Ideation & down-selection
Through a braiding session, our team generated 30 separate directions for how we might approach the problem, and chose a few of our most promising directions for refinement and critique. They included a communal food locker, restaurant leftover finder, and the food truck pickup model.
During a critique session, we heard a general confusion about what kinds of food could be donated, a variety of feasibility issues with our food locker concept, and viability issues with the donate-from-home model.
Before down-selecting, we developed a set of criteria that would help us narrow our possibilities:
✱ Make the donor’s experience effortless
If our goal is to encourage more regular donation to food banks, we need to fit our product into the lives of donors, who are often limited by time and location.
✱ Take advantage of existing workflows
In considering the viability of our options, we sought a solution that didn’t require massive funding, considering the nature of donations and the fact that charitable organizations mostly function through volunteer work.
✱ Minimize legal issues
Through our research, we learned of the extensive legislative barriers that currently restrict food donation. In considering feasibility, we wanted to minimize these issues.
These three criteria meant that the donate-from-home model was our most promising, and we decided to overlook the viability of individual home pickups due to the limited amount of time we had. We also knew that food bank trucks already exist, and that they regularly visit businesses to pick up excess food.
Design & prototyping
After finalizing our direction, we quickly brainstormed the main user donation flow and set our ideas into a series of paper prototypes.
We conducted a few user tests with classmates, which didn’t yield a ton of feedback about the flow. However, we learned a great deal about the prototyping process itself…
When conducting a usability test, context is crucial. Too much context given to a user is like giving them the answer to the question–we learn nothing by doing so. Yet too little context can also be confounding; there should be some minimal amount of storytelling that sets up a situation, and allows for the user to start filling in the blanks.
Paper prototyping is one of many low-fidelity methods to test and prove early design concepts. But for our first prototype, we jumped straight into Sketch and mirrored the screens on an iPhone; this quickly proved to be too constraining after our first user test. Reverting to a paper prototype allowed us to more rapidly change aspects of the flow in response to feedback. The prototyping method should maximize efficiency while having enough fidelity to resemble what the final product might feel like.
From ideation and user testing, we developed a few key features:
✱ Barcode scanning
The only donations accepted are unopened, non-perishable goods–just like in most food drives. Tapping the + button opens the phone’s camera, using existing technology to scan the item’s barcode and add it to the donation list.
✱ Pickup confirmation
The donor must also input their address during the confirmation step, and is informed of the local food bank which will be picking up the delivery. The food bank is chosen based on distance. The donor can also see the next available pickup time–or schedule a different time in the future.
✱ Community & information sections
Food banks can enter their own guidelines for donations, and make realtime requests for foods that are in high demand. And, since each donor is paired with a specific food bank, they begin to develop a long-term relationship with the organization that hopefully spurs regular donation.
Telling the story
After an afternoon of visual fine-tuning, we focused next on the story–how does our solution address our problem statement, and does it fit into the lives of the people who we think should use it?
Our presentation began with the finalized CarePack concept, and then unraveled the research and testing that brought us to our final product. We held a round of pin-up critique, where we got advice on how best to tell our story and structure the final presentation.
Looking back / Looking forward
This was my first time using the human-centered design technique, and it’s safe to say that we made plenty of mistakes along the way. Aside from the difficulties that come with a five-day deadline, I made a running list of things that I think I could have (and in the future, will do) better.
✱ Get it out of your head
Successful design is largely premised on successful communication. Our team often found it difficult to align on many aspects of the product, because we all had different unspoken notions of what the solution could be. Externalizing these ideas would have resolved many of our differences sooner.
✱ Never forget the story
It’s easy to get caught up in the details–but there’s a time and place for detail. I appreciate the value of trying 30 different variations of button placement, but at that level of detail, the story behind the product falls away. Make sure the story (and therefore the user) is always top of mind.
✱ Strong opinions, loosely held
An idea relayed to me by an old coworker. There were times during the project that we all felt a bit lost: is this a valid issue? Should we include this feature? I found that making a strong case for a certain decision–even if I didn’t think it was the best choice–sparked discussion and pushback that helped us over many of these roadblocks. Use your opinion as a weapon to combat inaction.
The five-day design sprint was a fantastic introduction to the human-centered design process–compacting the many complex stages into a hectic and exciting learning environment. I was surprised at how much I learned in a few short days, not only about designing, but how to advocate for ideas, manage workload and expectations, and work with teams of people with diverse backgrounds.