Team Culture Connect

This blog will follow our thoughts and process through a self-guided group project as our Senior Design Capstone.

Week 1: Jan. 21–28, 2018

Open discussions, team organization, and topic definition.

Topics of interest amongst the class

Our class held an unconference, a loosely structured meeting emphasizing the informal exchange of ideas, in order to find people with similar interests and project goals. The day was exciting, and led to a number of thought-provoking conversations.

We (Julia Ainbinder, Chris Perry, and Lucy Yu) formed Team Culture Connect through conversations about our upbringings in multi-cultural homes and a common interest in learning new languages and cultures.

A few initial problems and opportunities we identified:

  • Language learning apps limit users to a digital and impersonal experience.
  • Language learning is not often paired strongly enough with culture learning— the two should go hand-in-hand.
  • Retention for current methods (ie: apps) is low.
  • Languages are learned best with frequent speaking practice, which is not very enforced through current methods.

Week 2: Jan. 29–Feb. 4, 2018

Team structure and values, project framing, and goals.

With the facilitation of a design researcher from Dropbox, Jennifer Brook, we spent a couple of hours openly sharing stories of past group projects and values for work as we move forward. It was great to hear each others thoughts and get on the same page so that we could establish some guidelines for our team.

It’s time to get the ball rolling! After creating some team norms, we dove right into framing the project and defining our scope.

Week 3: Feb. 5–11, 2018

Research and ideation.

We jumped into research to give ourselves a deeper understanding of the problem space and prepare to speak with stakeholders. We did a competitive analysis of existing learning methods and sent out a survey to our peers, family, and friends around the world.

Full survey:

We wanted to use the survey to gain more perspectives on the issue. We recognize that until now, we have been working on a number of biases and assumptions.

We got 85 responses and are eager to read through everybody’s thoughts to help inform our next steps!

While we were waiting for responses on the survey, we took some time to get our own ideas out in front of us. To the advice of one of our advisors, we closed our computers and reminded ourselves that we are designers. Not everything has to be rooted in data.

Week 4: Feb. 12–18, 2018

Research analysis, project scoping, and lo-fi design solutions.

We took some time to go through the 85 responses to our survey and pulled out some of the highlights.

We found that some of the most effective learning methods fall toward the bottom right (learning with other people outside of digital products). In comparing how people learn languages and cultures, we noticed that there were more effective methods to learning cultures, but these methods are not accessible to everybody (travel, study-abroad, living with host families, etc.).

Thinking about this trend along with some of the most common pain points (discouragement from natives and inconvenience), we decided that our design solutions will need to offer a comforting, non-judgmental environment for learning.

Using the insights found from our survey, we began brainstorming quick design solutions to test out. We mocked up a couple of learning activities we imagined would be fun and informative. Above all, we hoped they would make people feel comfortable learning and practicing the material.

Left: A game with two sets of cards, one with objects and one with directions — participants are asked to “Pitch this Object” as a quirky entry point to objects significant in a variety of cultures. Right: A game with a foreign word on one side and its pronunciation + definition on the back side. Participants take a go at pronouncing words in other languages.
Left: Informative “Did you know?” posters to get people interested in cultural facts. Right: A quick sheet of phrases you would need to play a simple game in another language (example done in Spanish with the game Set)

We recognize that these solutions are really geared toward beginners. With the exception of the game of Set in Spanish, the others aren’t specific toward any language or culture. They are meant to encompass people who don’t know what they want to learn yet.

This made us stop to consider our design scope. Do we want to target all levels? Do we want to focus on the beginner or someone more advanced? At the conception of this project, we were really thinking about creating a space for those already learning a language. From our research, we learned that people have trouble learning when they aren’t comfortable or feel any sort of discouragement. If we excluded beginners in our design solution, we would be going against this main factor. Therefore, we will be targeting young adults and on who are interested in learning new languages and cultures at all skill levels.

Next, we needed to decide if we are going to focus on language or culture. Until now, we have been clumping the two together. And this wasn’t wrong. They go hand-in-hand, but will we be able to design something strong for both? After a lot of discussion, we identified that one of the main reasons people learn a language is to connect with native speakers on a deeper level. One of the main components lacking from current learning methods is the culture. An app can teach you basic phrases, a class can teach you perfect grammar, but if you don’t know how people act and what people care about, you won’t be able to make as strong of a connection.

Moving forward, we are going to focus on designing solutions surrounding culture. Of course, they will still contain aspects of language, but that won’t be the focus. We believe that the activities will naturally encourage language practice.

Updated vision:

To design a space for learning and practicing foreign cultures as a way to build competency for interacting with natives in addition to language skills.

Our plan for the weekend is to create a handful of different activities across the beginner to expert spectrum to test on people at different levels. We will be looking for feedback on the effectiveness of the activities (in terms of learning, bringing people together, and creating a comfortable environment) and general feedback on our updated vision.

Week 5: Feb. 19–25, 2018

More activities, brainstorming, and making.

Moving into making activities for higher levels, we began running into questions as to how general the activities should be. Should we produce the content for one language/culture just to demonstrate an idea? Should the user produce the content? Or should it be crowdsourced?

While keeping some games specific to a particular language/culture, we designed two games that could be up for interpretation and content would be produced by the users.

Sample French lyrics provided.
Users are invited to adapt the game to any culture/language they are interested in.

Games similar to Roll Play give players more freedom to practice communicating within specific cultural contexts. While this is effective by giving users an opportunity to practice and pursue active learning on their own, there is less discovery of new information that enables the player to familiarize with an “in-group”.

We decided that creating the informative content shouldn’t be our job. We want to design the experience in a way that the content will be created efficiently and reliably. As designers, we will be in charge of creating easy-to-follow templates and examples.

We are thinking about different broader “cultural” themes that are meaningful but also localized to a specific culture, such as:

  • Tongue twisters
  • Counters (pair, set, etc.)
  • Food names and their etymology
  • Myths and stories
  • Idioms and maximes
  • Subtly different words — (‘kowai’ scary vs. ‘kawaii’ cute)
  • Jokes
  • Nursery rhymes / childhood songs
  • Universal tunes (Happy Birthday)
  • Group story-writing
  • Mad Libs (+ acting?)
  • Story/fable jigsaw
  • Adages

Our wall of activities is growing! As predicted, designing for intermediate level was the most difficult.

Week 6: Feb. 26–March 4, 2018

Peer reviews, project redirection, and planning.

Monday we had a great workshop with Michael Alden, a slam poet. He took us through a number of quick-writes and discussions. Most applicable to this project, he had us attempt to explain what we are doing for this project without stating our intent (what we’re trying to do).

Coming away from the workshop, we needed to better align how what we’ve been doing is working toward our intent.

Project Redirection

Previous intent: To help people who are interested in learning a language/culture to learn and practice that language/culture outside of the classroom and digital resources. To help people feel part of the “in-group” of a culture without having to travel.

Previous design: A cultural cafe with games focused on learning a variety of cultures along with languages and events focused on specific cultures/languages as a space to practice or feel connected without having to leave the country

New intent: To connect high school students studying new languages around the world so that they can help each other learn in a more practical context and build meaningful relationships both personally and

New design: A service that matches students around the world studying each other’s native languages and facilitates an exciting pen pal interaction that goes beyond traditional letter-writing.

Week 7: March 5–11, 2018

Project mapping, role assignment, and planning.

Our service, Culture Connect (placeholder name), will help match high school students around the world studying each other’s native languages. It will facilitate an exciting “package pal” relationship. The service will allow users to send each other packages filled with items important to their culture and video chat to build a friendship while expanding their knowledge.

Packages will be “assembled” through a simple web app prompting students for a variety of contributions (ie: choose snacks, take some photos in your home, fill out a game template, scan and upload a hand-written letter, and much more). A physical package will be created and shipped from a location closer to the receiving student, making the service affordable and exciting. Finally, the service helps package pals schedule times to video chat, taking care of any time difference complexities.

Culture Connect would be offered to high schools to supplement their curriculum as an alternative to exchange programs (which can be very expensive due to travel costs and complicated due to graduation requirements). Students would sign up through the school, ensuring everybody participating is a legitimate student.

Students will be able to apply their learning from the classroom, share about their own culture, participate in an exciting package exchange, and most importantly, make a meaningful connection across the world.

Quick user flow
Stakeholder mapping

Next, are planning to do a fleshed out service blueprint so we can better understand all of the components we will be designing.

We assigned some roles for the upcoming deliverables. These simply mean the assigned person will be in charge of these aspects, but we are planning to work together throughout the process:

All: service blueprint
Julia: game templates, packaging, user flow 
Lucy: app, stakeholders
Chris: web, packaging

First try at our service blueprint:

CC (culture connect) service blueprint mapped out from the perspective of a student.

Through mapping out our service blueprint, our stakeholders are becoming a lot more clear. While we are designing for high school students’ classes (involving teachers, and administration) it would also be interesting to consider how the pen-pal relationships could extend beyond high school and translate to college.

We are currently planning to get in touch with some high school teachers and potentially interview them / talk with the students (luckily, all three of us have Act 153 Clearances). Additionally, we believe that talking to college freshmen and asking them questions would also help us narrow down (or broaden?) what we might want to include in the “cultural packages,” since they’ve only recently graduated from high school. What do they like? What would they want to receive? are amongst some of the questions we would like to ask them.

Here are some things we want to keep in mind as we move forward:

Week 7: March 12–18, 2018

Spring break! Woooo

Julia will be in California.

Lucy will be in Iceland.

Chris will be in…your good ol’ Pittsburgh.

Week 8: March 19–25, 2018

Design sprint, small group crit, and revised timeline.

Coming back from spring break, we jumped right into a two-day design sprint! With some time away, we came in with fresh ideas and energy. We aimed to clearly illustrate the user journey and create tangible artifacts to bring our concept to life.

We hoped this illustration would be a more effective way to explain the service, as opposed to the traditional overload of sticky notes.

Lucy tried out some fun different visual styles for the packaging.

We presented to several other groups and got some great feedback!


  • User journey makes sense
  • Love the concept
  • Packaging is fun and exciting
  • “I can see the end of this project”

What to work on:

  • Hash out the logistics (manufacturing, funding, etc.)
  • Language used across the service
  • Name of the service
  • Establish a simple brand language
  • Consider sustainability of packaging
  • Iterate packaging design, eliminate any confusion

Moving forward, we just have around 7 short weeks left. Our final presentation will be May 8. We are aiming to finish earlier to leave some buffer time for anything unexpected.

Week 9: March 26– April 1, 2018

Logistical research and branding language.

With our idea moving along well, it was time for us to try to prove that it wouldn’t work in order to make it stronger. We have been making a number of assumptions along the way (ie: shipping would be cheaper if the packages were sent in bulk), but what if we’re wrong? We need to make sure we have answers to the difficult details before moving forward.

What we found:

  • The program would not be quite as accessible as we imagined. Private/well-off public schools could afford it, but lower income public schools probably wouldn’t prioritize something like this.
  • We have some options for funding the program. First, it could be offered to only schools that can afford it (not ideal). Next, a big company with a mission similar to our concept, such as Airbnb, could buy our service as a philanthropy project under their name (not bad). Or finally, we could instill a business model where for every student that signs up at a higher income school, a student at a lower income school gets a discount (pretty great).

We spent some time brainstorming new names for our service. We listed out adjectives to describe how we want it to feel and countless words in different languages to spark ideas.

We didn’t get quite far enough yet to settle on a name, but we plan to do so in the near future!

We also worked a little bit on the UX for our app.

This weekend we’ll be working on iterating on our packaging and contents to prepare for a silent critique on Monday 4/2.

  • Julia: game, letter, user journey
  • Chris: packaging, snacks
  • Lucy: branding

Week 10: April 2–8, 2018

Silent critique and hashing out details.

On Monday we had a silent critique for the majority of class. We built two new package models to show different sizes and content possibilities. We received a lot of really great feedback that will help us move forward!

Overall, people really loved the concept. They had some great questions— both ones we’ll need to think about and ones we have resolved but didn’t present clearly enough.

Common comments:

  • Where will funding come from?
  • Is the video chat necessary?
  • I don’t see a brand yet.
  • Is there more than just food?
  • How will you get teachers on-board?

We have been working on hashing out all of the above details this week.

Funding: We are considering partnering with a larger company (such as Airbnb) and having them adopt the service as a philanthropy project. In addition, higher income schools who purchase the already lower cost service due to Airbnb’s contributions will help to subsidize the cost further for lower income schools. It could be marketed as something like “Every student who joins helps fund another student’s language learning.”

Video chat: We realize the user journey is a bit complicated with a video chat involved. We are going to nix that aspect and focus on creating a stronger package experience with more written language practice.

Brand (name): We have been struggling to choose a service name and brand identity, but we finally narrowed it down this week!

After a couple hours of rethinking the name, we’ve decided on… *drumroll*… Escargo!

Quick sketches working toward a logo

We wanted it to be playful, approachable, and to move away from literal meanings (ie: Package Pals). It has a couple of hidden meanings people could read into (escargot- common French food, cargo- shipping, “es cargo”- it is cargo in Spanish, “go”- energetic word used across many languages), but above all, we are excited to have a character to represent our brand. What should we name the snail?

Brand (visual style): After some discussion with Kristin, we decided we wanted to move into a more DIY feel for the visual style. We looked into what people make when they send care packages or gifts to friends.

We are drawn to the idea of using recycled materials to increase sustainable efforts, reduce production cost, and remove cultural attachments to the exterior of the contents, making it more of a cultural surprise once the package is opened.

A possible idea is using recycled newspaper from the departing country, which is literally wrapping the contents in a cultural artifact noting current events and culture. If we pursue this direction, we will need to consider the constraints — what kind of newspapers would need to be filtered out (graphic content/biased content/etc.). Senders could also help choose which magazines to used based on what they like.

More than just food? Yes! It seems we haven’t quite nailed this part down yet. With each package, we have been putting a letter from the sender, a game co-created by the sender, and yes, snacks. It is possible our packaging design has been constraining what we are able to send and what the receiver notices first when they open it.

We sent out a message to some younger friends in France asking what they would like to receive from an American student and what they would want to share with their pal about their own culture. We are expecting to get most of the responses within the next couple of days.

Get teachers on board? Great question. This is definitely an assumption we’ve been making. We have several contacts of high school teachers in Pittsburgh and our own language teachers from high school. We will be reaching out to them this week asking what they think of the project.

Now that we have our name and brand direction, we will be sprinting this weekend to present our progress on Monday in the form of an updated user journey, a near final logo, more thought out package contents, and of course, a new package.

Julia: message French students, message teachers, update user journey, help with package contents

Chris: package and contents

Lucy: logo and brand identity

On y va!

Week 11: April 9–15, 2018

Class critique with professional designer and project plan updates.

We did a pretty major sprint to prepare for a critique during Monday’s class. We finally chose a unified visual direction to test, wrote a refined project statement, updated our user journey, and created an interactive table to gain feedback on our package contents as we move forward.

We got a number of packed boxes sent in which helped us learn what people valued when sharing a part of their culture.

We also got some interesting ideas for what could be sent on a flash drive. While we aren’t set on sending a flash drive (an unnecessary increase in cost), we wanted to have the physical form of digital gift to spark inspiration.

We got some really great feedback from the visiting designers. They asked us important questions on funding, brand, and our user journey. We’ll be working to refine these components in the next week.

On Wednesday, we spoke with Kristin about our brand and end-goal for this project. We discussed how we might continue to play with Escargo, our visual style and logo. We also brought up the possibility of building out the website interaction, but decided that a video may be more effective for our project. We’ll be working on storyboarding and creating a video pitch in the next few weeks to wrap up the project!

Week 12: April 16–22, 2018

Refining details and Carnival.

We began to play with our logo and brand a bit more this week.

We have been getting some feedback that Escargo and its colors are looking a bit too French focused. This may be because our example experience will be with a French student, but this was not the goal of our branding. We got some positive feedback on the bottom right magazine cutouts, which gave us the idea of getting a glimpse or peek of somebody’s culture.

We began playing with the name Peek instead of Escargo. We are excited about the idea of potentially cutting a sliver into the box top and having an image of the box’s origin city underneath, so you get a little peek of it before opening the box. We’ll mock this up and see if it looks as fun as we’re imagining it will!

Finally, we’re working on refining the physical box form. We have a new little sketch model of the box, its joinery, and how we might play with patterns on the outside/inside of the box.

It’s Carnival this weekend, so we’ll be taking a little breather for a few days and pick up strong on Monday!

Week 13: April 23–29, 2018

Final production!

This week was filled with making, making, and more making!

Our final decision was to make the boxes wrapped in local newspaper from the box’s origin country.

We laser cut the box template to speed up the production process and printed out a sample of Le Monde for our French box. We realize our method for building out the boxes is tedious, but if it were to be manufactured, it would be done much more efficiently.

We hope this idea will help to upcycle local papers and provide recipients with another cultural artifact + some reading practice.

Next we worked on the contents of the boxes along with post cards and artifact tags. We went with the square design on the right. The blue text is the language a student is practicing and the red text is a translation in their native language.

Bouncing off of our USB idea earlier — we turned a digital component (in this case a Spotify playlist) into a QR code.

Next, it was time to make a video to give a cohesive overview of the entire service! Julia created a storyboard and script, and with Chris’s help, brought the idea to production.

The weekend was spent recording voiceovers from students and a French professor, and editing everything down.

The video explains the service in a bit of a cheesy yet clear way.

A big thank you to our actors (Shanice Lam and Hagan Miller) and our voice actors (Piers Mrkusic, Dr. Niang, Alex Palatucci, Gilly Johnson, Ty Van de Zande, and Noah Johnson)!

Week 14–15: April 30–May 11, 2018

Final presentation, exhibition, and celebration!

On May 2, we presented a slide deck of our process, our clear mission, and the video to our class and some outside visitors. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time for questions/comments, but we got some positive feedback later in the day!

On May 8, we hosted an exhibition and celebration of our work this semester! It was exciting to share the idea with more people outside of the School of Design. We got a lot of comments asking if we were going to legitimately take this idea to market.

Maybe we will one day!

We later snapped some fun photos of our boxes outside!

Pâté, cookies, music, and more from Bordeaux and Pittsburgh!

It was a very busy and exciting semester for Team Escargo! From the day we came together as a trio of students interested in language and culture, to designing a service to promote this passion for high school students, to eating escargot together, we learned so much from each other.

Bon été et bonne voyage à tous!