Trellis: Process Documentation

For the final project for our studio, Introduction to Interaction Design, we were tasked with designing a product ecosystem that extended beyond the screen and involved multiple touchpoints across multiple channels. The aim of this project was to gain experience working through an end-to-end design process and to use the tools, methods, and processes we had been exposed to throughout the semester.

As a team, we tackled the problem of sourcing and managing volunteers in the food community of Pittsburgh. Our solution, Trellis, is a digital platform and physical cart that connects local food organizations with interested, enthusiastic individuals in the area. It facilitates the creation of mutually beneficial matches and the assignment of tasks, easing the management process for organizations and allowing individuals to feel they are making a real contribution to something they care about.

Initial Problem Space

Our group formed over a similar interest in food and community. By directing our research toward understanding the stakeholders and the value flows as they exist in Pittsburgh’s locally grown sustainable food community, we believed we might be able to identify opportunities to augment existing value flows and create new ones.

As we began speaking with these stakeholders, we learned that the relationship between local food organizations and local communities could be represented by a self-reinforcing loop: How might we leverage the strength of a local community to help a food organization? And how might, in return, a local food organization help strengthen its immediate community?

Exploratory Research

We attended a number of events related to local food around the Pittsburgh community to get a sense of our problem space and to hone in more specifically on a territory. We attended a community garden clean-up, a launch party for a delivery CSA, and attended a weekly volunteer night at a local urban farm. Additionally, we conversed with experts in urban farming, sustainable food, and community organizing.

We approached this research with a number of objectives:

  1. Find out more about the type of people and groups who are interested in working in this space
  2. Understand what these various organizations see as their role within the food space and within the community..
  3. Learn a bit about what motivates these people.
  4. Understand what is “working” in these organizations and to get an initial sense of where there might be problems.
  5. Make the distinction between when community collaboration is an asset and when it becomes a burden.

We saw this research as an opportunity to get to know these stakeholders in a casual way, while getting our hands dirty (literally).

Research Findings and Synthesis

Our conversations with players in Pittsburgh’s local sustainable food scene taught us a lot about the community, volunteerism, and the problems inherent to hosting volunteers who are not yet committed members of the organization. First of all, community-led food organizations need to get resources — for which they need resources. People are the most critical resource, and they bring along with them not only physical hands to help but also other skills, passions, energy, and more. However, having just anybody can actually put a burden on these organizations when these human resources are untrained or only volunteer at one-off events. Helping these people (in groups or individually) integrate into a community by bringing them into a place where they can make meaningful contributions with a certain level of commitment became a focus point of our design.

From what we learned in our exploratory research, we were able to narrow down our problem space into a more specific question.

How might we enable community-driven local food organizations to thrive and provide opportunities for individuals to connect with these organizations and contribute to a shared future?

One design implication that emerged from our research was that our design should get resources where they need to be. Because we found that people are the most critical resource, we wanted to match the resources and needs of individuals to those of various stakeholders in the local food community. In creating Trellis, we took into account the organizations and communities in the space as well as the individuals that support them. Being able to source relevant human resources was crucial to the final design of Trellis.

A second implication was that our final solution should maximize the value of these human resources. Well-meaning volunteers often show up without skills, training, or commitment, putting a burden on those who need to manage or train them. However, as these individuals gain knowledge and a developed sense of commitment, they become valuable members of the community. One way we hope to integrate individuals into communities is to allow for meaningful contribution, thereby encouraging commitment.

Finally, we wanted to provide support to local food organizations. At this stage in the design process, we envisioned this principle playing out in various ways. If what we designed could provide a service to consult with organizations to help them identify volunteer roles and scope projects appropriately, matching resources and needs of multiple parties could be more attainable. Extending reach and presenting information in a “consumable” way could help smaller, lesser known organizations make themselves known to potential volunteers. Lastly, limiting the burden of training or ensuring that volunteers come equipped with skills could help volunteers start contributing right away.

Concept Development

As part of the conceptualization process, we continued to broaden the scope of what exactly we might be designing before bringing the concepts to users for evaluation. We wanted our concepts to cover as many bases as possible before narrowing down to one solution, since our problem space was still quite broad. So, we developed a series of divergent concepts to get a better grasp on the problem space and begin moving towards a possible concept. The three areas we moved forward with were:

  1. Volunteer coordination and management
  2. Connecting space with organizations
  3. Utilizing existing resources for community building

Around volunteer coordination and management, we explored various facets of the challenges we uncovered in exploratory research. Though unsure how these various ideas might combine into one concept, we developed storyboards to flesh out opportunities around matching organizations and individuals, supporting organizations in managing and coordinating with their communities, enabling organizations to share resources and manage volunteer overflow, and providing a physical location for regular outreach and community engagement.

To further understand how organizations might be able to utilize space offered up by individuals or other community groups, we looked to popular space sharing models to explore possibilities that might exist for a technology to support organizations in sharing spaces.

Finally, pushed by conversations we had during exploratory research around the challenge of finding time for volunteering, we began considering how we might be able to “create” time for busy volunteers by either taking advantage of underutilized, un(der)employed people or by co-opting existing groups or events that might make creating time for community engagement more viable. In this vein, we developed ideas around a summer camp that would match high school students looking to enhance their college applications with retired people who know a lot about gardening: both of whom may have extra time on their hands over the summer. We also developed storyboards around “renting” a monthly group meeting, as well as involving existing community groups in activities in and around the local food community.

Evaluative Research

With a few ideas fleshed out, we began prototyping our concepts with relevant stakeholders. We conducted a speed dating exercise with our storyboards, introducing our concepts and eliciting immediate feedback both on the concepts as a whole as well as individual elements. We held these sessions with a prospective volunteer, who has done extensive work within her local food community, as well as with an active community organizer who also runs a community garden in the area.

These sessions were incredibly helpful for us in getting a sense for what might work and what wouldn’t. We quickly moved on to synthesizing our findings and narrowed down to our final concept, making rough sketches of some of the ecosystem’s elements and how they might work together.

With a rough outline of the components of our product ecosystem (digital platform and some sort of physical space) we conducted a last round of evaluative research with a volunteer coordinator for a local food rescue organization. The aim of this session was both to get an understanding of how our product might enable her to work more efficiently, but also to hammer out the specific features, language, and task flows our product would need to incorporate. To arrive at these learnings, we took our research participant through a series of card sorting exercises and had her complete a few mad-lib type fill-in-the blank worksheets.

This session was especially helpful in solidifying some of our assumptions about what our product ecosystem should do and help push us further towards our final concept: a platform for connecting organization with committed individuals and a tool for managing and coordinating with them. We began concretizing components: a website, mobile app, and some sort of physical space.

Final Concept Ecosystem and Individual Components

Trellis is a website, mobile app, and portable cart that connects local food communities with the resources they need. The digital platform enables the connection of organizations to individuals that align with their needs based on goals, skills, and location. It facilitates the coordination and management that often burdens organization leaders. The branded cart is Trellis’s way of advocating for itself and its member organizations in addition to bringing the existing local food community together.

The digital platform for matching and task assignment has two types of accounts with different levels of permissions: one for individuals and one for organizations. During registration, both organizations and individuals answer questions about what they’re looking for and what they can bring to a match. Once they express mutual interest, they can message each other and enter a trial period before making a long-term agreement for value exchange. Organizations can create tasks with customizable form fields that can either be blasted to all affiliates or assigned to certain subgroups. As tasks are completed, organizations can view information entered by the individuals to relieve the burden of tracking often placed on organization leaders. As their relationship grows stronger, both parties can choose to step into a relationship with a more formalized agreement to allow for more engagement and contribution on both ends.

The cart provides a physical touchpoint for Trellis to advocate for themselves and build community with individuals and organizations interested in the local food community. The cart, manned by representatives of Trellis member organizations, travels to food related events as well as conferences, music festivals, outdoor events, and other locations where community might gather around food. The branded umbrella is easily recognizable and draws attention to the stand from a distance. Representatives can conduct tasks, demonstrations, or even offer food to sample or sell to help people experience a small part of what they might be able to do as a Trellis participant. The Trellis iPad allows for on-the-spot registration by both individuals and organizations and Trellis material, stored in the cart, provides information about how the Trellis platform works.

When an organization registers with Trellis, each organization receives a customized Trellis box featuring the organization’s logo at one end and a sliding door at the other. The Trellis box is designed to act as a mobile tabling kit for local food organizations. The drawer fits snugly into a slot in the Trellis cart, displaying the organization’s logo at the front and enabling the door to open and close at the back to function as a convenient shelf.

The Trellis cart drew inspiration from similar mobile stands such as ice cream vendors and food trucks. The cart is small and light enough to be towed around by car, with all the extraneous elements breaking down and able to be stowed away in cabinets and drawers. A small sink and refrigerator enable food related activities to take place, all within the small, recognizable cart you might see popping up at events around town.

This diagram shows how each of our stakeholders interact with these components across the experience cycle. For example, an individual might find out about Trellis through the mobile cart when it is at her local farmers’ market. She can register for Trellis right at the cart and be immediately put on the path toward a more lasting relationship with an organization in her local community. The cart also plays a critical role for organizations as it allows for them to both advocate for themselves and more deeply connect with their local community.

User Flow

Aside from raising awareness and serving as a physical touchpoint for community engagement, the primary purpose of the Trellis cart is to push users to register on the Trellis platform, where most of the features of the Trellis ecosystem can be accessed.

The digital platform is designed to be used by, and create benefit for, both individuals and organizations. However, Trellis was conceived of from the perspective of organizations, with the ultimate aim being to reduce the burden of sourcing, managing, and coordinating with volunteers. For this reason, we spent the most time fleshing out how an organization might interact with the various features of the Trellis platform. Details of the digital task flow an organization might follow when interacting with Trellis can be found below.

Though both organizations and individuals can use the Trellis app via either desktop or mobile, we imagine that organizations will most likely be using Trellis primarily by desktop, and individuals via the mobile app.

For an organization, the primary features of the Trellis app, and some of the platforms key differentiators, are the ability to connect with volunteer matches, algorithmically matched based on skills and interests as well as the organization’s needs, and a tool to assign, manage, and follow-up with volunteers around completing scheduled tasks. Both of these features are highlighted in the bottom row of the diagram above.

Trellis Matches are algorithmically selected for organizations based on responses that users provide at registration (which are made accessible for editing on the profile page). These matches should align the needs of the organization with the skills and interests of the individual. In addition to Trellis Matches, organizations can see individuals who have expressed interest in them as well as where mutual interests might exist. From these matches, users have various levels of permissions to connect with other interested users based on level of match. For example, an individual who has shown interest in an organization cannot contact them directly until the organization has expressed mutual interest. This is to prevent overloading volunteer coordinators with messages. Similarly, an organization cannot contact an individual directly until they have expressed interest in the organization. This is to prevent an organization from spamming individuals without sincere interest.

Once both parties have expressed interest, Trellis makes it easy to begin a trial period, after which an organization can choose to “part ways” or “join forces” with an individual. “Joining forces” pushes the organization to enter into a community agreement with the individual, to ensure both the organization and the individual have a meaningful experience.

For volunteers, Trellis provides all the information needed to complete a task without requiring that the volunteer coordinator be involved at every step along the way. Below you can see a task flow that a volunteer would follow to view, accept, and check into a task. To facilitate easy reporting by individuals, an organization can customize fields that appear once the volunteer has started a task.

Each of Trellis’ main features were designed to remove burden from a volunteer coordinator and facilitate easy completion of tasks by volunteers without making the process feel overly automated. Though conceived of primarily from the point of view of the organization, special consideration was taken to ensure volunteers feel empowered and engaged at every step.

Sketches and Wireframes

After deciding on a final concept to pursue, we began sketching out our pertinent web, mobile, and cart components.

While we wanted to make sure that our solution takes all parties into account, we chose to design mainly for the organizations’ needs. Therefore, our early wireframe sketches for web focused on envisioning how an organization would interact with a web-based platform. The sidebar holds links to an organization’s tasks, matches, people (individuals affiliated with the organization), and a community “food forum” that enables communication between local organizations on the Trellis platform. The task creation form allows the organization to name a task, specify a location, enter the anticipated timeframe, denote the number of volunteers needed, enable self-reporting, and add customized information fields to ease data tracking on their end. Lastly, since the registration involves a few steps, we’ve designed a timeline that allows the organization leader to see their progress as they fill out information about themselves, what they’re looking for, and their box’s design before confirming their account.

We then built out our sketches into digitized wireframes that became the basis for the final high-fidelity screens and site flow. These digital wireframes helped us nail down information, semantics, and layout.

We approached the app wireframes from an individual’s perspective, creating only the screens needed to supplement the web screens in telling the full story of Trellis’s use. Therefore, we chose to focus on registration (on the Trellis iPad at the cart) and the task flow that an individual would experience.

Using a similar timeline to the one found on the web registration form, we take individuals through a similar process to the organization’s registration view (sans the box step). Instead of an entirely open field, tags will be used to more easily match individuals with organizations. Prompts also appear in relevant fields to help users understand what types of skills and experience the platform is asking for.

Thinking through our app wireframes helped us design a workflow that would allow the value of volunteers to be maximized. Once a task is submitted by an organization, the user can tap through to see the task details. We also wireframed notifications, both time- and location-based, that would help the user remember to check in, enter information, and check out of each task (in addition to doing the task itself). Within the task itself, the customized fields created by the organization can appear as subtasks or form fields. Self-reporting allows volunteer coordinators to track data without entering it into spreadsheets or other third-party applications.

Inspired by farmer’s markets, food trucks, and other physical locations where human exchanges around food happen, we began ideating on a physical touchpoint for the Trellis platform. This also emerged as we considered what “office hours” might look like for a volunteer coordinator sourcing volunteers through face-to-face encounters. We initially imagined these coordinators would utilize space at an existing food related site, for example a food co-op or farmers market. The idea of a mobile cart emerged as we considered the need for a physical space, that could accommodate multiple organizations, in diverse locations, and be carried around from venue to venue. As we began fleshing out this idea, and really developing the components of a mobile cart designed to enable food organizations to advocate for themselves, and build community. The feature elements of the cart — the Trellis boxes, the iPad for easy registration, the sink and fridge, and the branded umbrella — emerged as we probed into what an organization might actually want to do in these situations and how Trellis, as a physical touchpoint, might be able to support them in reaching these goals.

Visual Design

For the visual design and branding of Trellis, we wanted to keep it earthy and natural given the focus being food and food organizations. We also wanted it to have a fresh and just a slightly hip vibe. We explored a number of color options and typefaces before settling on the green and brown color palette and on Didot, Archer, and Avenir.

The visual design employs square edges, photos of nature, and overlays. Our logo functions as a divider between Trellis, the name, and the chapter location. It uses depictions of a shovel and a pitchfork to really hammer home the food theme.

Video Sketch

The following video sketch narrates a use case of Trellis:


In the future, we see Trellis growing, as with more users, it is able to to make better matches and assign tasks more efficiently with more data. We see potential for extending Trellis to ease the search for paid employees, such as farm managers. We also see the potential for allowing existing non-food-related communities and smaller groups of individuals to sign up for tasks together. Ultimately, we see Trellis serving further regions and cities, the formation of a network of Trellis chapters.

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