Elevate - Ensuring Access to Food for Homeless Populations


This project is a top 12 finalist in the Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI) 2017 international conference. It started as a part of an entrepreneurship program at University of Michigan as well as a submission to the 2017 CHI Student Design Competition. Our team was passionate about helping marginalized populations in the United States. Contextual inquiry, prototyping, and usability tests led to understanding problems in food insecurity among the homeless population in Ann Arbor, and designing a solution that was simple, easy to use, and universally accessible. 

The final solution is a text-message based system that provides information of places serving free hot meals based on a given zip-code. It allows the user to sign up for notifications for a certain zip-code, to receive weekly notifications of all locations serving free hot meals that week. This way, our users could find meals when they were on the move, use the technology available to them (mostly feature phones) to receive this information, receive notifications to plan ahead, and be able to revisit the information when needed. 

My Role

UX researcher, designer, data interpreter, usability tester, project manager


The entire process was iterative, from conducting interviews, to prototyping, and usability testing. In order to ensure the data we were collecting was representative, interviewing additional participants to cover new and/or answered questions was important. This was also valuable in ensuring our designs were well informed. 

Interviews were conducted with participants who lived in or frequented a well known shelter and community kitchen in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Social workers were also interviewed to get a holistic understanding of the problem.

Understanding data collected from interviews and mapping out designs for the solution


We found that the homeless community is very close-knit, and the desire to share information is high. Information is largely communicated through word of mouth. Although several claimed that this method of information seeking worked for them, others talked about how there were many people that traveled all the way from Ypsilanti, a neighboring city about eight miles away from Ann Arbor, multiple times a week because the only sources of food they were aware of were in Ann Arbor. This was especially an issue due to the limited amount of free bus tokens they received from government programs. An older gentleman mentioned that while word of mouth works, it was difficult for him to remember all the places he hears of, especially when it comes to specific dates and times that meals are served.

Interviewees also revealed that they are constantly on the move, and often find themselves in areas they are unfamiliar with. In these circumstances, finding food and shelter are top priorities. We found that most relied on their mobile phones to find information about community kitchens or churches serving free hot meals, talking to the homeless population in the area, or interacting with social workers.

Smartphone Design

In order to address these problems, we first created a paper prototype for a mobile application, mainly aimed at smartphone users. Below are the paper prototype designs. These were user tested at the homeless shelter to get their feedback. 

Smartphone paper prototype designs 

Findings Cont.

User tests with the paper prototypes revealed that the homeless have very limited access to smartphones and that most use free government phones (ObamaPhones), which are largely feature phones. We found that the government phones allowed 500 to unlimited text  messages depending on the plan, as well as up to 500 MB of data if they had a smartphone. This information required us to pivot our idea to a solution that was available to our target population. 

Text Message Based Design

Rather than having a smartphone design, we resorted to something that is more universal, easily accessible, as well as something that is familiar to use. We designed a text message system that would address the needs of our users in terms of food insecurity. Below are the designs for the text message based solution. 

The solution below was again tested with the users at the homeless shelter using a Wizard of Oz method. The feedback we received was largely positive. 

Mockup of how a user will interact with the text-message system and corresponding responses from the system with relevant information

User using text message system as part of a usability test