This project was about answering one simple question:
How can we reduce the negative impact of a natural disaster?
I was part of a 3-person team that researched, prototyped, tested, and designed Ping, an app that allows people to ask questions and share resources before and during crisis events, building community resilience through location-based chat.
When you pick a topic like natural disasters to research, it becomes important to constantly monitor your focus against the initial research questions you've outlined. The topic is incredibly broad with miles of articles written about every aspect of it, so getting lost in the weeds only takes a minute. For our team, we focused on breadth over depth for research techniques because we wanted to understand all aspects of the topic from expert interviews, to articles, to funding, to competitive analysis of existing solutions. By learning about the 5 phases of natural disasters, we choose to specifically focus on response because it has a greater potential for improvement and a more sustained impact.
We were able to synthesize months of research and came up with 4 key insights to test against our research question, which are:
1. One of the only guarantees after a natural disaster is that survivors and volunteers will come together to help each other out.
2. Locals are more suited to respond than governments and external relief organizations because of their knowledge of the area or specialized skills.
3. Even though people want to help, and are capable of doing so, sometimes they don’t have the right information to do so effectively.
4. People improvise and use everyday digital tools that they have used before in response efforts.
There are existing products that function well for daily use, but even the most popular ones leave a lot to be desired in the context of disaster response. We looked at expanding upon an existing platforms to improve where it falls short, but ultimately decided a standalone approach would be the best. The main reason for this was that we wanted to address two collaboration issues that we saw missing in the most popular built solutions: location specific information and resource sharing.
Our subject matter expert interviews were key in quickly gaining an understanding of our problem space. Their expertise ranged from disaster response, to mitigation, to volunteerism. To gain a better understanding of what the experience is like for civilians, we also interviewed volunteers at the Nepal earthquake as well as community members in Oso, Washington. Our final round of research delved into first responders. Bruce Stedman gave us insights into the activities and strategies of professional responders, and his experience working with survivors.
The most important part of ideation for us, was exploring as many possibilities as we could collectively think of. This became one of the most collaborative parts of the entire project as we structured our ideation sessions as timed, fast paced sketching activities. The most successful were our group brainstorming activities and storyboarding.
We spent 15 minutes individually sketching solutions for each of the design prompts. At the end of each round we shared and explained the solutions. With each idea that was generated, the creator would say a one sentence description of what it meant. This not only helped others not to recreate the same idea, but it allowed others to build on that idea or take a different twist on it. After completing all the initial rounds of ideation we had a total of 200 rough design directions. We then grouped these into themes based on solution type to understand the breadth of our ideas. Finally we sketch a wildcard round to document any last minute concepts before moving on. As a group we then voted on the strongest or most interesting concepts to move forward. These concepts were again grouped into themes which were then further developed in storyboard form.
We narrowed down over 200 ideas into just the top 13, and created single page write-ups. For each concept, there was a brief description, overview of the interaction model, short storyboard documenting its use, the problem it solves / what it does differently than existing technology, and how it works from a technical standpoints. Out of these ideas, we moved forward with just 3 to explore more in depth.
We created three prototypes to evaluate our research questions and hypotheses. These prototypes addressed what we considered to be the most essential attributes of our design; privacy and trust, tools for collaboration, and group formation. Because we couldn't simulate an actual natural disaster, we looked for opportunities in everyday life that would mimic situations that also happen during disasters.
Is there a balance between information that people are comfortable disclosing and information that is required to evaluate trustworthiness? During the prototype evaluation we presented participants with example profile pages with varying levels of information and ask them to rate the profile’s trustworthiness based on a variety of actions. In a second phase, we wanted to know how comfortable they would be if the profile was their own and shared with the public. In the final phase, all attributes of the full profile are broken apart and the participant is asked to rank how valuable this information is to them.
Information about mutual friends can build trust, and sharing this information does not compromise privacy.
Sharing a persons current location is not useful for building trust and is a privacy concern as well.
Do individuals feel more comfortable requesting favors from strangers in close proximity to strangers that are further away? We conducted a behavioral prototype to answer this question. In this prototype, we had three participants (two women and a man ages 23-31) go through a time-sensitive scavenger hunt where they had to find resources in order to survive a mock disaster. We used Slack so simulate the location-based groups, having channels for different radiuses ranging labeled as “five minutes away,” “30 minutes away,” etc. We also included a group titled “nearby friends” allowing participants to access people they had already connected with.
People prefer reaching out to friends and people in their immediate vicinity when asking for help, but they are willing to go beyond this for help in times of crisis.
For information seeking that doesn’t require meeting in person, participants did not prefer friends to strangers.
We planned a group-based planning and supply activity. A group of 4-6 people was asked to coordinate a camping trip. In the pilot version of the activity, the group was asked to complete this task with one member acting as the group leader. The leader was given a short checklist and asked to document the planning process using pen and paper.
Provide a simple list feature directly tailored to remote collaboration with affordances for achieving consensus.
A mobile application was chosen for the final solution for Ping as mobile phones are nearly ubiquitous. In our problem space, we wanted to allow as many individuals to benefit from our solution, and through interviews and secondary research we found that cellular networks are surprisingly resilient. In addition Bluetooth technology that is included in most phones can be leveraged as a fall-back to connect devices when cellular connectivity is compromised.
Our solution is a mobile communication application designed to support survivors in an urban environment before and during a crisis event. Ping allows people to ask questions and share resources, building community resilience through location based chat.
Incorrect, repeat, and irrelevant information, also known as noise, commonly occurs in the wake of a disaster. Ping deals with noise in multiple ways. Communication is scoped to specific locations so that discussions are limited to within an area or neighborhood. Although communication through Ping is synchronous and conversational, messages of importance can be pinned. The ability to pin items is an attempt to reduce repeat information.
The pinned message toggle is prominently placed at the top right of the screen. When the toggle is switched on, non-pinned items are animated away and the pinned items are compressed into a short list.
Group chats are another method to reduce noise and further scope conversations. Groups are also searched for and created through the same input to reduce duplicates.
Although people come together to volunteer and offer aid in times of crisis, they often do so in an disorganized fashion. This can result in extreme mismatches of donations to need in type and quantity of donations. The list feature can used to help organize donations and generally for resource sharing. Lists can be created in any chat thread and help streamline supplies through a simple interface.
In the List Feature screen, the chat input field is repurposed to enter new items to the list. Each item has a quantity of people requesting this item. A swipe left on the item requests it, while a right swipe will mark a contribution. A dialogue to enter the quantity is shown for both requests and contributions. Additionally, items can be discussed by tapping on the item. During the camping activity we observed our participants having frequent discussions to gain consensus on each item they planned bring.
Situational awareness is one of the top priorities after a disaster and is necessary to prevent further damages and loss. Due to the chaotic nature of disasters and disruptions of infrastructure, there are additional difficulties in getting up to date information. Through our research we found that disaster survivors had difficulty knowing which stores were open to get supplies they needed. TJ McDonald of the Seattle Office of Emergency Management remarked that situational awareness is especially low in place that have the most damage and need the most aid.
Information discussion groups are location specific groups for crowdsourcing information. Nearby information groups can be viewed in either the list or map views. A combination search and add new input field was designed to aid in rapidly finding information while reducing duplicate discussions. Since Information Discussions are location specific, the participants in the thread are all local to the inquiry, helping to reduce irrelevant and incorrect information.
Our goal for Ping was to make an app that works for various levels of urgency, on various levels of technology. In order to make the idea possible, we not only had to design the system, we also had to design the story around what we were trying to do. I've been fortunate to work with amazing teammates, and without their hard work and contribution, the story of Ping couldn't be told. We hand built all the graphics, did all the branding, and created this delicate story around instances of tragedy. Click the video below to see Ping in action.