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Compass is an online network connecting homeless individuals to mentors who share their transitioning stories and provide support.


Connecting homeless individuals to mentors through inspirational transitioning stories

The prompt for CHI 2015 Student Design Challenge was to find ways to empower a less-voiced user group by appropriating things and technologies around them. We explored ideas around Native Americans, young immigrants, and farmers.

In the end, we chose to work on helping the homeless population. We created a high fidelity design for an online network connecting homeless individuals to mentors who were once homeless.

My Role
UX Researcher and Mobile Designer

Project Type
Responsive Website / 2 months

Poster, Concept Video, Extended Abstract (Top 12 papers submitted)

Mohammed Abid, Prassy Chandrasekar, Letícia Patrício, Cindy Saroha

I Want to Change, but How?

Deciding to change is the first step to transition out of homelessness. However, a successful transition requires resources and consistent help, which homeless people are often unaware of.

A Moment of Epiphany

“Some of them, they’ve grown up with and participated in an act of addiction with. When they see the transformation, that instills some hope. ‘If he can do it, I can do it too.'”

–A shelter manager who was one homeless

The motivation to get out of homelessness is usually a moment of epiphany — seeing someone that the homeless person knows having successfully transitioned.

Field Research Insights

Habits and Attitudes of the Homeless Population

Access to Mobile Devices and Laptops

Over half of the homeless population in the U.S. has access to mobile devices and laptops, and use the internet to connect with friends and family.

Comfortable Being Homeless

Not everyone wants to change. “Their thinking is that ‘I’m comfortable with this.’ They don’t want responsibilities. They know they will be able to get food if they show up in line.”

Unaware of Resources and Help

“211 is a Red Cross hotline helping with housing, hunger, etc. Not many people know that…and people at this helpline are open to take more calls.”

Selective with Trust

“They have that trust with us — we are like family here. I’d tell them to straighten up otherwise I’d have to call the police.” — a shelter manager in reference to a bench warrant for an individual at the shelter.

Compass is an online network connecting homeless individuals to mentors. Users can find success stories and connect with mentors for support and resources.

Transition Inspiration

Users can start browsing transitioning stories without an account.

Mentor’s Journey

Mentors share their transitioning stories in a timeline format. Each milestone features resources that helped them overcome barriers.

Story Search

Users can find relatable stories through ethnicity, challenge, and location filters.

“I would want to connect with someone who’s also from Pittsburgh. They’d understand what the town was like and how it’s changed over the years.” — a homeless individual

Personal Goals

Users can set goals and add resources of their own or from mentors’ journeys.

Connecting with Mentors

Private messaging provides direct communication between a mentor and a mentee, creating a safe space where the mentee can open up and ask personal or sensitive questions.

“The site would instill some hope and encourage people to make change, especially if you find stories that mirror some of your own experiences.”
— Feedback on Compass from a shelter manager

Research & Design Process

Mobile Focused Design

We used the mobile first approach because mobile phones are the main devices that the population has access to — more so than laptops. We completed 3 rounds of prototyping: lo-fi (paper), mid-fi (Balsamiq), and hi-fi (Photoshop and Sketch). We tested the prototypes with homeless people in a transitional program, and shelter employees.

From the Perspectives of Shelter Employees

An interview with a shelter manager to understand how homeless people utilize services offered by the shelter.

To gain domain knowledge, we conducted interviews, competitive analysis, and literature reviews.

We interviewed 7 homeless people at shelters and on the street, and 3 shelter employees — all in Pittsburgh, PA. The shelter employees helped us understand the population from a different perspective, often around sensitive topics such as mobile devices in possession and daily activities.

Lo-Fi Prototypes

We created paper prototypes and a styrofoam phone cutout for concept validation and tested with individuals at homeless shelters.

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Mid-Fi Prototypes

After concept validation, we created a mock up of the mobile and web version using Balsamiq. During this phase, we were able to confirm that the ability to add goals and find resources from mentor’s timeline are some of the most valuable features in helping the user transition.

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Hi-Fi Prototypes

We used Photoshop and Sketch to create high fidelity prototypes. Below are a mobile flow diagram, mobile prototypes, and desktop prototypes.

Mobile Flow Diagram

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The project was a great opportunity to analyze the needs of a non mainstream user group. We received positive feedback and enthusiasm from the homeless individuals and shelter employees, and our paper was the top 12 paper submitted at the CHI 2015 Student Design Challenge.

Future improvements could include prototyping for devices from the Obama Phone program and allowing for anonymous feedback for mentors.