A 4-week UX design project with Diana Rooney and Mike Jackson for DESIGNATION. Tools included POP, InVision, and Axure RP.


For our first comprehensive UX project, DESIGNATION asked our team “to build a digital platform to match individual donors to nonprofits, with the overall goal of increasing online donations.” Small nonprofits in particular dedicate significant resources to reaching their target donors online, and therefore a flexible system that connects potential donors and nonprofits could streamline fundraising efforts for these organizations. However the vagueness of the prompt left our team with a number of fundamental questions, including what constitutes a donor and a donation, and what types of nonprofits benefit from this type of digital platform.

We spoke to several nonprofits in Chicago for initial background research, and while all of them expressed interest in a platform to increase donations, they also articulated a deeper operational need: finding volunteers. With this insight, we decided to narrow the scope of the brief to focus on volunteering. Employing a user-centered design approach, we developed a platform to help volunteers find volunteering opportunities and learn more about the benefits of community engagement. Our concept, Voluntopia, helps users discover new ways to get involved in their communities by gamifying the volunteer experience and creating stronger social connections among volunteers. If SimCity, Trivia Crack, and volunteering had a love child, that would be Voluntopia.


We began this project by conducting formative interviews with both volunteers and service organizations to understand their respective goals, motivations, frustrations, and needs. For the volunteers, we focused on the 20-35 year old demographic, which historically has the lowest volunteerism rate in the country. For the service organizations, we focused on nonprofits who rely on volunteers directly (e.g. Habitat for Humanity), and nonprofits who connect volunteers with other service organizations (e.g. Chicago Cares). We used the following questions to guide our interviews: What are the major challenges that volunteer organizations face? Why do people choose to volunteer? What is the current role of technology in connecting volunteers with service organizations?

Volunteers consistently expressed that they need to see the impacts of their efforts in the community to sustain engagement.

In the process of pulling out key insights from these interviews, several themes emerged, and we began to find preliminary answers to our research questions: First, most volunteer organizations have trouble recruiting new volunteers. Organizations tend to rely on a consistent base of committed volunteers to meet their volunteering needs. However they have trouble recruiting new volunteers, and identifying those who are likely to consistently donate their time.

Second, volunteers hear about new opportunities predominantly through word-of-mouth recommendations, and are much more likely to volunteer with friends. Without a strong social experience, people are much less likely to become engaged with a volunteering organization. The majority of our interviewees thought of volunteering primarily as a fun activity to do with friends, and a way to meet new people.

Third, volunteers like to see the impact of their efforts in the community. There must be positive feedback to keep them engaged. When recounting frustrating volunteer experiences, almost all of our interviewees spoke of a time when they felt underutilized and unsure of whether they were actually making a difference.

“I need to know what value I’ll gain from the experience, so I don’t feel underutilized. I also need to see the impact I’m having on the community.”

These insights helped us identify our primary persona, Jessica. The persona allowed our team to succinctly define our target audience, and better empathize with our future users. One of the most interesting aspects of our persona is that her motivations for volunteering are not entirely altruistic. While she likes seeing how her efforts have a positive impact on the community, she chooses to volunteer because she enjoys socializing with friends and family.


Jessica is skeptical of new service opportunities because in the past she has participated in poorly organized events where she felt that she was just wasting her time and her skills went un-utilized. She needs to feel like she is having an impact. She is also looking for a fun and social experience that fits her busy student schedule.


To summarize our research, we discovered that volunteer organizations need to open channels for new volunteers, and that volunteers largely rely on social networks and word-of-mouth recommendations to find new opportunities. The question is how can we incentivize those who have experience working on service projects to recruit others for new volunteering opportunities? We can do this in three ways: First, we need to catalyze. Use captivating content to encourage exploration of new activities. Out platform should spark an interest in volunteering. Second, we need to cut through the noise. Help potential volunteers identify the right opportunities through a unique platform of promotion. Lastly, we need to retain. Help inspire sustained engagement in volunteering.


While ideating possible solutions, we focused intensely on this idea of incentivization. What is the hook that would draw people into our platform, and how would it entice users to explore new volunteer opportunities? What would the incentive be to recruit others? Without some differentiating factor, our platform would become just one of the 400,000 apps on the app store that have never been downloaded.

Our team coalesced around the idea of using gamification and social interactivity to entice users to sign on to the platform and share their volunteering experiences with friends. We developed three divergent concepts within this broad approach, each with varying degrees of emphasis on gamification and social interactivity.

Initial sketches from my concept, Voluntopia. In our designs we focused on ways to to get validation for your efforts, a way to measure progress, and social interaction with friends - all aspects of good game design. I also employed UI patterns from popular games on the App store, such as SimCity.

Concept testing was a bear. We knew from our initial research that this approach could work, but we were concerned that it might not resonate within a limited sample size. Therefore we tested as many people as we could find within our target demographic, and while the results were complicated, my prototype - Voluntopia - emerged as the most promising direction for our platform. I designed Voluntopia as a way for users to see the impacts of their volunteering efforts in a virtual world. This was as much about educating users about the value and impact of volunteering as it was about connecting volunteers with service organizations. This concept grew directly from our research, which indicated that when people understand the value of volunteering, and how it creates stronger and more resilient communities, they are much more likely to explore new volunteering opportunities. For those people who have reservations about volunteering, all they need is a little knowledge and a fun hook to keep them engaged.

However there were two major problems with the Voluntopia concept: First, users were often confused when moving between the real and virtual worlds. We called this the cognitive divide. Second, we needed to find a way to reduce the cycle of gameplay. Users expected continuous and near instant feedback in the gaming environment, which was incompatible with the length of time it took to complete in-person volunteering activities.


To address these conceptual problems we returned to research, looking for examples of apps that successfully solved analogous problems. We explored everything from gaming apps like Pokemon Go, to platforms that stitch together virtual and in-person experiences, like Uber and Lyft. We also took a more critical approach to understanding contemporary trends in volunteering. This latter exploration led us to something interesting and unexpected: microvolunteering.

Microvolunteering: A task done by a volunteer, or a team of volunteers, without payment, either online via an internet-connected device, or offline in small increments of time...

Microvolunteering wasn’t a panacea, but it offered a testable solution to a number of problems with the existing concept. First, it moved the entire platform online, which partly addressed the cognitive divide between the real and virtual worlds. Second, it reduced the cycle of gameplay; microvolunteering opportunities typically take 10-15 minutes to complete, keeping users engaged. Interestingly, there are a ton of existing platforms for microvolunteering, but most users only participate 1-2 times before losing interest. Gamifying the experience through our Voluntopia platform could provide the incentive for sustained user engagement.

Over the course of three days, we fleshed out a more refined prototype using Axure, combining the Voluntopia concept with microvolunteering. Our idea was to use Voluntopia as a hub for these existing microvolunteering platforms by integrating with available APIs. We also developed a more robust approach to social interactivity, allowing users to connect to others’ virtual worlds and post updates on social media.

One of the most challenging aspects of developing the converged prototype was choosing an appropriate mode of representing the virtual world. I settled on an axonometric view to keep it consistent with games like SimCity and Farmville. However in passing the project off to the UI teams, I stressed that this was merely a conceptual representation of an idea.


While the concept was well received, we uncovered several major user experience issues during usability testing. Most prominently, we failed to include an effective onboarding procedure to orient new users and explain the concept of microvolunteering. We also realized that, given the variety of microvolunteering opportunities available through our platform, users needed constant access to instructions, with clear and concise copy. When testing, we asked our users to login, find and complete a microvolunteering activity, and invite friends to connect. When completing the microvolunteering activity, several test participants had to read through the instructions several times before understanding how to proceed.

To help address our most pressing usability issues, we redesigned the onboarding procedure and allowed users to access instructions from anywhere in the app.

After incorporating a number of usability-focused changes, we presented our final prototype to a panel of UX, UI, and development professionals. Our team received near unanimous praise for the novelty of our concept, and the level of detail included in the prototype. Gamification is oftentimes overused and abused, but our approach to gamifying the volunteer experience provided the right type of incentive for volunteering and introduced a welcome playfulness to an otherwise serious activity.

DESIGNATION chose our project to be further refined by the next cohort of UI designers, and it was fascinating to see the different concepts for representing the virtual world from our annotated wireframes. From a user interface perspective, there are incredible opportunities to represent the world in a way that addresses the cognitive divide. Rather than using plan or axonometric views that mimic modern cartographic techniques, one could imagine representations that enhance the dissociation of the real and virtual worlds - impossible cities that users would not mistake for reality.

After handing off our assets to the UI development team, we discussed how certain representational techniques could address lingering UX challenges, such as solving the cognitive divide between the real and virtual worlds. UI concept and screen developed by Kyle Skidmore.

By focusing on a core set of key screens and user flows, our final prototype provided the right amount of detail to clearly articulate the concept of the platform, while offering the UI teams enough flexibility to experiment and strengthen the platform. In four weeks, it’s nearly impossible to develop a fully fleshed out platform to connect volunteers with service organizations. Yet in that timeframe our team did manage to develop a well articulated concept that can evolve in a number of exciting ways. One of the most promising ideas that didn’t make it into our final prototype involved designing an off-boarding sequence to transition users from online microvolunteering to in-person volunteering activities in their local community. In such a scenario, Voluntopia and microvolunteering would provide the initial push to turn reluctant volunteers into fully engaged citizens.


My biggest takeaway from working on Voluntopia was the importance of developing a robust concept through multiple rounds of research, ideation, and testing. At the end of the day, unless you have a compelling concept, the experience will always fall flat. With Voluntopia, our team prioritized the quality of our concept over building out a comprehensive mobile platform, and in the span of four weeks we produced a solid body of work for further refinement. For this, teamwork was essential. Working in a team allowed us to rapidly develop divergent concepts, test those concepts, and then find creative ways to synthesize our ideas. Overall, Voluntopia clarified the value of iterative and collaborative design for me, and provided a strong foundation for future UX projects.