Connecting communities around healthy, affordable food

UX design  |  Android app

QUICK OVERVIEW: Three-week pro-bono project for Seattle-based non-profit, Why Not Us Foundation. This is the story of how my team and I designed an Android app for WNUF to help low-income Seattle residents connect with their neighbors and access healthy, affordable food.

MY ROLES: Client point of contact, scripting client and user interviews, usability test plan, visual design, presentation slide deck

THE TEAM: Three UX designers: Michael Cole, Jay DeFehr and me

SHARED ROLES: Setting team norms, creating a project plan, organizational research, conducting in-depth client and user interviews, affinity diagramming, persona creation, user stories, scenarios, IA, wireframes, conducting usability tests, design iteration, presentation, retrospective

SOFTWARE: Axure, Illustrator, InDesign, Material Design, Photoshop


The mission of the Why Not Us Foundation is to foster economic and social prosperity in low-income Seattle neighborhoods. The foundation recently completed the pilot run of Project: SMART, in which low-income individuals are given free Android smartphones and their contracts are paid for several months, allowing them to use the phones to apply for jobs, connect with resources, or otherwise improve their financial situations. WNUF was interested in creating apps that come pre-loaded on Project: SMART phones.

We worked with the client to identify the goal of this three-week project: designing an app to help Project: SMART users lead healthier lifestyles. WNUF was particularly interested in promoting access to organic food. We started by considering an app that connects people with healthy, affordable, locally accessible produce, and eventually identified the opportunity to design an app that works in conjunction with WNUF's Our Backyard community gardening program.

Time and money vs. healthy food

Through in-depth user interviews, we learned that some users cared about eating healthy food, and were dissatisfied with how much money and time they spent acquiring and prepping it. Other users made food choices that were less healthy but more convenient.

Every user we interviewed talked about the social aspects of food -- to our surprise, many cited a lack of community and social life as more painful than the challenge of accessing healthy food. More than anything, users (like our persona Paul) want to belong to a supportive community. Gathering around food -- potlucks, barbecues, gardening -- is a familiar way to build community.

Meet Paul

QuoteSocial interaction is as important to my health as the food I eat.

- Paul Nordby

Paul Nordby is 28. He moved to Seattle from Everett a few years ago and has been working odd jobs, trying to build his life in the city. All his friends are either married with kids, or living lifestyles with which he no longer wants to associate. This leaves Paul without much support during personal and financial hardships.


The Why Not Us Foundation recently planted a community garden in the Central District, and plans to create more gardens around Seattle. We designed an app that uses gardening and food as a centerpiece for community-building. The app serves as a social media tool for users like Paul to connect with his neighbors and find volunteer opportunities at his local garden. Paul can garden side-by-side with his neighbors and leave the garden with free organic produce. In this way, we were able to align the goals of our client (to strengthen low-income communities and help people lead healthier lives) with the main goal of users (to connect with other people).

We focused on reducing social barriers to participation at gardens. Not knowing what to expect when attending a new activity can cause users like Paul so much anxiety that they might choose not to attend at all. Paul can use the Our Backyard app to see who belongs to a garden and who plans to attend volunteer activities.

Our Backyard screen

Before and after signing up for an activity, Paul can easily contact the activity organizer with questions, and the organizer's photo lets him know who to find when he arrives.

Our Backyard screen

Activity screens can answer common questions like what to bring or whether dogs are allowed, reducing anxiety for new volunteers. And the app serves as a social media tool, helping community members stay in touch when they're away from their gardens.

Our Backyard screen

Because Project: SMART provides Android phones, we followed Material Design guidelines.


USABILITY TESTING: We conducted one round of moderated in-person usability tests, and two later rounds of unmoderated remote tests. Read a UserTesting.com blog post I wrote about our remote testing experience.

Early usability test participants helped identify navigation issues in the prototype, and suggested information they expected to see on various screens, such as, “What’s currently growing at the garden?” or “Can I take my dog?” They identified potential barriers to participation, which we focused on reducing in the next version.

Every participant suggested adding a messaging feature, which further highlighted the opportunity to make Our Backyard a social media app. Overall, participants expressed positive interest in the app’s concept.

Later rounds of usability testing helped us discover opportunities to integrate Our Backyard with external apps to streamline users' experiences, such as providing directions to gardens via Google Maps or automatically adding volunteer activities to a Google Calendar.

Users continued to react positively to the Our Backyard prototype -- especially to its social media components, simple interface, logical navigation, interaction feedback, natural language and friendly tone.

Our client, the Why Not Us Foundation, was also pleased:

QuoteVery. Very impressive work. Lots to work with and develop. Looking forward to digging deeper into this project and creating what will be a life changing app for people. Again. Many. Many thanks.

- Zander Natallanni, CEO/Founder, Why Not Us Foundation

WNUF hopes to eventually develop and build the app. In the meantime, the Our Backyard prototype will help the foundation receive funding and credibility as they expand their community gardening programs.

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