All Projects, Research

Design Research
Services for Homelessness


Using contextual observation to develop proposals for a mental health center serving vulnerable adults who are experiencing homelessness.

My Activities
  • Research
  • Ideation
  • Ix Design
  • Service Design
  • Presentation


MDes Studio
University of Washington



Our project started with extensive contextual observation around the many different branches of an established and multi-faceted Seattle-based organization.

We shadowed outreach workers on their daily routes in various Seattle neighborhoods where thousands of chronically homeless adults sleep outside. We visited multiple shelters, including two reserved for women, where we learned about the populations’ special needs and vulnerability. Finally we visited a center for job seekers, those needing emergency housing assistance, and a mental health clinic.

Below are a small selection of photos taken outside and inside the organization. Where it was inappropriate to take photos I drew scenes, flowcharts, or floor plans.


After processing our observations we met to do some initial affinity diagramming in order to narrow down potential project areas. The most pressing needs seemed to be:

1. Expanding and optimizing services and access for women

The needs of women who are experiencing homelessness are complex. Though there are female-specific shelters and services, there could be improvements around health and safety.

2. Making donations + volunteer resources more efficient

We witnessed a shortage of supplies like shoes, rain gear, and tarps. At the same time, the organization received large donations of things they did not need (huge bottles of canola oil, for example).

3. Redesigning outreach kits + ways to secure client possessions against police sweeps

People living outside face threats to their few possessions by police sweeps and theft. People’s possessions are meaningful to them and we learned that the unauthorized destruction of the possessions of a person experiencing homelessness can be mentally debilitating.

4. Improving communications to potential clients and the general community

Clients often came into the organization’s offices and were told to go to a different place. With several offices and service centers, client-centered way-finding could be helpful.

5. Improving staff processes to increase efficiency and look to alleviate staff burnout

We witnessed schedules that weren’t updated, computer glitches, and client tracking and status reporting that required staff to complete repetitive paperwork.

6. Redesigning interiors + finding better solution for client’s possessions inside the spaces

Clients often carry important possessions with them along with changes of clothing and laundry to clean. As a result there was more stuff than the spaces could accommodate, making it difficult to navigate freely, especially for those with disabilities.


From these initial observations, we isolated four major themes that encapsulated our initial observations.


Given the scale of the organization and the many services it offers, we faced a difficult task of narrowing our ideas into a direction in which we could be impactful. We narrowed our focus on one particular service area: the mental health clinic.

We then structured further exploration and whiteboard sketching around the client experience. 

whiteboard journey map

We refined this journey map sketch into a client’s experience finding the organization (Discovery), going through the intake process (Intake), and their daily experience in the clinic (Inside).

desc-graphics_Inital Sequence Idea

We then worked in pair teams.
My design partner and I came up with a range of design directions that could improve the inside experience for clients. We presented these initial ideas for feedback at a client meeting.



Feedback from the client helped us develop our final round of ideas. These were design improvements to the signage and interiors, a simple digital product, and a new program idea.

desc_big squares-2_big squares



I created a map showing an overview of our proposals for the physical space redesign. We used this in our discussions and our final presentation. Other designers specializing in signage and industrial design created high fidelity prototypes of the individual ideas.


Based on observations of staff members tediously taking attendance and logging names into a paper reservation list for laundry, shower, and computer times, my partner and I devised three levels of digital improvements that could be made.
numbered solutions

Level 1: Reservation System

The first was a simple application tailored to the reservation needs within the center, including laundry, showers, and computers.

Level 2: Adding Attendance

The second included an integration with the attendance database, making roll-call more efficient and data entry less tasking for overworked staff.

Level 3: System Integration

The third level of digital implementation would connect the services to the appointment system, making it easier to get clients into their appointments.


Through our client meetings and observations we also learned that volunteer and donation resources aren’t free. They can actually create more work for  staff, adding to the existing chaos instead of addressing it. Additionally, donations received do not always correspond to what the organization needs at any given time.

What if we could start a new program that addresses small tasks that rarely are able to get done? My teammates and I came up with a concept we termed, microvolunteering.


The team

Credits: Richelle Dumas, Tate Strickland and I worked on the microvolunteering concept. Mae Boettcher and I worked on the digital proposal. Scott Tsukamaki prepared initial floorplan drawings. Sarah Smith visually designed our presentation graphics and models.

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