Community organization and response messaging app
MHCID 2016

Design brief

The culmination of my masters program in Human-Computer Interaction + Design was Ping, my capstone project. I worked with a group of 2 other design students to research, frame, and design a communication tool to support people after a natural disaster.


Having grown up on the east coast, earthquakes were a new and particularly fear inducing type of natural disaster. Just prior to starting my graduate degree in Seattle, I read the New Yorker article The Really Big One which detailed the historic patterns of large magnitude earthquakes and how history indicates that the Pacific Northwest is overdue for a major seismic event. Around the world, climate change has increased severe storms and flooding and have had disasterous effect on humans. Natural disasters have had a significant effect on humanity, but also are a characteristic of our environment. Just in the past 20 years natural disasters have claimed over 1.35 million lives. However, most people are unprepared to handle a natural disaster. In this project we explored the opportunities to help people better respond to natural disasters.

Discovery and learnings

We reached out to several subject matter experts to understand their view points on the topic of natural disasters- to understand what the challenges were and what happens after disasters. We also did our own competitive analysis of what has already been done to find new opportunities in the space.

Our subject matter experts

We reached out to experts: TJ McDonald - Seattle Office of Emergency Management, Kate Starbird – Crisis informatics researcher, Bob Freitag - Hazards Mitigation Research and Planning, Bruce Stedman – Fire Cheif during the Oso Landslide

I’ve always been very fond of research, there are so many surprising and humanizing moments to be discovered. Despite common narratives of apocalyptic societies in fiction and even in some dooms day prepping circles, in reality communities come together to help each other. And the tools they use were often common even office work related software like spreadsheets. Although there are emergency specific tools already on the market, our SME’s informed us that although well intentioned they are unused, untested, and often forgotten when the time comes to use them.

Emergency journey map

Journey map we created to estimate the phases of an event

Ideation and specs

After many brainstorming, sketching, and deliberation sessions we finally came to a consensus on the strongest of our ideas. A community based local communication app, that could help people share information and coordinate events.

  • Scenarios and solutions in storyboards

  • Ideation session review

  • Our shortlist of ideas

We chose mobile as the main platform as it would be the most widely adoptable and because cellular networks are extremely resilient even during disasters. This was surprising and ran counter to our assumptions that this type of infrastructure is a weak point. Through interviews and secondary research we found that cellular networks were often the first services to be repaired if they go down. Also, the Bluetooth technology included in most phones can be leveraged as a fall-back to connect devices when cellular connectivity is compromised.

We tested our design ideas through a series of behavioral prototypes since we had no ability to place our participants in the scenario of a disaster. I wanted to tease out how to best support group collaboration, and understand how we could foster a platform that encourages neighborly behavior.

Final design

At its core Ping is a local community social tool, that hopes to connect neighbors and support group activities. Although it was designed to help during a disaster the basic functionality was intended for brighter times.

  • Location based chat

  • Collaborative list feature

  • Social currency

The core design principles that we conceptualized our tool were:

  1. Provide real-time neighborhood information

  2. Streamline organizational process

  3. Reduction of irrelevant, incorrect, and repeat information

  4. Support of varying availability of technology

  5. Versatility to everyday use

  6. Foster a community of trust and positivity

Product video for our capstone presentation


The project culminated in a presentation to faculty, industry sponsors, and guests. Our team did an amazing job of bringing an appropriate tone for a serious topic and a thoughtful execution of design thinking. We received valid feedback on how this technology could scale to rural areas and in the case of infrastructure failure - points we had considered but would need more robust solutions. Next steps might include building an MVP app and further usability testing and potentially sharing it out to some of the community groups that focus on earthquake resilience.

Hyun Kim