peer economy for philanthropy

Teammate: Yulin Liu, Nishchala Singhal

My role: storyboarding | prototyping | responsive web design


Natural disasters wreak havoc on millions of lives each year. The poorest, most remote communities are often the most vulnerable. How might the advent of global satellite internet and widespread smartphone use offer a solution to this problem?


Sunbeam is a peer-to-peer service that allows people around the world to make small monetary donations directly to the victims of a recent natural disaster. It democratizes philanthropy by mobilizing individual goodwill in the aftermath of a disaster.


Our investigations revealed an absence of platforms that provide relief to marginalized families during times of regional crisis.

Guerilla research fit our design needs because it helped us learn about our users relatively quickly. We wanted to talk to as many people as we could, as quickly as possible. here are some quotes from our informal interviews:

“Can you believe that they [the insurance company] want to hold the money even though we have already replaced the roof and the bill was sent to us.”

Viviana, after hurricane in Florida.

“What was the government response/ was there any governmental aid? No.”

Anonymous interviewee, after an earthquake in India.

“Irresponsible behavior on the government’s part - they're trying to suppress bad press about the dengue epidemic. We are really suffering here.”

Anonymous interviewee, after a flood in India.

We also conducted a competitive landscape survey to understand what other services currently existed in the peer philanthropy space. Here's what your research yielded:

Kiva is a microfinance provider that raises funds for small businesses owned by people in marginalized and improverished communities. All funding is in the forms of loans.

Razoo is a fundraising platform for nonprofits and personal projects that are social-justic oriented. All funding is in the forms of loans.

Crowdrise is a broad-scoped fundraising platform for nonprofits, companies, events, and individuals.

GiveDirectly allows people to make unconditional cash transfers that help people living in poverty.


We created personas to build empathy with our key users: the donor and the beneficiary.

Beneficiaries are purported victims of a recent natural disaster. They use Sunbeam to seek monetary assistance to meet urgent needs. Donors are well-wishers who want to help others out of a tight spot in their time of need.

We then created scenarios in which Sunbeam might be used by the people described above. Here are some examples:

Shankar's family is affected by a flood that occurred yesterday. His son needs urgent medical attention. He does not, however, have adequate funds to take him to the hospital.

Paige reads about a flood in India on the New York Times website. Then, she sees an ad for the Red Cross, soliciting donations to help flood victims. Paige wants to help, but she is wary of big aid organizations because he believes that most of the money they raise go into administration for the organization itself.

Website vs. Mobile App

Apps require downloading & onboarding. Websites don't.

Early on in our design process, we considered the tradeoffs between websites and mobile apps. Websites are more sraightforward to find and open. Apps, on the other hand, require downloading and onboarding before use but offer more functionalities and native interactions. In our use case, we decided to go with a mobile-first website instead of an native mobile app because a majority of our users would be on flimsy internet networks in disaster-struck regions; they may not have the ability to locate and download a mobile app. Surfing the web seemed more straightforward.

Speed Dating

We speed-dated our ideas with potential users to provoke strong reactions that might inform our designs.

Our scenarios covered a variety of needs, such as education, transportation, and medical relief. By creating scenarios, we were able to dig into the realistic and human side of the interactions, which helped us think deeper about what our product could do or need to move forward. For the next step, we created storyboards to demonstrate our idea at a high level. The goal of the activity was to provoke reactions from potential users. Here are the storyboards we speed-dated. Select the storyboards to zoom in:

Storyboard 1: A cyclone floods Shankar's village, and his son subsequently falls ill. The family does not have enough money to hire a cab to go to the hospital 20 miles away. They utilize Sunbeam to ask for help.

Here's the feedback we received:

  • Media: Can Shankar add a video to explain his situation?
  • Writing: What if Shankar is not good at writing. He won't be able explain his need and it might put him at a disadvantage.
  • Time: How long would Shankar have to wait in order to receive the money? If my son was ill, I wouldn't wait.
  • Follow-up: Can Shankar contact the person who helped? I would want to keep my well-wisher updated on my son's illness.

Storyboard 2: Paige reads about the flooding in India while browsing the New York Times on a train to work. She wants to help. She sees an ad about Sunbeam and decides to help Shankar's family.

Here's the feedback we received:

  • Authenticity: How can I verify the authenticity of the people asking for help?
  • Urgency: I want to be be convinced about the urgency of the situation before I donate. Pictures and video would help.
  • Follow-up: I would like to see direct impact in the form of photos, messages from the family, even direct chat/Facetime.
  • Relationship: I want to maintain a long-term connection to Shankar’s family. I want to follow up on how they are doing.


We designed features that directly responded to the needs we validated in our speed-dating exercise.

Based on the feedback we collected from speed-dating, we decided to add the following features to our product:

  • Visual-based request creation to allow beneficiaries to describe their situation in greater detail.
  • Social media integration to allow prospective donors to verify victims' identities.
  • Contact between donor and beneficiary to allow them to follow-up with each other.

A rough screen map of the product. We used this map to prototype and iterate on Sunbeam's features.

Low-fidelity sketches of key screens from the screen map.

Our low-fidelity screens reflected our push for a definitive mobile-first design.

We started with mobile views of the product since it seemed realistic to expect both donors and beneficiaries to access the service primarily on mobile. During our rounds of feedback from external stakeholders, we discussed issues such as what would happen if one beneficiary needs to make multiple requests. We also explored how to make use of the existing functions on the phone, such as the camera and recorder. We discussed the possibility of using the microphone to auto-translate text to tackle language barriers, and places to upload images and videos to provide evidence of needs.

User testing

Based on feedback, we added rapid, highly flexible language translation services to the product.

Based on feedback from peer designers and potential users, we decided to continue fine-tuning the website to make it accessible to audiences who are not accustomed to using smartphones. For example, it is likely that many of our beneficiaries are not familiar with smartphone use beyond basic tasks such as calling, texting, photography, and Facebook.

For the beneficiaries' benefit, the landing page displays a list of languages that are dynamically updated based on the locations of the latest natural disasters.

This animation shows a beneficiary creating a profile on Sunbeam.

This animation shows a donor inspecting and fulfilling a request on the service.

Final Design

We decided to constrain the types of requests that people made as well as the types of media we allowed on the product.

The final design included the following features:

  • Real-time world map. The desktop and mobile versions of the website allow potential donors to scan the world map for current emergencies.
  • Avatars. Based on our speed-dating insights, using profile photos of a beneficiary could potentially create biases. So we decided to design a feature where beneficiaries will be asked to take a photo, which will be processed through a program that turns the selfie into an avatar.
  • Need-based requests. There are six types of requests, namely food, clothing, shelter, medicine, transport, and personal.

Here is a final screen map as well as a number of finalized screens:

The mobile screens below show a variety of functionalities.

We created mobile screens first, and then adapted them for desktop.

If I had more time...

...I would do the following things:

  • Explore satellite internet.We want to research the reach of satellite internet, now and in the near future.
  • Avatar testing. We want to test the effectiveness of the avatars compared to pictures. We also want to try out different types of renders for the avatars.
  • Explore audio-based language translation. In order to make our website even more accessible across language barriers, we want to experiment with optimizing the localization capabilities, not just of the static content on the website but also the videos.
  • Deploy in real scenarios. Identify developing areas of the world where this could be deployed and tested with real people.