A mutual aid community that helps people endure earthquake


Design challenge


Feb 16 - 18 2018


This is a design challenge I completed in 3 days. I decided to design for people who have just gone through a big earthquake. I aimed at two user groups, people under debris and people in the safe place, who are most likely to benefit from my app. The final design solution I proposed is a mutual aid mobile community, which helps people efficiently support each other to endure the hard time. It also has two modes tailored to the specific needs of the two user groups.


Paper&pen, Sketch, Photoshop, Principle


"It happened right after lunch. I was at my desk checking my schedule for the afternoon. Then without any warning, the ground made slight movements, which rapidly became violent. People in the office began to panic and scream. The earth shook harder than I have ever felt before. I hid under my desk, my hand pressed up against the surface protecting my head, hoping it would hold up to the pressure of 2 stories falling on it. I was afraid in a way that was quite new to me. If I were buried under a ton of debris, would I ever get rescued? Was this the end for me?"

Amy, 29, was at work when the earthquake struck the bay area. After everything became still again, she scrambled shaking over the rubble and made it out to the safety of the street outside. However, several of her colleagues were still buried under debris.

It was a 7.5 magnitude earthquake, leading to hundreds of death and tens of thousands of injuries. Six hospitals already collapsed. Home, schools, offices — the buildings people spend their lives in became their greatest danger. Food, water, electricity were all in short supply. Nearly a million people need to be relocated. Rescue and relief work was carried out immediately. However, it was still not fast and efficient enough considering the scalability of this disaster.

The goal of this project is to design an application to help people who were suffering from the earthquake to get timely help, stay connected with the outside world and endure the hard time by supporting each other.

One thing needs to be noted is that I assumed the app would be designed, implemented and installed ahead of the earthquake, since there wouldn't be enough time to do these after the disaster happens. And I assumed this app will be developed by government or non-profit organizations. It's more for public benefits than business interests.

User's needs

Identify the users

I targeted two main user groups, who are likely to benefit most from the application.

Group 1 - People under debris

Group 2 - People in safe place

Group 1 is people who are still under debris and waiting to be rescued. They are not injured too badly so they still have the ability to use their cellphones, which would be the crucial tool that helps them get rescued more quickly and stay connected with the outside world.

Group 2 is people who have already got to the safe place and need to be relocated. They may be with their family or trying to get reunion. They may only have some scratches so they are able to help do some rescue work. They didn't have time to grab all the necessities when the earthquake happened so they may need some help from others.

User research plans

I have assumed that this application would be developed ahead of the earthquake, then the participants for the user research would best be the victims of a prior earthquake who have recovered from it, so that we can get the most realistic data. Since the two target user groups have quite different experiences, it's necessary to do the user research separately.

For recruitment, I will contact the Red Cross, non-profit charity groups and other government/non-government organizations which might be involved in the earthquake rescue to get the contact information of victims. Then I will send emails to the target users, talking about the purpose of the study, asking their willingness to do the research and some screening questions. Compensations will also be mentioned in the email.

Interviews - people under debris

To dig out the people's needs when they are buried under debris, it is inevitable to ask the participants to recall their last experience, which is usually a dark period with great fear. Then it's very important to make the participants feel secure and comfortable during the session. One-on-one interviews allow the interviewer quickly build relationship with the participants and have a conversation that is more intimate and in-depth. Having the session happen in the participants' homes can also help them relax.


People who have been trapped in debris and then got rescued in a prior earthquake.


One-on-one semi-structured interview.


Participants' home.


35-45 minutes.


Notes and voice recording.

Sessions #


Sample Questions

(Warm-up questions, direct participants to the topic)

- What were you doing when the earthquake happened?

(Questions under the topic)

- Tell me the experience when you were trapped under the rubble. What did you do?

- How did you get rescued? How long did it take? Was there any difficulty in the rescue work?

- What were you thinking under the rubble? What were you most afraid of? What information were you most eager to know about the outside?

- Were you with your cellphone? Was it still working? If yes, what did you do with it?

Focus group - people in safe place

For people who managed to get to the safe place after the earthquake happened, their needs may vary a lot on the individual's specific situation. Discussing in a group setting can help me get broader range of information meanwhile save time and money.


People who have managed to get to the safe place right after the earthquake happened.

Group 1 - people who were with loved ones after getting to the safe place.

Group 2 - people who were alone after getting to the safe place.


Focus group.


Hotel conference room.


80-90 minutes.


Notes and video recording.

Group size

6-8 participants per group.

Sessions #

4 (2 sessions per group type).

Sample Questions

(Warm-up questions, direct participants to the topic)

- How did you get to safe place when the earthquake happened?

- Did you bring anything with you?

(Questions under the topic)

- What did you do after you got to the safe place?

- What was your experience before you were relocated?

- How did you update with your family and friends about your safety and ensure their safety?

- What other information you were eager to know at that time?

- Did you help anyone?

- Did someone help you? Was there any kind of help that was hard to get?

- Were you with your cellphone? Was it still working? If yes, what did you do with it?

Assumptions on user's needs

Based on some secondary research and my empathy with users, I made assumptions on the needs of the two user groups.

People under debris

User's goal

Get rescued as quickly as possible and stay connected with the outside.

Primary Needs

- Make sure the outside world knows the situation and someone is coming to rescue him/her.

- Provide needed information to speed up the rescue process.

- Simply treat the wounds or avoid worsening the condition if have some.

Secondary needs

- Stay connected with the outside (Save power of the cellphone).

- Be informed of the progress of the rescue work.

People in the safe place

User's goal

Endure the hard time by supporting each other.

Primary Needs

- Stay safe (from aftershocks, tsunamis, etc).

- Get daily necessities.

- Know the safety of loved ones.

Secondary needs

- Get other kinds of help when needed

- Get emotional strength in a community

- Be updated with the news from authorities.

Other assumptions

No phone calls can get through the clogged up mobile networks.

People are generous to help each other in the hard times.

People without trainings can also contribute to saving people from debris.


Design decisions

A mobile app

I decided the my design solution to be a mobile app, considering users are more likely to have their mobile phones with them after the earthquake and they may be moving a lot. Even they do have their laptops, it's better to use them to charge phones to ensure longer access to the Internet since the electricity may be cut off and phones consume less power.

A mutual aid community

After the large-scale disaster, the government's rescue work can't be efficient and timely enough. People really need to stay together and help each other. My design solution should help maximize people's efforts in the mutual aid.

An app with 2 modes

After the earthquake happens, the app will ask the users for their situation to determine the user group. Then the interfaces and features would be different for the two user groups since their needs are quite different. Users would be able to switch the mode when their situation changes, like a person gets rescued from the debris.


Based on my assumptions on user's needs, I designed features to help them make it through the tough time.

Under Debris Mode

Send distress signal

Send distress signal to 911 and nearby people with a simple tap so that users who are badly injured can also do it. The signal would automatically carry the information of user's location on GPS.

Keep track of the rescue progress

Users can keep track of the progress of the rescue work, like whether someone has confirmed to come to rescue them, how far they are, etc. This is likely to be the information uses most eager to know under debris.

Give detailed info of the location

If the users have the ability, they can send more detailed information about their location like how many floors there are in the building and their floor number to help the rescue team make plans and more quickly find them.

Communicate with the rescue team

Users can communicate with the rescue team about more details of their situation so that the rescue work can be carried out more easily. It will also greatly reduce user's anxiety and fear if they can receive messages from the team.

Get instructions on dealing with the wounds

Users can answer questions about their injuries then get instructions on how to deal with them temporarily. This also helps people outside know about user's condition and optimize the rescue order to save more lives.

Safe Place Mode

Get safety alerts

Get alerts when some secondary effects are likely to happen, such as aftershock, landslides and tsunami. Then get instructions on what to do.

Find a family member

Users may still use their communication tool to contact their loved one, but the app can be helpful if a family member is out of touch. Send the rough location of a family member and his/her photo. People in that area will get notified and send a message if they have seen that person.

Seek help from nearby people

Publish a help request to the people close to the user and get help.

Offer help to nearby people

Join a team to rescue people who are under the debris or offer help to people who have sent a help request around the user.

Scrolling message board

When a person helps another, it will be shown in the scrolling message board real time and every other users can see it. It will increase users' sense of community and inspire them to submit help request or help others.

Browse news from authorities

View relevant news from the authorities and stay informed.

View the necessities information over map

Check other places that still have the daily necessities which are in short at user's location. User can also update the daily necessities' conditions of their place.

User Flow

With all the features, I began to design user flow.

Under debris

For under debris mode, I designed the flow to be linear, considering users are likely to be panic and not good at making decisions if we give them several options and let them choose what to do. A linear flow lets them focus on one task at a time and get all the things done without much thinking. Progress of the rescue work is likely to be the thing they most care about so it should always be viewable.

In safe place

For people who are already in the safe place, their emotional states are more stable so they can use the app normally.



Under debris
In safe place

Post a help request

Offer help

Notification, New, Necessity, Alert

Hi-fi prototype (selected screens)

Then I selected several important screens and made hi-fi prototypes to demostrate it.

Under debris

Send distress signal

When user is under debris, the app will detect the light of the environment and automatically change to night mode so that it's easier for users to see the screen in the dark. Users can easily send out distress signal with one signal tap.

Check rescue progress

Users can check the progress of rescue work like how far the rescue team is from the user. They can also send a text/voice message to the rescue team.

In safe place

Scrolling message board

When someone helps another person, it will be shown in the scrolling message board. This will increase user's sense of community and motivate them to help others.

View help request

Users can see the help request from the people nearby. They can tap on it to see details or slide the card to dismiss it.

Rescue someone from debris

The help request from people needing to be rescued from debris will be in different style to bring user's attention. Users can join a rescue team.

Get safety alert

High-priority safety alert will interrupt the users whatever task they are doing to make sure they know about it. It will become a non-dismissable banner if users close the message.


For evaluation, I plan to have two kinds of usability tests with different focuses.

One is to test with people who have gone through big earthquakes. The focus is to examine whether the features I designed would be useful in real scenarios since these people would know best about user's needs.

The other is to test with people who haven't been through earthquake. The focus is to evaluate the learnability of the app for people who are unfamiliar with earthquake, considering a large part of the users would be the first time to experience earthquake as well as use this app. It's very important for them to quickly understand it.

Since usability tests are usually expensive, I would like to conduct cognitive walkthrough within the team first to discover some problems and iterate the design. Then I can get more valuable findings from usability tests.

Usability test with earthquake survivors

For usability test with earthquake survivors, I would use the same recruitment method with user research. Since there are two modes in the app aiming different user groups, it's necessary to test the two modes separately with different participants.


Group 1 - People who have been trapped in debris and then got rescued in a prior earthquake.

Group 2 - People who have managed to get to the safe place right after the earthquake happened.


Usability test. Give participants tasks. Ask them to compete the tasks with the app and think aloud during the process. Measure performance metrics (time to complete, errors, etc). After the task, ask their opinions about the app and rate each feature with Likert scale.


Conference room.


35-45 minutes.


Notes and video recording.

Sessions #

6 for each group.

Sample task

When you are running away from the building, your head is hit by a falling stone and it's bleeding. Get instructions on how to deal with it.

Sample Questions

(Pre-task Questions)

- Could you tell me your experience in that earthquake?

(Post-task Questions)

- On a scale of 1-7, 1 being not useful at all and 7 being very useful, how would you rate feature x?

- Are there some features you think are missing?

- Are there some features you think are unnecessary?

- What modifications would you suggest to make the app more helpful?

Usability test with non earthquake survivors

To test with people who haven't gone through earthquakes, it is okay to ask one participant use both 2 modes and evaluate whether the app is easy to understand and learn.


People who haven't been through an earthquake.


Usability test. Give participants tasks. Ask them to compete the tasks with the app and think aloud during the process. Measure performance metrics (time to complete, errors, etc). After the task, ask their questions about the learnability of this app.


Conference room.


35-45 minutes.


Notes and video recording.

Sessions #


Sample task

You cannot get in touch with your mom who should be at work when the earthquake happens. Her work address is xxx. Post a help request to find your mom.

Sample Questions

(Pre-task Questions)

- Do you know what to do when earthquake happens?

(Post-task Questions)

- What's your overall experience using this app?

- On a scale of 1-7, 1 being very difficult and 7 being very easy, how would you rate how easy it is to use feature x?

- Are there some parts you find difficult to understand?


An app with two completely different modes

Unlike commercial app that you can choose to target one specific user group, in this design project, I feel obligated to make it as inclusive as possible because it will matter lives. After I identified the two user groups and analyzed their needs based on my empathy with them, I found these two groups actually have completely different needs! Then I got in a dilemma that if I continue designing for both of the two groups, it will take me to design for two apps.

I knew a much easier way is to only design for people who have got to the safe place. But I ended up designing for both user groups. The reason is that although the number of people under debris who have access to their phone may be much less than the other user group, the app can play a vital role in saving their lives. And I thought it would also be interesting to design how these two user groups might connect with each others. So although this exercise took longer than I expected, I did enjoy it very much. And I could foresee how future work could be done to make the experience powered by the app more complete and enjoyable.

Thanks for reading!

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