Carrying Homelessness

Using design to spark conversation about homelessness

ABOUT: How do we forge meaningful conversations with the people around us? In my Designing Civic Conversations class, this is the question we were challenged to answer. With a focus on homelessness in the Pittsburgh region, we were tasked with designing a public event that would engage community members and stakeholders around the issue. Through discussions, guest lecturers from city stakeholders and readings, we identified increased empathy as an essential outcome of our event – and decided to do this through visual and physical storytelling. Designed as the first event in a series, we sought to share stories from the homeless and encourage people to reframe their biases. To do this, we organized a “Humans of New York” style micro-exhibit and journeying card game called Carrying Homelessness. I led the design of the card game with Heinz Public Policy student Laura Colloway. 

PROJECT TYPE: Game Design | Educational Design

ROLES: UX Designer | Design Researcher

JOURNEYING CARD GAME: Carrying Homelessness


01 RESEARCH: Learning from city stakeholders

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We started the semester by creating stakeholder maps that helped us understand the actors, effects and needs of people experiencing homelessness. Through weekly readings, we also learned the value of placemaking, the challenge of addressing wicked problems and communicating effectively. We also connected with experienced stakeholders, including Pittsburgh city officials, housing service providers, grassroots organizers and individuals experiencing homelessness in the Pittsburgh community. Finally, we had the opportunity to speak to people in the Pittsburgh community experiencing homelessness, as well as other individuals who are housing insecure. Through these conversations, we were able to gather personal stories and a better understanding of peoples' life journeys. 


02 IDEATION & DESIGN: Creating empathy

After conducting research and developing detailed event proposals, we integrated the best ideas to create an interactive event: Carrying Homelessness. The event entailed a journeying card game and micro-exhibit that targeted college students. The goal was to break the stigma around people experiencing homelessness and generate more empathy by sharing stories. I led the design of the card game. My first prototype I made was on flash cards. Based on the stories from people experiencing homelessness, I wrote down different life events that might cause someone to experience homelessness – or gain greater housing security. Next, I reviewed the life event cards and made an affinity map. The major categories that emerged were: relationships, health and money. Next, I created a set of cards in Adobe Illustrator to show and test with the class.


03 TESTING: Identifying possible outcomes

We spent several class periods testing the journeying card game with students and teachers. One of the major challenges was making sure that there were a variety of outcomes to players. In order to do that, we toyed with a scoring system, which was around counting the number of relationships, health and money you have when you enter the game and when you leave. Through user-testing and input from my class, we determined that each of the categories of cards should be weighted depending on their importance. With more testing, we determined a point scale that resulted in various outcomes for players. Upon finishing the game, players would either be houses, housing insecure or homeless depending on the cards they'd been dealt.  

For the game itself, I determined that players would be given playing cards that guide them through the exhibit and unhinge a set of life choices determining their level of housing insecurity. The activity would demonstrate how health, money, and personal relationships combine with social inequality to shape the journey of homelessness.

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04 THE EVENT: Carrying Homelessness

We held the event in Schenley Plaza, a public space often used by people in the homeless community. It was a cold day, which actually made the journeying card game more realistic. We viewed this event as just another opportunity to test the game. We were pleasantly surprised to get a lot of questions about the game and even some of the "life events" that took place in the game. When people left the event, we provided them with information about BigBurgh, an app created to help city officials aid people experiencing homelessness. The app also offers local volunteer opportunities. After playing the game and receiving the BigBurgh information, we got the following feedback:

  • Empathy was the clear theme. People said it was a good idea and a fun game that made them think about their own relationships and health challenges.
  • Excellent way to practice empathy in a really short period of time
  • People wanted more conversation about their cards, more reflection points
  • People wanted to give money or have a more direct action that they could take

The event attracted more than two dozen University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon students and staff, as well as community members. As a class, we learned how to plan and facilitate a public event that used visual and experiential storytelling to generate conversations among community members. By carrying out a series of events with local stakeholders, these types of one-on-one conversations can generate buzz, catching the attention of city and county officials. Although we had a limited amount of time to dedicate to the project, we hope people continue discussing their experience with friends and use empathy to bridge communities across Pittsburgh.