Bridging the cultural empathy gap: how can those unable to go abroad still experience the benefits of international travel?
For my final project at Ironhack Amsterdam I worked on an end-to-end UX design project in a sprint-style timeframe of 2-weeks. Guided by user research insights and a desire to create a meaningful, empathetic product I created Trip Shelf, a mobile app that lets users “travel” the world through custom book lists.
2- week sprint
Solo project for Ironhack Amsterdam
Selected as one of the top 3 products, presented to over 80 people
Background Illustration: Jeannie Phan
Avoiding solution-first thinking by focusing initial ideation on a problem to be solved.
I’ve always felt extremely passionate about the value of international travel and have prioritized opportunities for it throughout my life. In a tumultuous socio-political climate, the following benefits of traveling abroad have become increasingly crucial:
Exposure to diverse perspectives
A more empathetic world view
Although I was deeply in touch with international travel’s power to facilitate profound moments of human connection and shared understanding, I was keenly aware of its logistical obstacles being an American. Traveling abroad is much less common in the US than it is in Europe, and many people I grew up with had never left the country despite expressing a clear desire to do so. I decided to stick with this direction for my ideation and began the process of trying to pinpoint the exact friction that was happening between related user goals, the obstacles causing such friction, and validating my initial assumptions.
Illustration: Lisk Feng
UNDERSTANDING THE USER
Assessing pain points from the user's perspective with quantitative and qualitative research methods.
In order to guide my user research I focused on the following when creating my online survey and user interview questions:
Why people want to travel abroad and what kinds of mental models they associate with planning a trip
Obstacles preventing people from going abroad as frequently as they would like
Key differences in insights between European correspondents and those from other geographic areas
Being farther away from other countries makes things like air tickets drastically higher in price
The user research findings made it very clear that while the majority of people have a desire to travel abroad, many are unable to do so for a variety of reasons. A consistent pattern of responses came from the Americans who cited the following as the top three factors impeding going abroad:
Geographic proximity to other countries also factors in to the time required to take a trip and Americans have notoriously dismal paid vacation periods, if any at all
People expressed a strong desire to travel abroad with friends and family, but frequently were unable to coordinate the finances and time off of multiple people
Additionally, older participants expressed additional factors impeding their plans to travel abroad such as mobility issues, security concerns, and lack of understanding of how to plan such a trip.
User Interview Participant, age 30
“It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to travel to India but plane tickets are expensive and it’s a long trip. For it to be worth it I’d want to spend a whole month there, but I only get 10 days off from work a year and this year I got even less because I was really sick over the winter and had to use some of those days.”
User Interview Participant, age 71
“For me I’m most concerned about my personal safety abroad. There is a certain fear of the unknown that comes from simply not knowing what it’s like outside of your own country. This builds a cycle of fear that keeps people from going abroad, which in turn furthers the sense of “other-ness” in other countries.”
Narrowing in on pain points from the user research to explore and validate different solutions.
The user research was extremely useful in highlighting the travel goals of my users and the unique factors that hindered them. The reasons cited for not being able to go abroad were varied and all traced back to diverging root problems. Instead of trying to solve a handful of different issues preventing people from reaping the benefits of traveling abroad, I shifted my focus on a different question:
How can someone unable to go abroad still experience the benefits of international travel?
I had already been toying around with using books as some kind of travel-proxy when I remembered a vintage magazine illustration that I had saved to my computer years ago from 1920’s Italy. The central message of making the macro into the micro and bringing the world to you instead of vice versa seemed like an ideal avenue to explore in order to address the user pain points from my research. I conducted further interviews to validate the desirability of such an angle and used mind mapping to determine the connections users had formed between books and travel.
Aside from the intrinsic benefits of reading, books provide several areas of cross-over that make them the ideal medium through which to facilitate the benefits of international travel:
Books allow the reader to fully insert themselves into a story or a place. Readers are able to truly feel like they’ve “gone” somewhere when engrossed in a story
Much like vacations and trips, people spend a period of time with a book which helps encourage the sense that one is on a “journey”
As with traveling abroad and meeting new people from different backgrounds, books allow diverse authors to tell stories from all kinds of different cultural, ethnic, and political perspectives
People have inherent mental models around the way they view searching for books and searching for travel plans. Books involve genres and reading platforms (i.e fiction, non-fiction, audiobooks, etc.), while travel involves distinct areas of interest (i.e historical sites, local cuisine, natural wonders, etc.)
In order to better understand the touch-points of my product and decide on what features needed to be included to create the most value for my users, I looked at user pain-points through the perspective of my primary persona, Molly. Molly is a freelance artist and waitress from the US who has always dreamed of going to Paris. Paris has taken on a fantasy-like quality to Molly, whose room is decorated with little Eiffel Tower trinkets. Due to her hourly job and lack of employment benefits, if Molly isn’t working she isn’t getting paid. The wanderlust Molly feels for Parisian culture combined with the oppressive constraints of her finances and schedule creates a significant negative emotional impact for her.
If Molly can’t go to Paris, how can I bring Paris to Molly?
Trip Shelf is a mobile app that will allow Molly to “travel” by creating a custom itinerary comprised of books she’s added from different categories to create a sense of dynamic presence in Paris without ever having to leave her city in the US.
Due to time constraints I prioritized creating a user flow that showed the process of browsing the landing page content that combines elements of information on users’ existing journeys as well as ways to browse locations for their next adventure. The second part of the flow involves searching for a destination and creating a new itinerary.
The site map and user flow helped me clearly define the screens I needed to prototype. After testing my initial paper prototype screens I moved on to mid-fi, where I further tested my design’s feature logic and ease of use.
The UI was kept clean and fun, with the goal being to merge the clarity and organization of a book management app with the inspiring energy of a travel app.
Working cleanly and neatly in Sketch was crucial for this project due to the number of repeated elements and cards coupled with the tight project deadline. In order to keep the design consistent and intuitive, I made similar content sections as scalable and modular as possible.
The home “explore” page allows users to view information about their current trip, quickly view books on the corresponding itinerary and their associated travel categories, as well as visualize the trips they have coming up.
THE FINAL PRODUCT
Landing Page Scroll Animation using InVision
The home ‘explore’ page also provides users with different ways to browse locations and explore new itineraries they may want to build. The categorization element that was valued by users during the research phase comes into play when browsing Destinations by Genre, since many users associated different regions with specific kinds of stories or imagery.
The social element is incorporated into Popular Journeys, Other Worlds, and Community elements. Users can see where others are “traveling” and view details about their friends’ current itineraries.
The Other Worlds content allows users to go above and beyond the confines of reality and travel to places that would be otherwise impossible. Small visual details like the vintage postcard style of the Popular Journeys cards contribute to the feeling of booking an actual trip and help to inspire wanderlust.
Users can search for locations or select “random destination” if they’re feeling adventurous, an important element in mimicking the often serendipitous nature of excursions abroad.
TITLE OF THE CALLOUT BLOCK
Assessing future iterations of the product and reflecting on how things could've been done differently.
In addition to my primary user who is building book itineraries for places they’re unable to actually visit, the app could also be beneficial to those truly going abroad who want to arrive at their destination better-versed in the details of that culture.
Travel companies or organizations planning trips could also use Trip Shelf as a marketing method to get travelers excited for and immersed in their location before the actual trip.
Partnerships with local library catalog systems and e-commerce booksellers would also be beneficial for users to be able to quickly acquire the books they’ve added to their itinerary in the format that best suits their preference and budget. The opportunity to develop Trip Shelf into a reading platform itself also exists down the line.
Introducing Molly to the audience at the Ironhack Amsterdam Hack Show 15.11.2019
Once they’ve selected a location, users can quickly add books from different travel categories to their itinerary, or browse books by genre. Users can then view their trip itinerary which provides an overview of their trip, the option to ‘start’ their journey, view what they’re currently reading, add more books, edit the display order of categories, and invite friends to join their trip.
To make sure you’re solving the right problem, listen to your users. Hanging on to the first solution you love but that isn’t validated by your research is the kiss of death for any UX product.
Keep it lean. Hone your workflow to be clever and efficient to ensure you aren’t sacrificing the integrity of the design process because the project deadline snuck up on you.
Care. Care about your users, their stories, their frustrations, and the immense value you can bring people by designing a truly user-centric solution.
Tell a Story. Presenting your designs and the logic behind your decisions is just as important as the process itself. Craft a narrative to convey the significance of translations you made between user challenges and product solutions.