Jenny Mikesell
User Experience Researcher, Designer and Strategist

40% of college students in the US experience food insecurity.

"Over 44 million Americans collectively hold more than $1.4 trillion in student loan debt and only 54.8 percent of students graduate in six years. Without more graduates, our country will face a shortage of skilled workers and fewer low-income families will get the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty.“ -Bill Gates.

Shoe String - Student Mobile Application

My role: UX Researcher and Designer

As a professor, I quickly learned about students' struggle with food security. I began researching the problem.

Why does this problem exist? What is the landscape of this problem?

  • Life skills education decreased due to budget cuts.

  • Functioning in isolation and not asking for help is normal.

  • Students work part-time or full-time and go to school.

  • They are always in a ‘fight-or-flight’ mode.

  • Financial Aid has not caught up to the standard of living.

  • Students cannot rely on their family’s financial support. Their families are struggling too.

Shoe String - Student Mobile Application


The Wisconsin Hope Lab compiled a report in 2019 stating, “40 percent of all college students cannot afford to eat balanced meals, and nearly 30 percent of college students cut or skip meals because they do not have enough money for food. “


Food Bank News reported in January of 2020: “While 12% of U.S. households are food-insecure, a whopping 45% of college students surveyed reported being food-insecure in the nation’s largest and most recent assessment. That’s nearly half of students reporting some level of food insecurity, ranging from worrying about having enough food, to skipping meals, to going without food for entire days (see chart).”

Data Impact

Food insecurity has the potential to impact academics, wellness, and behavioral factors. These factors have a direct bearing on student retention and graduation rates.

> Read Secondary Research White Paper

Shoe String - Student Mobile Application

Affinity Map - Patterns and Insights

Each interview proved that students are isolated in their shame. They live a frenetic and anxiety-filled life. Our interview was the first time they had spoken about their situation to anyone. The $30 I gave them as a thank you was their food budget for the week.

Click here for a complete affinity map, quotes, and insights.

Research - The next step was qualitative research with students.

Goal: To create a tool for college students to access more resources.

Guiding Questions:

  • How often do students choose other expenses before food?

  • How does their food insecurity affect their daily lives?

  • Who is in their corner to help them?

  • Where do they go to get food?

  • What types of financial choices do they make during the day?

  • Is food insecurity their biggest challenge?

  • How much time does finding food take away from other goals?

  • What is their general ability to manage their finances?

  • What were the research questions?

  • How many users did you interview?

  • What were you curious about the most?

  • What were the main insights you got from the interviews?

  • What did you change on the design based on the insights?

Participant Characteristics:

  • Students who experience food insecurity on a daily basis.

  • Students who have little to no financial help from their families.

  • Students who are unfamiliar with the resources available to them and how to ask for help.

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Finding users

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Writing the survey

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Analyzing survey results

Shoe String - Student Mobile Application

Student Persona

Shoe String - Student Mobile Application

Customer Journey Map

Zone A The Lens -  My loan isn’t enough to cover my food budget.

Zone B The Experience - I don’t know how to budget. Sometimes I forget to eat. I often go without meals. The vending machine is where I eat my meals. I can’t afford anything else.

Zone C The Insights - Life skills are almost obsolete and not dependent on educational backgrounds. A student’s unpredictable schedule and volatile income is a conundrum to navigate.

My Design Strategy

Representing two sides of a coin.

My design solution needed to be comforting, educational, and practical; a companion in their daily lives.

On one side, you have students that do not ask for help and have limited life skills and limited finances.

On the other side, you have universities that do not know how to implement tools to help their students.

How Might We...
teach students to manage their money?
guide them to free food?
help students budget their time?
help students manage their stress?

My designs explored different mental models.

  1. Is this an educational platform?

  2. Could it be a fun and educational game?

  3. What about an avatar?

  4. Is this a game of life lessons?

Shoe String - Student Mobile Application

Mood Board

Creating a mood board - The mood needs to show an ideal student experience.

Shoe String - Student Mobile Application

Precise Interaction Design Decisions

Connecting users’ unmet needs with design solutions.

Shoe String - Student Mobile Application

User Flows

How simple can the introduction be? What choices do you offer the user? What path do you want to lead them down?

Shoe String - Student Mobile Application

Choosing an illustrator - Each character establishes a mood of the user

Student's lives are filled with obstacles and isolation. How can this app create a mood of joy and humor? User testing proved that the illustrator Ashley Percival set the right tone and mood for them to be intrigued.

Shoe String - Student Mobile Application

Icons and Style Guide

Following the feeling of the illustrations, I chose icons that were fun and encompassed the feelings associated with a subject. For example, "Stress" is a woman hiding under her hair-do which is a common human feeling when you're under stress.

Shoe String - Student Mobile Application

Progressive Disclosure

Using progressive disclosure as a design technique helped me maintain the user's focus. I designed a clutter-free, insightful, and cognitive educational tool.

The best way to access this application was via three simple categories.


Each category has a specific illustration. The app has a whimsical and fun feeling. This acts as a counterbalance to the stress of student’s daily lives.

Thanks to the illustrator I found, Ashley Percival.

Under money, food, and stress students can choose to take educational tutorials, discover resources, connect to peers, find a mentor, or look up professors' office hours.

App redesign - Rethinking onboarding and parsing information.

Shoe String - Student Mobile Application
Shoe String - Student Mobile Application
Shoe String - Student Mobile Application

Style Guide

Create the components and colors to meet accessibility requirements.

Case Study

Food insecurity among students is just a symptom of the lack of resources and attention we’ve been paying our students. On average 35-40% of students in USA colleges, universities, and community colleges are food insecure.

Click here for complete Presentation Study