Jenny Mikesell
User Experience Professional

Shoe String Project: Tackling Food Insecurity Among College Students

Photo credit: Christopher Catbagan

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

Diagram credit: Feeding America

My role: UX Researcher and Designer

Understanding the Problem: As a professor, I quickly learned about students' struggle with food security. I began researching the problem, delving into its causes and consequences:

  • 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.

Diagram credit: The Hope Center

Statistics and Impact

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

Qualitative Research with Students

To create a tool for college students to access more resources, I conducted qualitative research with students. Guiding questions included:

  • 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?

Affinity Map - Patterns and Insights

Affinity Map - Patterns and Insights: Each interview revealed 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.

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.

Finding Users, Writing the Survey and Analyzing Survey Results

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Persona 1 aomi"

Customer Journey Map

I divided the journey into three zones: Lens, Experience, and Insights, each representing different aspects of a student's struggle with food insecurity.

My Design Strategy

Representing two sides of a coin.

My design strategy aimed to create a comforting, educational, and practical tool for students. It addressed two sides of the issue: students' reluctance to seek help and universities' challenges in supporting 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?

Mood Board

I created a mood board to establish an ideal student experience, incorporating elements of joy and humor.

Precise Interaction Design Decisions

I connected users’ unmet needs with design solutions, ensuring that the app addressed their specific challenges.

User Flows

Choosing an Illustrator

Illustrator Ashley Percival set the right tone and mood for the app, balancing the stress of students' daily lives with a whimsical and fun feeling.

Icons and Style Guide

Icons were selected to complement the illustrations and evoke feelings associated with each subject.

Illustrator: Jenny Mikesell

Progressive Disclosure

The app design utilized progressive disclosure to maintain the user's focus, providing access to educational tutorials, resources, peer connections, mentors, and more.

One could access this application via three simple categories:

MONEY
FOOD
STRESS

App redesign

Rethinking onboarding and information parsing to enhance user experience.

Style Guide

Components and colors were created to meet accessibility requirements, ensuring an inclusive design.

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.

jennymikesell@gmail.com