Empowering rough sleepers through cashless donations and community integration.

Have you ever gone to bed and wondered if you’d wake up in the morning? This is the harsh reality for over 4000 people who are sleeping rough on the streets of the UK every day. Homelessness is something all of us have experienced, whether you know some one who was rough sleeping, you have been homeless yourself or you have simply witnessed the number of rough sleepers increase as you walk through our streets in recent years.

Inspired by my volunteering with Crisis at Christmas, I decided to focus my Final Year project on a solution to empower rough sleepers through cashless donations and increased community integration. The research highlighted how complex the issue is navigating financial education, secure redemption models and the extent of systemic behaviour change required for long term success. I tried to incorporate all of these factors into the solution.

The system has 3 elements:

  • A hand held device – to be given to the rough sleeper which reaches out via bluetooth to passers-by and improves safety through an alarm system
  • An app – used by passers-by to facilitate secure and cashless donations and to encourage users to go and interact with the rough sleepers.
  • A Hub – to allow the rough sleeper to manage their donations and get continued support from services.
Full solution: donation app, hand held device and community hub.

I’m incredibly grateful that the solution was awarded the Virgin Atlantic award for Innovation, New Designer of the Year Runner up 2018 as well as Innovation Awards within Loughborough University.

After graduating I made the big decision to take my research and prototype into the real world, and establish an organisation – b our bridge – as I wanted to take this app and device service to the people who really needed it. Since then I’ve partnered with another organisation in the sector (Greater Change) to combine resource and help get the solution to market faster. Here is an in-depth blog post on my design journey, the insights I accrued and how the solution was created. Thanks for reading.

Identifying the Problem

I am grateful have had many conversations on homelessness with people from all over the world. Their suggestions to end homelessness or ‘how to help’ were often angled at top down approaches, systemic and long lasting change led by campaigning and activism. Whilst I 100% agree this reform is needed, these things take time. I wanted to look at the day to day problems that rough sleepers encounter across the streets of the UK that could be implemented quickly with immediate impact.

I thought back to interactions I had with guests at Crisis at Christmas as well as conversations I’d had with rough sleepers on my way to work throughout my placement year. I realised that whilst there was a clear need for immediate shelter and security which wasn’t being met, there were other day-to-day problems which were creating a huge impact. I’ve listed 3 of these below:


I wanted to reduce vulnerability and isolation at its source. The solution needed to tackle the stigma of approaching the homeless, provide a deterrent to threatening behaviour and create a secure and reliable donation process.

Personal conversations with rough sleepers were supplemented with secondary research and interviews with all stake holders involved. I took the opportunity to explore this issue with Police officers, Aid workers, Charities, social workers and people who were previously homeless to gain a holistic view on this crisis.

There were some really interesting common themes across the interviews. The word trust was mentioned regularly. There was also a concern for how any donations could be spent.

I investigated donation behaviours further with a survey of 150 participants from diverse backgrounds. The data was critical to understanding the current barriers to donations, and steps we could take to improve this – e.g. if the donors knew a little about the person they were walking past (hobbies and employment aspirations) over 80% of people said they are more likely to donate and at a higher/same value. More data below:

From this research, it was clear there are two potential user profiles for the solution, the rough sleeper (James) and the potential donator (Amelia):

I assembled a basic comparative user journey as a passer-by chooses (or chooses not to) interact with a rough sleeper they encounter. This is not the only journey, safety also needs to be considered: what should the rough sleeper do if they find themselves experiencing physical or mental abuse?

Key Insights

  • Any solution must not be tradable for money, or this could increase crime.
  • The solution must be durable but cheap as it is likely to be lost.
  • There is a social barrier between the general public and people on the streets built mainly on stereotypes and missunderstandingtackling this is important.
  • How the donations can be redeemed needs to be considered carefully.
  • A safety system should not include the police to avoid ‘the boy who cried wolf’. The reaction times also are not fast enough to help in an attack situation.
  • The solution needs to help people get off the streets, not perpetuate life on them.
  • The more contact a rough sleeper has with a support touch point, the more likely they are to get off the streets.
  • If the money could only be spent on positive outlets, research suggests donations would be significantly more frequent and of higher value.

Everything this far has lead to the following brief:

Create a device that can: facilitate cashless donation, have an alarm system to improve safety on the streets and promote community connection and reduce loneliness by facilitating conversations with passers-by.


A huge barrier to donations and a reduction in isolation is the lack of communication between the two users. Rough sleepers are required to beg to get attention, passers-by feel awkward and helpless, unsure how to help without exacerbating a stereotypical problem. This is an undignified experience on both sides. I wanted to create a way to change this through positive behaviour change.

I investigated the use of positive nudge psychology to prompt the passer by to interact, donate or even possibly befriend the rough sleeper. Nudge psychology can be a powerful tool (and a positive one when used correctly) which is harnessed by organisations and governments globally.

What if the passer-by was nudged to look up as they came near a rough sleeper, and given information which could better advise their behaviour? For example ‘You are walking near James, he’s 53, and likes football’ would that information make you more inclined to cross the invisible boundary and go and say hi? Or even to simply make person to person eye contact and smile? The data from the user surveys suggested it would. This nudge also has the opportunity to encourage more organic, human to human interactions.

GDPR and the safety of both users were crucial considerations that needed addressing. I carried out a qualititive and quantitive survey with visitors in a day centre about what information they would be willing to share. Some said they would be happy to put an alias, but not their own name and were happy to share their goals and hobbies. Others were very open to sharing more if it would help them to reach their goals, faster. Overall it seemed that the best approach was to make everything optional – meaning the user could share as much, or as little as they wanted to.

By nudging passers-by through their phones, a new pathway is created which facilitates cashless donations. To make this as accessible as possible, I didn’t want the system to rely on the rough sleeper having a smart phone. Whilst many on the streets do, they can be often lost, traded or stolen. The technology/device given to the rough sleeper must work independently of a smart phone and be guided by the key insight: whatever solution the rough sleeper has must be of low cost, un-tradable and durable.

Bluetooth low energy (BLE) chips are a low cost component which has the ability to pulse a bluetooth signal into the surrounding world. Also as the chip name suggests, it’s power consumption is low which is a bonus for maximising the time between battery recharges. This technology could facilitate the nudge psychology. If a mobile device has the corresponding app with bluetooth enabled, it is able to receive information from the bluetooth signal and alert the user of the mobile device.

The signal would also facilitate the information required for a cashless donation to that rough sleeper via the app. But how would the rough sleeper know they have received a donation? And where would the money be sent to?

A screen or built in feedback system on the rough sleepers device would need to internet connection – a big potential barrier. Also a screen would be significantly more power intensive, shortening the battery life. I decided to opt away of immediate feedback and address this outside of the device itself. I will discuss this later.

The App

To test the impact of nudge theory I ran an an experiment:

Nudge testing user flow

Participants received a text notification during their commute to work and their responses were monitored. 60% of participants replied to the notification and ‘donated’ (no money was actually taken during the experiment).

I held focus groups and circulated a survey to all participants, both donators and non donators. The results were really positive, some of the data is presented on the slide show below:

From these insights, the app needs to:

  • Alert users they are near a registered rough sleeper
  • Share basic information about the rough sleeper
  • Facilitate donations quickly and efficiently
  • Encourage interactions with ‘tips and conversation starters’
  • Report if you think someone is seriously at risk

Using Invision, I observed how users attempted to use the app, where the pain points lie and how intuitive the user journey is.

Users also wanted the opportunity to stay connected to the journey of the people they donated to, so a community tab was added to the global navigation. There is the opportunity to donate again from afar on these updates.

High fidelity app mock ups

The Device:

Finding a shape that felt comforting for the user and contained all of the necessary functionality proved a real challenge. The majority of users felt that due to the rough size requirements, the pocket of a jacket or sitting in the palm of the hand within a pocket was the best location. The want for the device to feel comforting in this act was really important and was discussed regularly in interviews.

I used rapid prototyping techniques supported heavily with rounds of user feedback to create initial form options. The form on the far right was preferred in terms of fit into the hand, however due to the slight tapering, it was less ambidextrous and therefore hindered left handed users.

I ensured to test forms with a hands of a full ergonomic range.

In combination with my key insights, this continuous user testing both on the concept and form highlighted some important areas to consider. Living on the streets gives the user very few opportunities to access power outlets. The device therefore needs to be self rechargeable. A full investigation led me to using electromagnetic induction, powered by a spinning magnet and a generator – similar to a wind up torch. This meant I needed to incorporate some kind of handle/spinning plate which must feel fun/theraputic to use – rather than a chore, which could lead to it being forgotten about.

I thought to fidget spinners as a potential solution for this, and ideated with forms to get users feedback on what felt the most comfortable and allowed for ambidextrous use with reduced hand strain from the repetitive motion. The shape on the far right was preferred by 72% of users as it was “not too bulky” and “followed the natural curvature of the hand”.

Using Clay and 3D Printing, along with weights and bearings I designed a ‘spinning top plate’ form which moved smoothly, had the correct weight to improve the rotation efficiency and also visually connected to the core device.

Improving Safety

As discussed previously, the use of an alarm has the potential to increase safety for rough sleepers, however interviews suggested a siren style alarm could exacerbate the situation. The alarm instead needed to be a kind of ‘silent repeller’. I investigated the use of the mosquito sound – a very high pitched tone which causes discomfort, particularly in under 25s – to carry out this function.

I designed the alarm (a piezo electric buzzer) to use natural amplification through the external cylindrical form to reduce the power requirements of the battery – a similar feature is common place in personal alarms.

Iterations of prototypes developed into FDM 3D prints, followed by SLS 3D printing for a high quality prototype.

The Hub

At this point, it was important to return to the question ‘How do the rough sleepers know they have been given a donation, and how can they redeem it?’.

Regarding donations, there have been multiple things highlighted that need to be considered so far:

  • By keeping the redemption cashless, it would reduce theft and increase safety.
  • If the device is stolen, what happens to the donations?
  • How can we give autonomy to the rough sleepers, and allow them to choose how their money is spent.

I want to start with the final point on the list. Current solutions in the homeless space only support fundraising for long term goals (e.g. rent and deposit), their day-to-day needs cannot be met. I wanted to try and find a new approach helping save for long term goals whilst also giving a level of daily support. This financial education and experience with budgeting is crucial to long term stability.

Through further analysis, I was reminded of an interview with a day centre manager where he highlighted the importance of regular contact with services. The more often rough sleepers enter the day centre, the more support can be given, and therefore the more likely they are to make positive steps in their journey. By using this system to incentivise visits to these touch points, it would eradicate the chance of facilitating life on the streets.

The System would encourage rough sleepers to visit these hubs to be given locations where they could redeem their donations, sometimes this may be from within the day centre, but there is also the opportunity to use the NFC sticker within the device to facilitate cashless payments with vendors – similar to a contactless tap terminal.

Hubs with touch screen interfaces installed in day centres and public spaces could provide a solution by allowing rough sleepers to check their account information and recharge the device. The device itself would hold no money so it cannot become a tradable item. Instead the money is sent to a personal account which can be viewed on the Hub, much like an online banking platform. Therefore if the device is lost or stolen a new one can be issued linking to the corresponding account.

Initial dashboard layout exploration

The absence of currency values on the Hub interface is intentional, as research with charities suggested benefits of showing accrued credit in terms of positive outcomes such as food and education, rather than triggering craving for potentially impulsive spending of a cash value.

Initial user testing suggested that the Centre stage UI pattern was the most preferred, however users also really liked the opportunity for an interactive map.

Along side the screens I also tested the physical layout of the hub with users – which orientation would they like the components. A horizontal layout with the screen to the left of a combined charging/NFC docking station to the right was established.

I tested a new user flow using InVision and an amazon fire tablet within a physical mock up of the hub to gain insights to further improve the user experience.

These user tests informed the high fidelity prototype to be built into the physical hub for testing of the entire system.

Solution summary

Scenario board

System user testing

All high fidelity prototypes were tested as a system to gain holistic feedback.

The following adjustments were made according to the feedback:

  • Change the use of colour within the app to give a clearer call to action
  • Yellow locator dot to be added to the hub/back of device (image below)
  • Add a tab to the hub to inform the general public about the system if they encounter a hub in public spaces.
Location tot on the back of the device to help give clarity to users as to which way to dock it on the hub.

Final Solution

After graduating, I simplified the model to MVP level performing only as a bluetooth beacon. I also built networks with National banks to create a more robust redemption system for the rough sleeper’s donations. Initially this would be made through the help of a support worker, the long term goal is to use cashcards (with certain spending restrictions (i.e. no alcohol and no cash out) to create further empowerment and efficiency across the system.

If you would like any more information, please don’t hesitate to contact me, or follow the work of https://www.greaterchange.co.uk to see how the technology is launching.

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