Applying Human Centred Design and UX to Shelter Services

with Main Street Project


Main Street Project (MSP) is a not for profit organization established in 1972, in the city of Winnipeg, Canada. Majority of MSP’s clients belongs to one of the most vulnerable population in the society — homeless individuals suffering from mental health, physical health, and addiction problems. Its core services are low barrier shelters, detoxification programs, and housing first initiatives. Since 2017 it has been growing rapidly and my role as a Project Coordinator covers a number of projects, from service to event design.

This article will focus on how I applied Product / UX methodologies — from planning, research, strategy, ideations, to implementation — in two projects (out of three) I completed for MSP. Majority of the work was done by myself; and with the help from a summer student under my supervision for part of the research.

** This article is a work in progress.**

Main Street Project

Time Frame



Service Design / UX / Project Management


Design Thinking, User Research, Personas, Experience Mapping, Ideation

– Project #1 –

Creating the Non-Monetary Donation Program

Non-profits rely heavily on donations of any kind and community members were often more than willing to contribute. It is no different with Main Street Project. As the agency was growing rapidly and getting more community awareness, the influx of non-monetary donations quickly overwhelmed the organic, spontaneous approach by the staff. A systematic rethink and redesign of the process was needed.


  • Huge amounts of unsorted donation was taking up valuable space all over the agency.
  • There was no easy way to utilize the donation. Despite having this resource, much of it was inaccessible due to poor design — thus practically useless.


  • There was no systemic process in place for the receiving, sorting, storage and usage of non-monetary donation. Everything was done based on individual staffs personal knowledge and habits.


  • There are five different departments — Shelter, Men’s Detoxification Program, Women’s Detoxification Program, Long Term Supportive Housing — located in three different buildings across the city that require donation resource.
  • Shelter services are 24 hours, 7 days a week. There could be a need of an item at any time.
  • Staffing and real estate are limited for donation related services.


fully utilize the donations and get clients what they need?

Local student donate socks to MSP


  • LEARN through holistic observation.
  • DISCOVER through analysis.
  • PLAN research roadmap from initial analysis.
  • DISTILL & VERIFY through further iterative targeted research and analysis.
  • FORMULATE first prototype after enough actionable details are gathered.
  • CONTINUE IMPROVEMENT through iterative prototyping and testing.

Research Questions

Examples of questions asked throughout the process.


  • What are the goals at each department? How do they relate to each other?
  • What are the donations being used? Why?
  • What are the staff doing with donations currently and why?
  • What are the environmental context?


  • What are the travelling distances and access between the stations?
  • Where are the available areas to use and what are their limitations?
  • What are the needs and ability level of clients at each station? Why? How do they differ?
  • What other tasks do the staff need to perform? Why? How are the tasks related?



  • In situ observations of the existing process at the three locations.


  • In person interviews (40 minutes, semi scripted) of front line staff.
  • In person interviews (variable length, semi scripted) with shelter clients.
  • 3 Departments / locations – Shelter, Men’s Detoxification Program, Women’s Detoxification Program.


  • Research policies in other organizations.
  • Visit existing implementation in other organizations.
  • Research similar applications in other industries (for example, fashion retail, inventory warehouse).


  • Visualizing proposed process and getting staff feedbacks.


  • Implement competing solutions (partially) to gather staff feedbacks.

Use Cases Defined

After the primary research it was discovered that there were 3 main usage cases of non-monetary donations. They mostly corresponded to the scope of each department. A “user” or client might go through all or some of the usage cases throughout their journey.
*I defined Use Cases instead of User Types to capture the more complex relationship formed by the clients, staff, and the donation resource.

Immediate, Emergency Use

Applicable Department: Drop-In Shelter, Detoxification

  • Occurred mostly when a client was first admitted to MSP, regardless of the type of services they were accessing.
  • Clients could be in the facility for mere minutes to overnight; their needs should be fulfilled before they leave the building.
  • Clients could also be in longer term treatments (days to months), but they need certain items immediately when they were first admitted.
  • Most needs were the basic necessities — basic toiletries, basic clothings (underwears, socks, pants, shirts, jackets, etc.).
  • Clients would likely treat items as single-use as many didn’t have the means to maintain belongings. Item portion (such as shampoo) should be sized accordingly.
  • There were usually two time periods with the most demand — coinciding with shelter opening hours (shelter service was 24 hours, but would close twice daily for cleaning).


Applicable Departments: Detoxification, Supportive Housing

  • Clients were usually in the care of MSP for days to months and lived within one of the facilities. They had some time and means to wait for additional resources.
  • Needs were mostly those of “preparations” and were more diverse — additional toiletries, additional clothings, backpack or duffle bag (for carrying and storage), water bottles, etc.
  • There were more time to have a better match to what a client need / asked for (for example, clothing size and colour preferences).

Establishing Stability

Applicable Departments: Supportive Housing

  • Clients had housing and needed support to achieve basic living standards.
  • Items will range from toilet paper roll, bed sheets, small appliances, to larger furnitures like mattresses.
  • Usually had the ability to wait for items, or were planning for future needs (for example, when they knew they were moving-in in a few days and would need certain items).

Edge Cases

Applicable Departments: All

  • Usually items for special occasions — for example, formal wears like suits for attending court hearing or job interviews. MSP did not formally provide job services. Or items for holidays like Christmas or Easter.
  • Occasional “fun” or more valuable items, such as makeup kits, were donated and could be used as prizes for social activities.
A client sleeping in the MSP parking lot. Photo by Al Foster.

Discoveries and Insights

There were numerous discoveries and often there was no readily available “industry standards” or literatures to provide precedents or solutions. Some examples below:



Staff didn’t know what item was already given to the same individual accessing different services. To prevent abuse of the system, sometimes staff would deny clients based on speculations — this lead to poor relationship and potentially discriminatory actions.


There were no formal coordination between different departments, and no formalized communication even within the same department between staffs on different shifts.

Proposed Solution:

A centralized system and procedures for coordination and communication that all staff would follow.


Staff often couldn’t give clients what they need, even though the items could be somewhere in the agency.


Front line staff had very little time to sort and look through donations; often rely on luck to find what they were looking for in the first bag they opened.

Proposed Solution:

The donation needed to be centrally sorted and organized as they came in; with a list of available items (i.e. menu) periodically updated.


Donations were received and stored all over the agencies, created disorganization, sanitation and safety issues.


Staff could rarely leave their stations; and there was not a lot of space at their stations to store donations for easy access. Some staff had utilized common space (for ex. hallways) for storage out of desperation.

Proposed Solution:

A dedicated donation receiving point with storage. Each station would hold a small amount of most needed items. New procedure would need to be written for taking requests and making deliveries by a dedicated staff.



Women would wear “men’s” clothing (including underwear) but rarely the other way around.


There were a lot to unpack with this based on social norm; but also because generally “men’s” clothing were more practical, more comfortable, and fit more sizes.
“Feminine” coded items mostly focused on style than practicality — shirts / pants too short, additional decorative pieces, not enough fabric (for warmth), non-ideal material (polyester), etc.

Proposed Solution:

Put more emphasis on unisex and practical items that could be used by either gender to save space and organizational effort.


For clothing, sweatpants and hoodies were the most sought after items by a great margin. Button-downs, on the other hand, were rarely used.


Practicality, versatility, ease to use, and comfort were the main attributes that most clients looked for. Sweatpants and hoodies can be easily layered as well for warmth. In addition, dexterity issues were common; button-downs, pants requiring belts introduced challenges for use.

Proposed Solution:

Prioritize popular items when organizing and for donation outreach. Streamline process for least popular items by discarding them right away and only keeping a small inventory.


Conventionally “reusable” items such as socks, underwears, pants, and certain toiletries like toothbrush became single-use only.


Clients, being mostly homeless, had very limited means to clean and store their items. Thus instead of reusing they would simply replace with new items.

Proposed Solution:

Work with Outreach for donations in small volume toiletries (hotel size shampoo, body soap, etc.) and portion out regular volume toiletries into smaller containers. Provide trade-in or laundry services if possible.


Certain graphics and colours on clothing were avoided by clients.


Some graphics could be triggering for traumatic experience (for example, gothic imageries) or addiction (alcohol brand). Certain coloured items (red hat) were associated with local gang; these colours could change as well.

Proposed Solution:

Include these sensibilities in the sorting process. Prioritize “neutral” items. Periodically check-in with clients / staff regarding the current culture on the street.


Certain clients would repeatedly ask for the same items within unreasonable time frame (for example, within a few hours).


Clients could hoard items or use certain items (shoes, cloth) as currency for trade.

Proposed Solution:

Multipronged approach: keep records of client requests, set limits, and inform their social worker to work with them.

Condensed Process Flow Chart

Similar to a User Flow Diagram but with more complex information. This diagram only included 1/3 of the overall scope and focused on one main location. It was used to demonstrate three key points:

1)  Where to accept donation (time dependent)

2) Where to process donation

3) How to distribute donation

Constraints and Limitations

Like most not-for-profit charity MSP was working with very little resource. Any solution will have to be workable under many limitations.

  • Limited space at the locations of needs (aka frontlines); space available for proper storage was a good distance away
  • Limited budget for additional equipments
  • One full time staff
  • Implementing infrastructure to update the “backend” with what the frontlines needed in real time was cost prohibitive
  • 24 / 7 needs

Solution Highlight / 3rd Iteration

Like all Sprint projects, initial implementations (aka Prototypes) went through iterations based on observations and feedbacks. The final Bin Swap system, straightforward in hindsight, was the product of such process.

Below was the delivery process of donated clothings, from storage to frontlines.

First implementation:
  • Straightforward
  • Delivering items directly from storage to frontlines periodically
  • One dedicated donation staff
  • Delivery was on a fixed schedule and didn’t always match demands
  • Only one donation staff who became overworked
  • Donation staff worked 9-5 while the frontlines were 24/7; no re-supplies after hours.
Final Iteration – Bin Swap:
  • Donation staff focused on producing bins of sorted items
  • Periodically transport bins to a smaller “central” distribution area close to frontlines
  • Frontline staff swapped their empty bins with filled bins in the distribution area as needed
  • Donation staff took the empty bins back to be refilled
  • Giving frontline staffs the means to self-replenish ameliorated the mismatch between demands and supplies
  • Donation staff had a buffer and could organize their time better
  • Tasks like organizing and storage became simpler
  • Tracking and analysing usage became easier — using “bin” as a unit of measurement
  • During after hours frontline staffs could still resupply if needed, as long as there were enough bins prepared during work hours
New requirements:

The Bin Swap system added new requirements (and sometimes costs) to the process; however they were worthwhile tradeoffs

  • A good number of uniformed bins; and replacements as they break with high usage
  • All bins needed to be labeled properly
  • Additional space as a central distribution point — had to be close enough to frontline staffs
  • Stockpiling bins for after hours usage
New Challenges:

To be tackled with the next iteration of improvements

  • Reduced face-to-face interactions / communications between donation and frontlines — new way of communication channels and protocols were established
  • Frontlines had to accept the entire contents of a bin, regardless if they found all contents useful
  • Occasionally frontline staff cannot step away and resupply their stations

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