Small Donation Big Impact

A charity box that visualizes the impact of donation


Engaging Communities

This project was created as a submission to the CHI Student Design Contest 2018. The theme for the 2018 contest was to engage communities by developing a human-centered approach to develop a new way to support, empower, or change the behavior of a group. The timeline for the project was roughly two months.


Ruoxun Chen
Aditya More
Tian Dou
Marshall Robbins

Won the Runner-Up Prize at CHI Student Design  Competition 2018

The Problem

Food Donations are not the most effective

About 1 in 7 Americans rely on the food that has been donated to food banks. Over 100 million pounds worth of food is donated to these food banks. However, donating food is not as effective as donating money. While an individual can purchase about 1 to 2 meals per person, a food bank can purchase about 4 to 20 meals per person. How can we make people aware that their cash donations are more effective?

The Process

Process Overview

We followed an expansion and contraction system of ideation and elimination for the overall design process, interluded by interviews, prototyping and usability tests. We began by identifying the problem space through a series of open ended interviews and creating dozens of ideas, simple to complex in the problem space as a group. Conceptual testing was performed using a cardboard prototype to derive actionable insights for further ideation. A more refined low fidelity prototype was then used as a probe on-site to gather user feedback. The high prototype was then constructed using low-cost materials and evaluated through a series of usability tests.

Identifying the Problem Space

Since the theme for the contest was to engage communities, we brainstormed a list of community issues and prioritized them based on the importance of the issue, our interest in it and our level of access towards the community. To identify our problem space, we conducted open-ended interviews with single parents, who led us to the problem of food insecurity. We then conducted interviews with a local food bank Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard to gain insights into how they battle food insecurity. The most important insight we received was “MHC gets up to 10 pounds of food for each dollar spent, because of their charity status and direct relations with grocery stores”. We aimed to display this amplified relationship of money and food through our design.

Core Concept

Money Turning into Food

The core concept of our design was to visualize monetary donations as food donations by showing money turn into food. To test the concept, we placed a cardboard prototype in a dining area. The prototype had slots for accepting money and when users put money in the slots, we immediately poured food through the box into a bowl. Our objective was to test if people were impacted by the quantity of food donated per dollar contribution. For each user, we described the situation, asked what they think will happen, gauged their reaction to the falling food, and asked if they understood at the end.

Out of the 4 people that approached the prototype

  1. All of them recognized that it was a donation box
  2. None were entirely clear about what would happen after donation and hence were not motivated
  3. One confused by why the food had fallen


To meet the drawbacks pointed out by the conceptual testing, and to further concretize our idea we held multiple ideation sessions. We created ideas, ranging from digital to physical, simple to complex. A few significant ones were :

Physical Vending Machine

The downside of using real food was that it could require extra maintenance or work, something that likely would not be available for a charity initiative.

Food falling into a Plate

Ready to eat food falling on a plate was misleading since that’s not what is actually donated.

Filling bags

Filling bags would not be visually appealing, and you can’t see the actual food inside.

Food falling on a Scale

A visualization of food falling on a weighing scale gives a clear indication of the quantity of food falling.

Low Fidelity Prototype

To test the success of the scale, we used the original cardboard prototype and added a weighing scale inside the box. The prototype was tested on-site at Lucky’s Market, a local grocery store. We conducted the same interview procedure as for the previous prototype with 4 participants.

The on site tests of the low fidelity prototypes :

  1. Reconfirmed the success of the falling food
  2. Addition of the scale made the intent of the donation clear
  3. People thought that measuring food quantity by weight was misleading
  4. 2 of 4 participants were still unmotivated to donate when first seeing it.

Final Design

Attract Mode

To motivate users to donate, when they first see the design, we created a “attract mode” which is an idle cycle with 4 major slides. This was inspired from the attract mode of arcade games. Since people are less likely to be charitable when in an analytical mode, we emphasized emotional video clips and not the statistics in this mode.

Motivation Screen

A video of people in need gives potential donors an emotional connection to the issue. The statistic “1 in 8 Americans suffers from food insecurity” quantifies why their donation is needed. Each time this screen plays will show a different clip, with a different person in need.

Value Proposition Screen

This screen portrays the greater impact of cash donations compared to food donations. A side by side compares one dollar of food bought by an average American, and one dollar of food bought by MHC. The statistic “Through MHC $1 = 8.3 meals” quantifies the impact of donations to that specific charity.

Opportunity Screen

Footage of people preparing donated food instills confidence that donors’ money will be well spent. It is accompanied by the statistic “MHC helps an average of 3000 people every week” to give perspective to the work already done.

Feedback Screen

Once a person donates, they see a quantity of food equal to the amount they donated piling up on the scale. This will show a different type of food falling each time, to represent the variety of foods charities provide. Once completed, they get a thank you message. When it returns to the attract mode, they see their contribution of meals added to the total contributions.


We conducted an evaluation of the final prototype by giving one dollar bill and two quarters to four participants. They had the choice either to keep the money or donate it entirely or partly into the donation box. 3 out of 4 donated all the money that they had. Two subjects had a problem with the text displayed, hinting towards a reduction of the amount of text in the attract mode.

Future Developments

To build a working prototype of the Donation Box, we will require multiple functional components to be put together. The biggest next steps are including functional cash/card acceptors, a video control application running on a single-board computer, and an economic display panel with a strong casing to hold donations.