Community connect hero image

20 months

All in one local emergency app

Empowering Community Resilience through information exchange and collaboration for effective two-way communication during disasters.

Service Design
Product Design
Experience Design
UX Research
UX Strategy
Mobile App
Masters Thesis


Project Context
Two-year-long design research Master's thesis conducted at Emily Carr University of Art + Design, Vancouver, BC.
Tools Used
Figma, FigJam, Miro, Adobe Creative Suite, Asana, ResearchRabbit, Litmaps, Connected Papers, SurveyMonkey, Google G Suite, Microsoft Office, Zotero, Otter, Obsidian, Zoom
Research Methods
Literature Review, Autoethnography, Surveys, Interviews, Situational Workshops, Affinity Mapping, Competitive Analysis, Heuristic Evaluation, Research through and for design, Usability Testing

Problem Statement

Communication plays a crucial part in people’s survival during disasters. Currently, one-way mass notification systems in British Columbia (BC) mostly take place in the form of general alerts or warnings. However, communities are seeking more effective, two-way communications that would not only alert them but also engage them in the disaster response process, thereby enhancing their survival chances during catastrophic events.

Research Questions (HMW)

How might we design a two-way communication system for communities in disaster zones of BC during mass emergencies like fire, flood, and landslides?
How might we leverage everyday communication systems that support communities during mass emergencies?
How might we include communication strategies specific to building Community resilience?

Design Process

I followed a Human-Centred Systems Thinking approach to identify opportunities in the mass emergency communication system to help increase the chances of people's safety during natural disasters in British Columbia.

I began by understanding the problem, conducting thorough research, and gathering information. Then, I generated ideas, created prototypes, and tested them. Through an iterative and cyclical process, I aimed to meet user needs, comprehend multi-stakeholder involvement, ensure functionality, and ultimately deliver successful outcomes.

Design Process

Research Methodology

I aimed to highlight the significance of examining the interdependencies and interconnections among systems, stakeholders, and contexts to address social challenges and promote resilient futures in the face of disasters. This mixed approach surpasses traditional design practices that create isolated solutions and emphasizes understanding the complex dynamics within community systems.

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User Research

User Research focused on experts and the general population affected by disasters. This research was approved by the Emily Carr University of Art + Design Research Ethics Board (ECU-REB).

  • Surveys: To understand how communities in British Columbia receive disaster alerts, their perception of emergency communication systems, how they seek help during emergencies, and whether they volunteer.
  • Interviews: To analyze the general population’s experiences and actions taken in disasters to understand human behaviour; and the reasons behind using specific modes of communication. Through the expert interviews, I wanted to understand the government, volunteering organizations, academicians, and practitioners’ perspectives.
  • Situational Workshops: To facilitate interactive sessions and group activities that allowed participants to actively engage in problem-solving and decision-making exercises pertaining to specific disaster situations or scenarios.
  • Autoethnography: To understand the government and volunteer perspective at a deeper level by participating in volunteering training for the Emergency Support Service at the City of Vancouver.

Data Analysis

I used the Survey Patterns and Affinity Mapping method to analyze the raw data. I prioritized working on the themes based on repetition and relevance to the project topic, duration, and resources. There were seven major themes and more than 30 sub-themes generated from the affinity mapping.

Research Insight

Following are a few key insights that have been carefully selected to align with the project's scope.

Information overload during disasters

People tend to overlook non-personalized, excessive information in a disaster situation. Instead, they prefer local, relevant data that help make decisions and take action.

Unorganized Community Collaboration

Experts observed that the help provided by the general population is unorganized, leading to miscommunications, and people may end up missing the opportunity to give or receive help.

Individuals used everyday communication mediums

People use platforms like Facebook and Twitter to access localized information and to communicate with authorities and those in and around disaster zones. Their existing knowledge of these tools makes them easy to use in emergencies.

Depend on surrounding communities

During disasters, it is the communities living in the affected and nearby areas that are the most important people - as, they are the first to step up and take action in a timely manner.

Paradigm Shift : “survivors” rather than as “victims”

A study by the Canadian Red Cross Disaster Management highlights the need to change the paradigm of viewing the general population as “survivors” who can actively contribute to disaster recovery rather than as “victims” of disasters.

Disseminated emergency preparedness plans

People faced difficulties investing time in finding and understanding the scattered emergency preparedness plans.

User Persona

Community Members in disaster zones are my primary users. Personas were created to understand diverse scenarios, needs, challenges and human behaviour during a mass emergency.

Design Principles

Design principles are fundamental guidelines for making design decisions. 

I created these principles to provide a framework for designers working towards disaster communication systems which can be used to optimize user experience, functionality, impact, inclusivity, and overall effectiveness of a product and its system. 

  • Localized Information: Establishing a reliable and standardized source for Information distribution
  • Community Collaboration: Collaboration among diverse community members before, during, and after natural disasters.
  • Everyday Communications: Use everyday communication mediums like social media to ensure widespread access to disaster information and assistance.
  • Government and Community: Government recognition for valuing the role of community members in disaster preparedness and response actions.
  • Easy access to Preparedness plans: Quick and easy access to preparedness plans by the government based on the needs of the community.

Note: This is not an exhaustive list; as the research gets expansive, more can be added with the help of the community of practice; these are not hard and fast rules, and there are times when a designer might choose to intentionally break one of these principles to achieve a particular effect or response.


I used the research-through-design approach and conducted multiple design sprints for idea generation. This method uses design to explore a research topic, characterized by iterative, exploratory, and constructive elements to deepen understanding of the subject.

Initially, this method was used to evaluate the effectiveness of communication strategies during emergencies. Upon identifying the best design solution (a scalable and reliable one), I shifted to conceptualizing it. I then finalized the design direction using an ideation selection matrix table based on design principles.

Ideation Selection Matrix Analysis

Analysis of the ideas shows that the universal information platform idea met all design principles criteria. Other ideas point towards system-level communication strategies, preparedness plans, interactive maps, and community-building plans. Even though community-building for pre-disaster situations is an important direction, the explorations revealed it would require more time and re-alignment of research. Therefore, it was decided to pursue this as a future step.

Design Direction

Based on the analysis, it was finalized to focus on the ‘universal information platform’ idea as it utilizes social media to bridge two-way communication gaps within communities. It also allows the expansion of the platform for government and community collaboration. In addition, this idea could be further refined to incorporate the compelling features of other ideas. Hence the target audience of this design outcome narrowed down to British Columbia communities with access to the internet to reach a wider user base–before, during, and after natural disasters.

Competitive Analysis and Heuristic Evaluation

Based on the design direction, I conducted a competitive analysis that studied disaster alert, emergency preparedness, and community-building platforms alongside social media and mobile offline apps, focusing on their functionality, user experience, and interface. For inaccessible applications, I analyzed their websites and reviews. The evaluation was guided by user personas, design principles and Nielsen-Molich Heuristics Evaluation to systematically determine a product’s usability. I assessed the existing platforms to identify strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities. Despite most apps performing their intended function, none completely adhered to all design principles, indicating potential for innovative design improvements.

Design Solution

Introducing Community Connect App

Community Connect is a government-based information-sharing platform that facilitates community collaboration and two-way communication, integrating seamlessly with Canada’s AlertReady system. The platform can be accessed via its dedicated app or through the official website. It is designed to aid communities in disaster zones of British Columbia.

The name Community Connect suggests that this platform is meant to connect and unite different community members, such as people inside the disaster zone, people outside the disaster zone, public volunteers and government officials. This app is led by both community members and government authorities. It fosters collaboration, promotes open dialogue, and creates a more equitable, sustainable, and resilient community.

I took the approach of combining bottom-up and top-down systems. This hybrid process aims to bridge the gap between citizens and government, ensuring that diverse needs and perspectives are considered in decision-making processes and leading to more effective and inclusive outcomes.

Information Architecture

The information architecture was developed through an iterative process involving continuous engagement with user groups to ensure a user-friendly flow within the app. Multiple feedback sessions were conducted to accurately label the features in a clear and understandable manner, addressing any potential confusion and improving the overall user experience. The iterative approach and user feedback played a vital role in shaping the information architecture and refining the app's usability.

Product Strategy

A product strategy is a comprehensive plan that outlines the goals, objectives, and approach for developing, marketing, and delivering a product or service. It helps align the product with the target audience's needs, guides decision-making throughout the product lifecycle, and sets a direction for achieving business objectives.

A well-defined product strategy is crucial because it provides a roadmap for the development team, helps differentiate the product from competitors, maximizes the product's market potential, and ensures that resources are effectively utilized to create a successful product.

The product strategies for Community Connect platform are as follows:

  1. Designing the app to be simple, compatible, and dependable, with government and public participation to make the community feel important and involved in disaster preparedness and response, which will, in turn, be influencing factors for users' decision to download and use the app as it aligns with user expectations and goals.
  2. Promotion of the app through various channels like AlertReady, social media, television, radio, online pages, and letters to reach a large population;
  3. Incorporation of reliable and timely sources of information to reduce the chances of missing important updates;
  4. Drawing inspiration from research and resources on disaster app usability, the role of social media in crisis management, government social media protocols, and the importance of verifying social media posts during disasters;
  5. Designing the user interface to resemble popular social media platforms to achieve the familiarity effect, making it more accessible and comfortable;
  6. Integration of different social media platforms through APIs and hashtags to consolidate disaster-related information;
  7. Utilizing existing infrastructure and government databases for seamless implementation and retrieval of disaster data;
  8. Extending app engagement and participation during peacetime through community center connections recognized by the government.

User Interface Style Guide

Final Design

Use Cases

Community Members

User Case 1: John, a 35-year-old, shares a home with his aging parents, nearing their 80s. Upon receiving an urgent alert about an active fire evacuation order, he becomes deeply concerned and urgently seeks help transporting his parents to the closest safety shelter, as he does not own a vehicle. In a panic, he calls his neighbours for assistance, but unfortunately, the neighbour is unavailable. Left with no choice, John turns to the Community Connect App for support. To his good fortune, he discovers a volunteer named Raul, actively helping others evacuate in his van. After a brief conversation and phone call, John is relieved to learn that help is en route. Raul arrives with his van in no time, and they all set off for the safety shelter. As they arrive at the shelter, John expresses his heartfelt appreciation to Raul for his assistance and commends his dedication to the community.

Use Case 1

User Case 2: Mao, a man in his late 20s, was driving home from a camping trip when he encountered a blocked route due to a landslide. Officials estimated that it would take two days for the road to reopen. Concerned, Mao initially tried to find accommodation at nearby hotels but discovered that they were fully booked because other travelers were facing the same predicament. Growing increasingly worried, Mao turned to the Community Connect app for assistance. Although he could not find any volunteers on the map page, he searched using the hashtags #help, #stay, and #Coquitlam. Soon, he came across a tweet from Shawn, who offered temporary shelter at his home for those affected by the landslide. Mao quickly reached out to Shawn on Twitter and explained his situation. Shawn kindly provided directions to his house, and Mao felt relieved knowing he would not have to spend two days in his car waiting for the road to clear.

Use Case 2

User Case 3: Roya, 23 years old found herself alone in her apartment, now surrounded by floodwaters. As days passed, she became increasingly anxious when she realized her food and clean water supplies were nearly depleted. With all nearby stores closed, she was unable to replenish her stock. Then, she recalled that the local community center had assisted people in similar situations. Without hesitation, Roya contacted the center’s members and requested help. The community center staff were courteous and supportive as they distributed food and water to those in need. Through the efforts of an official government volunteer, the community center was able to send Roya the supplies she desperately required. Grateful for their assistance, Roya was glad that she had already established a connection with the community center’s members.

Use Case 3

User Case 4: Isabella Rodriguez, a 47-year-old bank manager, had just returned home after a long day at work. As she settled in, and she browsed the Community Connect app for local updates. While browsing, she stumbled upon a post claiming that Victoria Street was closed due to a tree blocking the road. However, Isabella had just driven along that exact route without any issues. Concerned about the spread of misinformation, Isabella took immediate action and reported the post. By doing so, she helped prevent others from being misled by inaccurate information.

Use Case 4


The following flow shows how government verifies the information using the community connect app. There are large amounts of concerns when it comes to misinformation and disinformation in an emergency. With this app, I am trying to find a balance between user-generated information and government control of information by offering a space in Community Connect to work together rather than either of them overpowering the other.

Government flow with Community Connect app

User Testing

Wireframes for feedback

An emergency app development presents various challenges, such as maintaining clear written communication and ensuring every feature works as intended. To avoid misinterpretations, I made sure that each UX design decision went through multiple feedback sessions before moving from basic wireframes to more comprehensive prototypes. This process helped me ensure that every step of the design process was thoroughly examined.

The experts reviewed the designs and provided valuable insight into potential obstacles, including inclusivity, user security and the information verification process. Overall, they expressed satisfaction with the user experience of the final design outcome. This validation step was crucial in creating a concrete foundation for my final design, ensuring that design changes were in line with user needs from the start; I was able to create a more efficient and user-friendly solution.

From wireframes to high-fidelity

Future Steps

  • Community Building in Non-Disaster Circumstances: Conducting further research is required to foster strong relationships among community members in non-emergency situations to enable effective collaboration during disasters.
  • Enhanced Verification Process: Developing a robust system for verifying information and users on the platform is required to ensure its credibility and reliability.
  • Human behaviour and psychology: It is important to assess the impact of consolidated emergency information on users' mental well-being and implement features that support individuals.
  • Participatory User Testing: Conducting participatory user testing simulations involving community members, government officials, and volunteers to test the app in hypothetical disaster situations. This will allow stakeholders to identify areas for improvement and optimize the platform for a real-world emergency scenario.
  • Expansion Across Canada: Further research can expand this app's capacity to assist in various emergency situations across Canada.


A single product or service alone cannot solve all communication and community-level disaster issues. A comprehensive, interconnected system is necessary to address these problems effectively. A collaboration between the community of practice is needed to work on the systemic structure. Community Connect is a part of this larger system.

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