How might the advent of satellite internet and smartphones augment disaster relief efforts?


Sunbeam connects victims of a recent natural disaster to well-wishers around the world.

1. The problem space

Many disaster victims find themselves strapped for cash in their time of need.

Here are some quotes from people we interviewed.

After disaster struck, what we really needed in that moment was money for our basic needs.

earthquake victim (Nepal)

For someone who lives month-to-month, it was really hard to find the extra money we needed.

flood victim (India)

Steady cash flow after a disaster is critical for recovery. Cash is important but often hard to get.

Disaster expert (U.S.)

During our research, we noticed an absence of platforms that provide micro-donations to marginalized families during times of regional crisis.

Kiva is a microloan provider for small businesses in poor communities.

Razoo is a fundraising platform for social justice-oriented projects.

GiveDirectly is a funding platform to help people living in chronic poverty.

2. Our concept

Sunbeam is a peer-to-peer platform for philanthropy. It includes a responsive website as well as an app.

Our product has two key users. Beneficiaries are the victims of a recent natural disaster. They use Sunbeam to seek monetary assistance to meet urgent needs. Donors are the well-wishers who want to help others out of a tight spot during a crisis.

Setting the stage

In the near future, most people will have access to smartphones and satellite internet.

In India, a railway porter who earns $8 a day can buy a low-end smartphone (src). And Quika is bringing free satellite internet to Afghanistan, Iraq and most of Africa in the second half of 2018 (src).

By 2020, there will be an estimated 6.1 billion smartphone users on Earth.

SpaceX, Google, and Facebook are investing in a future that includes global satellite internet.

3. How it works

Sunbeam has a mobile-first website with an interface accessible to novice smartphone users.

Sunbeam's landing page on desktop and mobile.


After a disaster, beneficiaries can create profiles and request donations to meet specific needs.


Potential donors from all over the world can browse these requests.


Donors can filter requests by amount, type, and region. They can also contact beneficiaries to establish a personal connetion.

The following animations show examples of tasks that may be performed on the Sunbeam website.

The topbar and navbar have been hidden for demonstrative purposes.

creating a profile

This animation shows a beneficiary creating a profile on Sunbeam.

Making requests

This animation shows a beneficiary specifying requests based on his/her needs.

browsing requests

This animation shows a donor browsing requests and choosing one to inspect in greater detail.

Website vs. Mobile App

Apps require downloading & onboarding. Websites (usually) don't.

To start, we decided to go with a mobile-first website because a majority of our users would be on flimsy internet networks in disaster-struck regions; they may not have the ability to locate and download a mobile app. Surfing the web seemed more straightforward. We decided to add a mobile app to make the service more attractive to beneficiaries.

4. Adding a Mobile App

Once Sunbeam's design was in place, we decided to add a donor-facing mobile app.

Based on our user testing, we found that beneficiaries are not likely to access Sunbeam via an app. However, many donors expressed the desire to be able to use Sunbeam without a browser. So, we decided to design a mobile app to extend the reach of Sunbeam.

Going old-school

The Sunbeam website intentionally carries an old-fashioned design. This is because it is intended to resemble other interfaces that beneficiaries in developing countries are likely to be familiar with.

Unlikely the website, Sunbeam's mobile app is designed primarily for tech-savvy donors. Here are some screens from the app:


The Sunbeam app resembles modern mobile apps that use gradients, textures, and flat design principles.


The app includes all donor-facing functionalities found on the website, including the ability to filter profiles based on different parameters, as shown here.


The Sunbeam app uses a minimalist aesthetic to reduce cognitive load.


Sunbeam's app also includes rich animations to delight users and motivate them to fulfill requests smoothly and quickly.

5. User Feedback

We validated our concept with potential users, both donors and beneficiaries. Here are examples of the feedback we received and how we responded to it.


Many of Sunbeam's users likely won't speak English.


The Sunbeam website's homepage includes above-the-fold language translation options. The list of languages is informed by the locations of recent natural disasters.


Will conventionally attractive beneficiaries be favored unfairly over others?


Sunbeam's profile pictures are sober avatars created using photographs/selfies taken by users. We suspect that the avatars will reduce discrimination while continuing to attract donors' sympathy.


Will Sunbeam's beneficiaries need to be familiar with mobile and web in order to use Sunbeam?


The Sunbeam website is designed for first-time users of the web. Beneficiary-facing instructions are explicit and jargon-free.


How would donors verify the authenticity of a beneficiary's need?


Sunbeam's beneficiaries will be asked to submit photos and videos to document their situation. Sunbeam profiles will also be connected to social media, such as Facebook, which donors can browse to verify a beneficiary's identity.

6. Our Process

Early on, we created storyboards and speed dated them with potential users.

By creating storyboards, we were able to dig into the human side of the interactions, which helped us think more deeply about what our product would need to provide.

With preliminary user feedback in hand, we created user flows for both donors and beneficiaries.

Then, we sketched a number of Sunbeam's screens in low-fidelity.

After another round of feedback, I created high-fidelity screens using the Sketch app. This allowed the team to begin testing in high-fidelity.

Over two more rounds of user testing, I created interactive prototypes using Principle so that the team could begin to perfect various microinteractions within the app.

If we had more time...

Avatar testing

We want to test the effectiveness of the avatars compared to pictures. We also want to try out different types of renders for the avatars.

Explore audio-based language translation

We want to experiment with optimizing the localization capabilities.

Deploy in real scenarios

Identify developing areas of the world where this could be deployed and tested with real people.

As prototyping lead for the project, I created the medium and high fidelity assets that we tested with prospective users. The Sunbeam team also included Y. Liu and N. Singhal.