The Opportunity

People need stuff and others have items they are happy to lend (or want to get rid of). Cup o’ Sugar is a mobile app that uses principles of a “sharing economy” and is intended to create a community where people can easily trade goods and services.

The client’s initial idea centred around creating a community where members borrow and lend various items (hence the name “Cup O’ Sugar”).  They also wanted to provide members with rewards from local businesses (though it was still unclear why local businesses would have the incentive to participate, since the system itself could be disruptive to shopping).

This challenge was interesting because the app’s success depended upon creating a vibrant online community, which required us to explore how people define value (when money is not involved) and understand what motivates people to participate. Would people want to lend their belongings to strangers? Why?  Other factors also had to be considered, such as protecting privacy, the impact of trust and geographic location. 

The UX design process

In order to better understand the problem and people we were designing for, I led the client through a discovery process using Design Thinking and Lean UX principles. When possible, I incorporated the Jobs To Be Done framework. The discovery process included generative UX research techniques such as one-on-one interviewing, empathy mapping and storyboarding. Then we moved on to sketching flows and the interface.

This process helped to validate the concept and refine the design before starting time-consuming design mock-ups and costly development effort.

Generative Research

Research should start with identifying goals, asking “What are we trying to learn?”  and “What’s the best way to learn it?”. In this case, we set two main research goals:

GOAL 1: Explore what sharing economies look like.

How? Conduct a competitive review of existing and failed sharing economies.

GOAL 2: To better understand what motivates people to participate in a sharing community.

How?  One-on-one interviews (with 6 potential users, who were screened for their willingness to participate in an online sharing community).

Interview questions were designed to help the team figure out what kinds of items people would be willing to trade and what kind of pain points (“forces”) they might encounter while searching for items. Open-ended questions generated a conversation that lead to other revealing questions, such as  “What kind of good was it?” “Why did you need it”? “Did you struggle to find it?  If so, why?”

 Interview Questions (selected):

1. Have you used your phone recently to find an item you needed? Tell me more about that experience.

2. Can you think of a useful item in your house right now that you don’t use? Tell me more about it.

3.  I’m curious, why have you kept this item around?

4. Would you consider lending it to someone? Why or why not?

Research generated a major product pivot

These conversations revealed that people often wanted to be rid of things – but were wary about lending them out. This generally had to do with the effort and trust required involved with the lending process. Having to manage the items they were lending was actually a hassle: Would they ever see it again? Would it get damaged? It was clear that there were more benefits to borrowing than to lending.

This inspired a major product pivot: creating a platform for trading goods (instead of borrowing and lending) could be much more beneficial to members, because it would solve a problem they had (trade useless for useful stuff), rather than create a new one (manage borrowing of stuff they didn’t necessarily want back). Negotiating a mutually beneficial exchange also had the potential to create a trigger and reward that had the potential to be highly engaging. Pivoting to a trading platform would also benefit the business, because it would require fewer features, making it less complex and costly to build. Everybody wins!

Above: Design recommendation which summarized the benefits of trading.

Empathy Mapping 

Leading the client through an empathy mapping exercise helped them better understand who we’re designing for. Empathy mapping involves exploring what users might be thinking, feeling, doing and saying and can identify any pain points and motivations.

This helped us to shift focus from the end solution to identifying and refining the problems we were trying to solve for the user.  This exercise, combined with the qualitative data collected from the interviews, created a source of user-centred inspiration for the interface design.


Storyboarding helped generate ideas and illustrate scenarios that could be evaluated before moving into time-consuming design mockups. 

Above: A detail from a storyboard

Generating ideas using design thinking tools:

“Job Stories” (from the Jobs to Be Done framework) helped us to focus on a person’s needs, including the context, motivating forces and desired outcome. For example: “When I’m on the hunt for a (medium, grey, men’s) parka, I’m impatient about sifting through a lot of results, so I want to be able to find what I’m looking for quickly.”

“How Might We…” statements  (from the Design Thinking framework) helped us translate insights uncovered through research (e.g. issues relating to privacy, trust, browsing, location) into design solutions.  A How Might We exercise  is useful for generating many ideas. How Might We  helped reveal solutions and needs that are outside the scope of an interface. For example, how might we address safety concerns about meeting and trading with strangers?

How Might We… make it easier for members to find and trade stuff?

Above: The “wish list” feature helps members tell others what they’re looking for and can make trading easier.

Sketching the Design

Sketching was a much quicker way to convey flows and interface solutions, especially given the limited resources available.  

Above: Sketching the browsing flow helps identify interface components and features (like the need for a search tool or view by location).
Above: Sketches of the interface help to visualize features and functionality while provide a source for lo-fi prototyping.

Ready for the next steps…

This design thinking process was valuable because the user research and collaborative design workshops generated important insights. It ensured that the stakeholders were on board as the design evolved, while making the product team ready to move confidently into lo-fi prototyping, interface mockups and coding. This lean approach also gave the client a set of artifacts to consider while they assessed their business and funding model. They’re still thinking about it, but I’m happy to have introduced them to the human-centred design process and grateful for the opportunity to flex some design thinking muscles.