Solving homelessness with dependable phone services

The City of Austin’s iTeam had received a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies to tackle a city-wide problem and needed to generate big ideas. They organized a public event with the local Service Design Meetup to crowdsource ideas from the community. I volunteered my weekend and joined ~30 other designers, thinkers, and creatives in the Austin community to tackle problems people who are experiencing homelessness (PEH) face. Below is our team's process and outcomes.

Timeline: 72 hours in June 2018
Role: Volunteer user experience designer & creative problem solver
Team: Myself (IBM Design), Jami Peets (User researcher at Charles Schwab), Jean-Marie Sloat (Service Designer), Kat Zhou (IBM Design), Tom (Austin’s Homeless Advisory Board)


94% of PEH will own a phone, many through free government programs. However, within 3 months of owning, 56% of phone owners will need a new phone because it was either stolen, lost or broken. And of those, 55% will receive an entirely new phone number with their replacement.

When digital devices are lost, broken, or stolen, critical communications are disrupted, adding a mental and emotional burden.


A service that removes the critical communication gap for PEH in a way that breaks the cycle of having a phone, replacing, and re-distributing a new number each time.

With technology such as Google Voice, PEH will never have to get a new phone number and never miss an important call, text, or voicemail from their social worker, potential employer or support system.

The solution also includes an increase in the number of avenues to make and receive calls, texts, and voicemails eliminating the requirement to own a personal device.


  • City of Austin implemented a test run of this service.
  • Excited the committee with a tangible and practical long-term solution.
  • Received positive, heart-eyed emoji feedback from PEH in Austin.


  • Interviewed and collaborated with 7 PEH.
  • Built a prototype of the service using paper, markers and tape.
  • Presented the end-to-end experience to PEH in Austin.
“At first looking at a phone storage solution, Abby and her team listened to the reality of the homeless experience and realized that conversation continuity was the most critical factor. She and her team developed a super amazing, practical solution using Google Voice and digital inclusion work to help people receive information about appointments even if their phones are lost or stolen. It was amazing and humbling to watch her service design skills play out to support the most vulnerable in our society.”
Kerry OConnor; Chief Innovation Officer for the City of Austin, TX


Come Saturday morning, we dove into research - both generative and human-centered. Tom, PEH, joined us to keep ourselves honest and answered all of our eager questions around what it was like for him to obtain, lose/break, and replace a phone.

Standing at a whiteboard with a marker in hand, I quickly wrote down everything we were hearing about Tom’s challenges, stories, early ideas, and pain points. Thinking fast, we also talked with other PEH that morning - Judi, Bill, and Leslie - getting us closer to the root of the pain. Soon we had a whiteboard with moments of truths, needs, challenges and a prosperous concept garden synthesized.

To compliment our growing understanding, we took the next step to capture the as-is experience from beginning to end roping in PEH throughout to provide feedback and fill in missing details.

Journey of phone ownership when homeless

1. Learn about phone service through caseworkers, at shelters, or by word of mouth.
2. Obtain a phone after having to find a permanent, reliable, and acceptable address for it to be delivered to.
3. Set up by yourself and earn the technology through trial and error.
4. Maintain phone through creative avenues to keep battery charged, keeping the phone safe, and dealing with technical issues.
5. Lose/break/have phone stolen causing important calls from doctors, support systems, jobs, and caseworkers to be missed.
6. Lack of autonomy and control sets in, wellbeing goes down, and miscommunications happen.
7. Time passes (best case: 2- 7 days | worst case: 30 days - months)
8. Go back to Obtain phase & repeat
9. People experience diminishing hope in the system every time they have to return to Obtain phase.
10. Eventually, more time passes and people give up on owning a phone.

Pain points

“It’s not worth it to replace it right now.”

The more times a phone and phone number have to be replaced, the more tired people become - finding it difficult to keep up with missed, very important and potentially life-changing calls.

“It is really hard to be on the streets alone. Being able to call my family means so much to me.”

The feeling of loneliness creeps in when PEH cannot contact loved ones or support systems.

“I worry I won’t be able to call for help if I run into a problem, and you know, I’m older.”

Without a phone, PEH feel that they do not have a safety net in emergencies.


I need to keep the same phone number so that a potential employer can call me back.

I need to be able to talk to friends and family that I depend on for emotional support.

I need a consistent phone number so that I can keep in contact with my case manager and receive a call back for housing.

I always need a phone so that I can call 911 if I feel unsafe, in danger, or am unwell.

We began to notice a theme and with some critical thinking, we realized that the user problem didn’t lay in replacing a phone; it is in the critical communications that are disrupted when having to get a new phone number.

Prototype & feedback

As some team members refined the presentation deck, myself and another designer dove into building out the to-be story with paper, tape, markers, scissors - anything at our disposal that could create an interactive prototype.

To test out the ease of use and efficiency of Google Voice, we set Judi up with a phone number and taught her how she can use any digital device to check voicemails, send or receive texts, and make phone calls.

On Sunday, we told our story to Austin’s Homelessness Advisory Committee with a makeshift storefront made out of cardboard and a mock phone booth equipped with a paper prototype that demonstrated the digital experience of using a Google Voice account.