ConnectU is a mobile application designed to help international students in alleviating their struggles and bridging the cultural gap. It aims to build respect for culture through facilitating interactions between international students and other stakeholders.

Project Details

Team: Andrew Fagin, Fatima Rafiqui, Mary Burt and Tingting Hu

Duration: 3 months

Concept Video

The following video briefly describes the concept of ConnectU:

Design Space Exploration

We began this semester with the abstract theme of designing for respect. This led us to generate a list of sub-themes such as:

Narrowing Down:

We aimed to understand why these themes can go against the right to life for people; and how, so unseemingly, these incidents tend to violate some of the most basic human rights; thereby disrespecting them. My team was not only gender balanced, but also culturally diverse. We saw that as a great learning opportunity; because this was truly the beginning of the international educational experience for all of us. This led us to narrow down our choice of topic to focus on respect for cultural diversity.

The Challenge

How might we increase ethnocultural empathy and connect people from different backgrounds to understand each other better?

Defining the scope

We thought along the lines of: Should Do, Can Do, Can Know, Forms, as guided by our mentors. Each of these topics were meant to help us add more definition to our project.

Should Do:
When we thought about it, we realized that we wanted to make something that would encourage multiculturalism and ethnocultural empathy, through connecting people from different backgrounds and such a system would end up reducing discrimination faced by people on the basis of culture; thereby respecting their right to pursue their culture and encouraging diversity.

Can Do:
Learning from every team member’s shares of personal experiences, my team and we came closer to the conclusion that one of the best ways to break the hush hush around a taboo, is to talk about it. Therefore, we came up with a fourfold plan.

Can Know:

We decided to look into types of discrimination, the emotions associated with it, the scale of ethnocultural empathy (SEE) and methods to reduce such discrimination. The thought process revolved around the events that normally take place during an unfortunate incident of cultural discrimination.


We envisioned our product in different forms like board games, creative take-what-you-need event, web applications, mobile apps, immersive reality experiences and even wearables, but because it was the very initial phase of the project we did not want to be fixated to any particular form.

Primary Research

During our initial discussions, we felt that our project was driven by our share of personal experiences, and maybe we had made too many assumptions along the way. To put it clearly, cultural discrimination was something I could very strongly identify with, but what about the average American?

The Predispositions - Capturing our assumptions

This question made us go back to the drawing board and identify the boldest assumptions we had made. Only this time, we went out of the building to capture it. The idea behind this task was to connect with the project on a worldly-wise level. And once we really got to observation, it wasn’t hard to point out that we had made bold assumptions regarding people’s preferences to interact with others.

User Interviews

“My biggest challenge was cultural difference and figuring out everything on my own” “I need something that makes me feel safe when I am talking to a complete stranger” “When I first moved here, I was not able to talk with people freely”

Photoethnography Research

We collected evidence of how culture is embedded into our everyday lives to understand people’s behavior and attitudes, which further refined our Concept

Siam house is a popular ethnic restaurant in town; the food and atmosphere is enjoyed by many.

Design InspirationThe use of cultural symbols can help create a positive atmosphere, although we must be careful as symbols can have diverse meanings.

Asian fusion food is an example of multiculturalism in action.

Design Inspiration
Utilize multiculturalism as a method for creation

Posters seen in the elevator of the International Studies building are broad & varied

Design Inspiration
Expose individuals to a variety of options and topics in areas they will see often

The International Studies building displays messages in a variety of languages

Design Inspiration
Showing people their first language can help build connections and trust, it also demonstrates how aesthetics can influence behavior

Cultural music being played in Luddy Hall during lunchtime

Design Inspiration
Connect people with nearby cultural events and demonstrations, large or small

Two individuals consumed by their phones in Florence

Design Inspiration
Connect people with nearby cultural events and demonstrations, large or small

Secondary Research

It was time to hit journals, blogs and news articles to understand the intricacies of how much has been done so far. We realised that studying about ethno-cultural empathy could go a long way to encourage respect for cultural diversity.

Key learnings

Through one of the literature reviews we discovered the concept of empathy which casted insight into how we can design ‘for’ empathy. The insights found inspired us to design the product to improve ethnocultural empathy.

Inspiration: “Empathy is a door to another a world”

We learnt about diversity among kids at elementary school level which gives rise to a serious concern that is to bring about integration in an already diverse group.


Based on our research we discovered key insights that guided our design process.

Design Space

All of this is great, but who do we design for?

Now that we were getting closer to the real-world interpretation of the importance of the cultural diversity, it was time to identify the target group for our project. This was when we first recalled our personal experiences from our very first days as international students.
We reflected on the idea and a few brainstorming sessions later, we came to a consensus that our project should go towards helping students.

Concept Systems

This was the narrowing down stage where we identified our primary and secondary stakeholders and analyzed the relationships among them.

Concept Sketches

After determining our stakeholders, we engaged in divergent thinking. Rapid ideation and iteration led us to four key ideas

Public robots that can talk to people with topics about different cultures.

Virtual Reality experience that can lead users to experience a selected kind of culture.

Cultural gift exchange where people from different cultural backgrounds can exchange gifts that are specifically related to their traditions.

Onboarding toolkit which can help gather all the information that a student might need when going to a new country.

Why a mobile application?

International Students are overwhelmed by the process of moving to a new location. We wanted our platform to be cost-effective and easily accessible to them.

Initial Iteration - Behavioral Prototyping

Paper prototyping our narrowed down concept for testing.


Using our low-fidelity prototype, we conducted behavioral testing to improve upon our concept, features, and design.


“This is interesting, I don’t want to be alone when I arrive. It will be so much better and helpful” “Could partner based on language...most important thing is to find a common ground.” “Safety reasons concern me. I think this application will make me feel safe and less hesitant”

Additional Suggestions

“Including transportation information across cities would be good.”
“There could be a map of popular places”
“It could be for tourists, not even just students…”

Working Prototype


Defining meaning to abstract and open ended ideas

When we were initially given the topic respect, we had no idea which direction to take. But as we progressed we learnt to be comfortable with the diverse nature of the topic and derive our own interpretation out of it.

Conflict resolution through down the hall testing

There were many instances when my team did not agree to a particular idea but we realize that all of us were thinking for the betterment of the project, thus we did a lot of down the hall testing to know what would better work for the users.

Learning to deal with ambiguity in the next steps

One of the major challenges for us was the ambiguity in the next steps and understanding the expectations of the deliverables, but we learnt that there is no definitive process; it involves the co-evolution of the design space and the solution.