Alone Together

Building a sense of belonging in international students

Improving exploration & analysis of the source of U.S. legislative information



Class project

My role

Interaction Designer, User Researcher


3 Product Designers


10 weeks


A study found that two-thirds of international students regularly experience loneliness because of how far away from home they are. As of 2018, there were nearly 1 million international students in the US alone! This could lead to psychological distress, dropping out, or poor academic performance.

All 3 of us are international students who had faced loneliness after coming to the US and were motivated to find solutions to this widespread yet serially ignored problem.

How might we help promote a sense of belonging & connectedness in international students?

My role

I was involved in every part of this project & took on a variety of roles from interaction designer to user researcher, from visual designer to project manager! Because there were only 3 of us on this project, it was imperative that everybody took on many roles.

The Solution

Alone Together is an app-based platform that connects international students with each other to build on the idea that they may have been in similar situations and can offer counsel to each other - thereby fostering a feeling of being a home away from home & having an outlet to express themselves.

Curious about design decisions? Jump to hi-fidelity screens. ⟶


Key features:

Dual Profiles

A Regular User seeks help and a Volunteer offers help. A user can be both to allow for sharing experiences with those in similar situations.

Language Support

Users are able to talk to those who know the same language or are from the same country so that they can express themselves in the best way.

Abuse Prevention

To prevent abuse and preserve user safety, all users are anonymous and non-identifiable by the use of usernames and avatar profile pictures. There are additional safeguards available in-chat too.


01 What is loneliness and how is it dealt with?

To understand the problems of international students, interviews and design probes were used because interviews allowed us to explore how the meaning and implication of loneliness differs for everyone whereas the probes would provide in-situ data about how they dealt with it in the moment.

🕵🏼‍♀️ User Interviews

Explore what loneliness means to different people. Understand their context and reasons.

📝 Diary Study

Questions like what did you do today, who did you spend it with, what made you feel socially connected, etc.?

🍭 Candy prompt (probe)

Users asked to eat a piece of candy whenever they felt low/lonely that served as a reminder to write about the context & how they coped.

Some key insights from the research:

  • Cultural Differences
    • Difficulty connecting with people
    • Making new friends was difficult in the beginning
  • Lack of self-expression 
    • No one to talk to about my daily ups and downs in my own language
    • Being alone in a closed space triggers self-introspection
  • Being overly conscious
    • Excessively worrying about how my behaviour affects others
    • Overthinking how others perceive me and my culture

Two personas were created to take a deeper look into their context and backgrounds set against the problems they face. Since the design challenge is such an abstract one, personas would allow us to continuously validate and get answers to questions we have later on in the design process.

Primary Persona

Primary persona

Secondary Persona

Secondary persona

02 Brainstorming ideas

From the research above, we defined 3 broad design requirements to keep in mind for potential solutions.


Students need an outlet where they could speak their minds comfortably in their language with someone who understands their varying contexts, backgrounds and cultural dilemmas.

We made sure to lay emphasis on the idea that there was an actual human on the other side ready to listen and respond and not something automated: something pointed to by our user research.


Initial sketches

After going through several ideas, we finally came up with Alone Together:

A mobile app that connects lonely people with those who are willing to listen and offer help. We chose this idea because it provided a platform to connect those who needed help with those who wanted to help i.e. a real human connection

03 Designing the solution

While thinking about how regular users & volunteers would interact, we decided to let a single user have two profiles. This was because their contexts of use would be different and data from our users indicated that helping others and the accompanying feeling of productivity significantly improved the way they felt.


04 Testing it out

To get a sense of how this application would be received and used, we tested the lo-fi's with 4 international students.

⚠️ Pilot Study

A pilot quickly allowed us to understand that having 2 interacting participants in a test (one as a regular user and one as a volunteer) was not effective because they interfered with each other’s think-aloud process. It was then decided that the two user profiles would be tested independently where the facilitator of the session would act as a counterpart when necessary.

While there were several takeaways, here are a few of the key ones I worked on:



In-depth onboarding

“I don't want to sign up without knowing what the app does.”

Add splash screens to briefly introduce the app for new users, using figures to make it more attractive and interesting



Finding a suitable volunteer

“I want to know more about the volunteer before talking to them.”

Allowing users to give feedback (ratings, text, etc.) after chatting. Provide more information about the volunteer to help make an informed choice and provide recommendations about who to talk to.



Handling abuse

“I am concerned that money rewards may attract the wrong people who do not want to help but just want to earn money.”

Allowing users to give feedback (ratings, text, etc.) after chatting. Provide more information about the volunteer to help make an informed choice and provide recommendations about who to talk to.

05 Final designs

A barebones design system was made to establish the visual direction of our final designs and to ensure consistency across screens.

Cool colours were deliberately chosen to promote a sense of calm, trust & security.


Help or be helped


For Regular Users

Find volunteers best suited for you


Browse to find the best match


Ensuring users can fully express themselves


Creating a safe space for everyone in the community


For Volunteers

Ensuring volunteers are well-equipped with tools to best help others


Volunteer Training ( People vector created by —

06 Future work

There were many more features we came up with but decided to leave to future work.

  • Adding a calling feature for a situation when typing isn't convenient
  • Crowdsourced blogs/tips for the training module of the volunteers to better prepare them
  • Anonymous & non-anonymous profiles options to build trust
  • Filter for “old friends” to find people who users have chatted with before to increase familiarity

Reflection & conclusion

My biggest learning from this project was creating a product from start to finish: from conducting user research to defining design requirements and developing prototypes and testing them with actual users to know why things don’t work the way we think they will. 

I learnt the importance of capturing in-situ data and understood how different the insights from it can be from retrospective interviews. It's all about using the right method for a problem!

If I could do it all over again...

  1. Online diary: Using an online diary with automated reminders may have been a better approach. There were a few times when we forgot to remind our participants to fill in the physical one which may have affected the data we collected.
  2. Using an alternate to candy prompt: Instead of placing the entire burden on participants to remember to write about a bad experience, send something like text messages asking them if they’d faced anything in the last couple of hours and to make a note of it.
  3. Focus on students: The solution isn't hyperfocused on solving the loneliness needs of students. Rather it can be used by any person. Creating a solution specifically for international students may make the design more feasible & capture a larger need in the market.

Get in touch!

If you have a project in mind or want to learn more about design at Deloitte/Coinbase or the HCI Master's program @ UMD, feel free to get in touch!

lets talk! 🥑