What is Skills-Based Volunteering at Ample Labs? — UX Research Team Feature

Volunteers make up 80% of Ample Labs’ staff, and play a major role in supporting our mission and helping us better understand individuals facing hidden homelessness. To show our appreciation for our volunteers, we interviewed our UX Research team on their work and the impact they aim to make.

Geordie Graham, the head of our UX Research team has mentored many of our past and current volunteers, enabling them to find jobs in the UX research field out of their experiences with us.

“ I’m in awe at the depth, complexity and quality of the work from Geordie and the team he leads. Understanding our end-users is the heart of how we do product development at Ample Labs. I am so proud of the work our UX Research team has been able to produce.”

— CG Chen, CEO at Ample Labs

A snapshot of UX Research projects in the Ample Labs Research Repository

Q&A

Why did you join the Ample Labs UX research team?

Mardi Daley:

“As a youth facilitator with a background in academic research, I never thought of combining tech with my sector. The concept caught my attention when I heard Simon from Ample Labs speak at a Twitter for Good event. I could see the potential in Ample Labs’ mission. There’s a need for different approaches with accessing resources, especially for young people facing homelessness. Before Ample Labs, I actually didn’t know what UX Research was. UX Research is exciting to me because the users we are looking at are often people who are forgotten.”

Geordie Graham:

“I’ve been involved with Ample Labs since the beginning when it was still our founder CG’s thesis project at OCADU. During my Master’s in Inclusive Design, I realized that I like talking to people and understanding their experiences. Since being involved with Ample Labs I’ve been able to expand my design and strategic thinking as a User Experience Researcher, Director of Research and most recently the Chief Experience Officer. I’ve been following CG’s journey since the beginning and am excited to support her endeavors.”

Jaitra Sathyandran:

“My experience is in working frontline with refugees and migrants communities which put me face-to-face with problems in the system. Lots of people in vulnerable situations aren’t able to access services. When my good friend Samira started volunteering for the Ample Labs team, I started learning more about hidden homelessness. For me, Ample Labs is the perfect cross between UX Research, social justice, and social determinants of health.”

Samira Matan:

“I actually didn’t start out with the goal of getting into tech. My research background was always in social impact, ethnographic research, and how different people experience structural systems in society, whether it was children, older adults, refugee claimants, or other folks in marginalized communities. I found Ample Labs through a slack community CG posted in, and spoke to Geordie, who at the time was the head of the UX Research team. He has been a great mentor and supporter of bringing diverse perspectives and people into the research team.”

How has your understanding of homelessness evolved through Ample Labs?

An analysis page in the Research Repository showing commonly tagged patterns in individuals at risk of homelessness

Mardi Daley:

“It’s interesting to see the changing face of homelessness and how even people who are middle class may fall into it. To me it’s a reflection on the system we have; that even people who make salaries can struggle with hidden homelessness. To see it in data, it feels more unfair. I work with youth that have lived experiences, and I myself have faced homelessness growing up. It’s profound seeing how it can affect anyone.”

Geordie Graham:

“I learned a lot through our research project that started during the lockdown. As people started having conversations around the growing tent cities, we were doing a lot of interviews with people at risk of homelessness. When COVID-19 happened, concerns about safety led to people going into tent cities over shelters, which most people don’t understand. I have people in my life who don’t get it, and having the context to inform and educate others is crucial.”

Jaitra Sathyandran:

“There is an entire spectrum of homelessness which could be people couchsurfing or in between jobs. Homeless people aren’t just living on the streets. Through my experience at the frontline, many of the people I worked with were experiencing precarious housing, from living in the shelter system, to managing how to pay rent, while navigating precarious employment and other things like immigration status. These things can have influence, especially since I feel homelessness can be on a spectrum. Working with Ample Labs has definitely opened up my understanding of what some of the problem of homelessness encompasses. There’s no easy way or “one-size fits all” to describe homelessness, since it is different for everyone.”

Samira Matan:

“The current research project on hidden homeless personas is particularly interesting because I find myself reflecting on conversations with people who were hidden homeless without me knowing at the time. Increasing my awareness of terminology has helped me understand there are different categories of homelessness than what is portrayed in the media. I would definitely say one of my biggest learnings is the complexity of homelessness. There are a lot of systems at play that keeps people homeless and perpetuates homelessness across Canada.”

What has your experience working with the UX Research team been?

UX research workshop conducted with youth at risk of homelessness

Mardi Daley:

“Seeing different models of homelessness has been really interesting. This work is so far removed from my day job even though I’m in the same sector. It’s close to my heart, the work that Ample Labs is doing and how we can make services more accessible.

Geordie has been a wonderful mentor to me, he is very kind and gives us opportunities that will help us now and later in life. I really appreciate the leadership from him and CG.”

Geordie Graham:

“When most people think of volunteering, we think of physical tasks like moving boxes or organizing things rather than occupational skills. Ample Labs is all about skill-based volunteering or volunteering based on professional skills you want to develop. Volunteers are working and building their skills to integrate with user research practices. It’s valuable to be in an environment where we put the person first, striving to serve folks with lived experiences by empowering them to make decisions about improving Chalmers.”

Jaitra Sathyandran:

“We’ll be sharing the work I’ve been doing with the Caremongering groups in Toronto soon, which I think will be really interesting. These past three months have been a great learning experience in terms of UX Research with the rest of the team. I know there will be lots more to come, and I look forward to it.”

Samira Matan:

“For a volunteer-led group, the work we do is quite ambitious. This speaks to the dedication of the team. People have jobs and other things going on, but the team is dedicated to learning more and engaging in research projects that help people. The current team and volunteers that have come before us are dedicated in a unique way.”

What are some unique challenges you’ve faced when conducting research with people facing homelessness?

A chart in the Repository showing trends gathered from User Interviews about people’s experiences during COVID-19

Mardi Daley:

“One of the biggest challenges is making sure the questions we ask are appropriate and inclusive. It is definitely challenging to design questions that could potentially be traumatizing for people. We want to make sure our process is ethical and intentional.”

Geordie Graham:

“Doing good user research isn’t just about conducting good research but being aware of the environments you’re in. If you have a team of UX Researchers that are a more accurate reflection of the diversity in the communities you’re working with, you’ll have conversations where people feel more comfortable. You have people with the expertise to ask questions that aren’t traumatizing or oppressive. That’s the importance of having a diverse team.”

Jaitra Sathyandran:

“I’ve been part of the team for 3 months, so my work has mainly been researching online activities of hidden homeless individuals rather than direct in-person research. I’m interested in hearing what my team members have to say though.”

Samira Matan:

In general, when working with different underrepresented populations and communities, doing the research before the research interviews are important. Intentionally building diverse teams is important Having a diversity of people engaging and interviewing users on the team is important, rather than for example, only middle-aged white men.”

What is the impact you hope to see from the research you do?

Primary Research data showing common themes gathered from Hidden Homeless individuals

Mardi Daley:

“Normalizing the conversation around homelessness is important. The hardest part of having faced homelessness in the past is sharing that it happened to you. If more people took the first step in opening up the conversation, other people would step forward and ask for help. I’d also love to see a change in the way organizations approach service delivery and communications.”

Geordie Graham:

“I’d want to see our findings develop Chalmers even further and make the support we offer people more targeted. We are working to get to a point where we can make even more meaningful interventions to help people in need. On a broad level, I’d like our research to advance the conversation in this space. We can share our findings with other organizations in order to help those facing hidden homelessness more strategically.”

Jaitra Sathyandran:

“We want to enhance Ample Labs’ footprint across North America and use data to shed light on how resource allocation can be improved. Overall, I’d like to see our research be used to enhance service delivery, decrease stigma and increase awareness, especially in the Greater Toronto Area. Nobody really talks about hidden homelessness. The more it is brought up and the more awareness is created, the better it is. Having a conversation can make a big difference to inform change and action.”

Samira Matan:

“By understanding Chalmers users across the GTA, we can create products that are even better. As a team, the ux research we do is to help the design team make informed decisions on which features are added, prioritized, or changed. On a more systemic level, the hope is that we are able to collaborate with different service providers, governments, and communities working with people experiencing homelessness, by providing recommendations to help with policies and services.”

For more examples of skills-based volunteering, watch our case studies with TD and Twitter here.

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ample Labs is a social enterprise empowering those of us facing homelessness with technology. 👉 https://www.amplelabs.co