A gamified mobile app that helps girls grow a supportive STEM community through DIY learning.
UX, IX, & Art Direction

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There is growing concern in the U.S. that the country will not be able to meet the demand for skilled and educated workers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, yet women are significantly underrepresented in these occupations. The goal of this project is to engage and support young women to pursue STEM disciplines.

My Role

I was the Experience Designer on a team of 3 with a Communication Strategist and a UI Designer. I led my team through the process of conducting research, uncovering insights, generating and evaluating concepts, and developing the technical structure of our application. I drove decision-making that translated concepts into features to address user needs.

I conducted interviews and participant observations, wrote a survey and executed an extensive literature review. I then synthesized findings into frameworks, principles, and artifacts. I diagrammed the application architecture and flow, co-created the visual system, and co-administered our usability evaluation. I executed spec documentation, including redlines and interaction model, and also narrated and sequenced our concept video.

02/2017 - 08/2017 (6 months)
Luis Gamboa-Sierra
Titania Veda


problem space

Demand is high for skilled and educated workers in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Computer occupations alone are expected to result in nearly half a million new jobs in the U.S. by 2024. Yet, amidst the backdrop of this booming service sector, there is growing concern toward the gender imbalance of the STEM worforce.

Despite over a half a century of laws prohibiting gender discriminatory hiring practices (Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act), the U.S. lags well behind many less gender-progressive countries (Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc.) in the representation of women in the STEM workforce. This is even more troubling when considering that women make up nearly half of the country’s total workforce and are more likely than men to complete college and attend graduate school, yet constitute only 26% of STEM workers. It is clear that, with the demand for skilled and educated workers growing at an unprecedented pace, the lack of female representation in STEM fields threatens to undermine national competitiveness and economic development.



We began this project by investigating the root causes of gender imbalance in STEM fields so that we could identify opportunities to support young women interested in pursuing STEM pathways. Since this issue is wide in scope, we knew that narrowing to the right problem would be critical to our approach. This led us to take an iterative approach, successively narrowing our scope based upon the insight we gained our research along the way.

secondary research


Literature review

We started our research by conducting an extensive literature review to gain greater knowledge and perspective on our problem space. Armed with new insights, we were able to begin to define our user demographic and scope.


Expert Interviews

We then conducted semi-structured interviews with educators, youth mentors, and subject matter experts to build understanding and empathy for people experienced with these issues in a real world context.

primary research



Working with children can be especially challenging due to limitations to time and access. Therefore, we knew that we would need to find age-appropriate research methods and be adaptable to students. Semi-structured observations with two classes at a Seattle-area public school helped us to better understand the dynamics of student-mentor relationships.


Focus Group

A focus group interview with 8 girls helped us to appreciate the perspectives and attitudes of girls towards STEM subjects, academic preferences, and their mentor relationships.


Group Survey

Surveys were conducted in-person or online at three Seattle-area public schools. The survey used short answers and Likert scales to assess the girls individual preferences, self-efficacy, and sense of belonging in academic and STEM-oriented environments.

Key Research Insights:

  1. Girls begin to disengage from STEM fields during the middle school years (11-15), which is a crucial time for identity formation and occupational motivation.
  2. A girl's sense of belonging plays a critical role in shaping their motivations, self-efficacy, sense of well-being and, ultimately, their achievement in STEM disciplines.
  3. Girls need more practical, hands-on experience with STEM subjects.

Model of retention in STEM: belonging to self-efficacy

Girls commonly seek to develop a sense of belonging within their educational context prior to developing their own efficacy. Social support and group activities can provide girls with opportunities to build the skill and confidence they need to maintain a STEM pathway. Model by Branden M. Keller.



After conducting research, We began to structure our findings and frame insights by creating an affinity matrix and conceptual models to explore behavior patterns and system relationships. This led us to create a set of design principles and user personas to guide our design process, which, in turn, allowed us to recontextualize the challenge and arrive at our final problem statement.

research analysis


Affinity Matrix

After 9 expert interviews, a focus group interview, 2 group observations, and a survey we had a lot of data to sort through. We created a large affinity matrix to extrapolate key themes and insights that were then distilled into a series of design principles and implications to identify possible opportunities and limitations for concept generation.

generative artifacts


User Personas

Our primary research uncovered two different types of girls within STEM pathways. One girl is keen on STEM subjects, has the resilience to continue but lacks the resources, representation and support within her community. The second girl is a high-achiever and knows she can do well within STEM fields but often feels isolated and ostracized by her peers due to her academic achievements.

Key Design Principles:

  1. Show young women how STEM skills are relevant to everyday life.

    Teaching through tangible actions and creative explorations can help girls to gain exposure to technologies, identify their practical uses, connect with classroom lessons, and associate themselves with STEM contexts.

  2. Connect girls with STEM pathways through community involvement.

    Community involvement promotes the development of motivation, perseverance, confidence, and well-being for girls in STEM contexts. Storytelling and reflection have proven to be powerful tools for promoting empathy and connection.

  3. Support high-achievers in STEM pathways to galvanize their peers.

    Capable individuals can galvanize their peers further into STEM pathways by using personal achievement towards collective goals. This, in turn, incentivizes the community to support the prosperity of all of its members.

Problem Statement:

How might we facilitate social integration for girls (8-15 years old) in STEM programs through practical, hands on experience?

download the full research report
For an in-depth look at our research:
download the report



We performed structured brainstorming through mind mapping, competitive assessment, value hypothesis exploration, and storyboarding. We evaluated our proposed concepts and then merged complementary ideas through a morphological synthesis to form holistic solutions.



Value Hypothesis

Exploring our value hypothesis allowed us to clearly define and articulate our goals for the project before exploring concepts.


Mind Mapping

We created mind maps to explore relationships between stakeholders, activities, and themes broadly across many domains as a primer for concept generation.


Concept Sketching

We sketched concepts individually and discussed our favorite ideas. I contributed 24 of our 46 concepts.


Morphological Synthesis

We used a morphological synthesis to narrow our concepts into themes based on the stages of the user journey and then combined promising concepts across stages to create holistic solutions. This involved individual iteration to surface preferences and highlight unique combinations followed by multiple rounds of team discussion, voting, iteration, and concept refinement.

concept generation


Concept Diagrams

High-level flow diagrams were made for selected concepts to assess the order and viability of core tasks.


Scenario Storyboards

Storyboards were produced to gain empathy for users and understand how they would interact with core tasks in an real world scenario. This helped us to consider situational opportunities and limitations for onboarding and feature implementation.


Competitive Assessment

We conducted a competitive assessment to identify market opportunities, common solutions, and application flow patterns.



User Evaluation & Co-Design

We evaluated our concept by testing a task sequence on a paper prototype with 9 middle school girls. This allowed us to gauge the desirability of the concept, gain insight on user preferences, and highlight unforeseen usability issues. We then facilitated two creative co-design exercises in which participants could share their own ideas to inform our final design.

Concept Statement:

Stembuds is a tablet-based app that engages adolescent girls in STEM learning through involvement in a gamified community.

Concept Diagram

install app, do stem activities, learn and share with the community, find your buds
Stembuds Concept Video

Task Flow:

  1. Stembud Activities:

    New users begin by choosing their bud and proceed to “grow your STEM” by completing do-it-yourself activities that are then shared with the app community. After completing and sharing an activity, the user gains a related activity badge and their Stembud levels up and grows.

  2. User Stories:

    User’s receive notifications of community activity in the Stories section, where they can also share their Stembud or view others that have been shared.

  3. Accessories Shop:

    When a user has accrued enough in-game currency from completing Stembud Activities they can buy special accessories to personalize their Stembud and gain additional currency by inviting new users to join the community.

  4. Interest Clubs:

    When user’s have become proficient enough in a skill to experiment on their own they can share and discuss their creations with members that have similar interests by joining a corresponding interest club.



In the final phase, we iteratively tested and refined our interactive prototype with users over a four week period. This encompassed a full development cycle with application architecture, interaction modeling, visual design, and spec documentation. The process culminated in our capstone presentation review.


A diagram of the application that details how a guest user moves from an initial state of opportunity through exploration, engagement, and personalization to achieve a state of social integration as a community member.

Application Flow

A guest user moves from an initial state of opportunity through exploration, engagement, and personalization to achieve a state of social integration as a community member.

install app, do stem activities, learn and share with the community, find your buds

Visual System

A diagram of the application that details how a guest user moves from an initial state of opportunity through exploration, engagement, and personalization to achieve a state of social integration as a community member.


An orthographic perspective of the hub and spoke architecture of the application highlighting its core features.

Interaction Model

The app has a hub and spoke architecture that is built around the primary navigation bar. The onboarding process screens a new user’s age based upon social media standards. The core features of the app are the Stembud and Activities, which are placed together on the home page. The Stories page and Clubs page are used to share and interact with the app community. The Shop provides opportunity for personalization and rewards bonuses for inviting new users to the community.

Stembud progression
The user begins by choosing a Stembud from 3 options: flower, shrub, or tree. The user's Stembud then evolves through several stages of growth as activities are completed. This shows the evolution of Maple, a tree bud. Additional Stembuds can be unlocked as the user levels up.
UW Capstone Presentation
Watch the full UW MHCI+D capstone presentation from 2017.


thoughts & lessons

Gamification has become a misunderstood, and often misapplied, trend in recent years. The true value of gamification is not badges and leaderboards, but to engage users in meaningful experiences that enrich learning outcomes. To achieve this, game strategy must be carefully derived from a understanding of users, goals, content, and context.

We used the game environment to create a safe space for girls where they can be creative with STEM skills, build confidence, and engage with a supportive community without fear of stereotype or bias. An important underlying goal was to promote a positive academic identity for girls so they would feel able to sustain success in STEM pursuits. This meant that it would be especially important to represent the user positively within the system. We explored several other mechanics before settling on the plant narrative that would ultimately define the experience. The purpose of this is to contextualize STEM activities as active and fun, to show growth in an immediate way, and to encourage community members to treat each other as "buds" with recognition to their potential and fragility. Users responded positively to this approach throughout evaluations. However, we could have taken in further.

Going forward, I would like to emphasize the engagement of storytelling within the experience by weaving story elements throughout the core gameplay mechanics. The sound design would be especially critical for immersing the user in a story-rich environment. This would also be a great opportunity to further incentivize community involvement, which was regrettably limited due to safety concerns for underage users. We hope that Stembuds can inspire others to take an active role in supporting girls in STEM pathways.

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