A vending machine concept to combat homelessness and change the way you donate money.


Project Overview



Design a concept for a vending machine and use systems thinking to understand and map the system it exists in.





Adobe Illustrator

Systems thinking, secondary research, survey design, personas, journey maps, systems diagrams, visual design, sketching, illustration, storyboarding, storytelling

IxD 2: Systems, Erin Malone

5 weeks, Spring 2020

This is the PDF presentation for my systems thinking vending machine, Lifeline.


Problem Statement


The only constraint on this project was that it had to be a vending machine; however, whatever products or services the machine offered was completely up to me. Living in San Francisco at the time of this project, I was very aware of the severity of the homelessness crisis not just in the Bay Area, but all over the state of California.

HMW . . . ?

I didn't want my machine to sell something unnecessary that would be interesting for a few minutes, but inevitably discarded or thrown away. This led me to my "How Might We..." question.

How might we use donations to fulfill the needs of San Francisco's homeless population?


Business Plan


As of 2019, San Francisco is home to over 8,000 homeless individuals. This is a 14% increase since 2017. The majority of these people are unsheltered and do not have a stable income.

Many feel compelled to help those less fortunate, but people have reservations when it comes to donating money. Often, people worry about how the money they give will be used, and they have doubts about an unfamiliar organization's trustworthiness.


The Lifeline vending machine tries to solve both aspects of this problem by harnessing the power of donations to get San Francisco’s homeless their day-to-day necessities.


1. Provide the homeless population with a reliable resource for important items, such as medical products, hygienic products, and food.

2. Provide a new way of donating money that guarantees donors that their money will be put to use in a safe and transparent way.


There are two distinct audiences:


1. San Francisco’s homeless population, and


2. Workers and residents of the city with money to spare and the desire to give back to their community.


Although the machine is a form of charity to the less fortunate, it functions similarly to a normal vending machine, where Person A pays for and

receives a product.


However, the Lifeline vending machine gives the product to another party. Person A donates money to the machine, which Person B then uses to claim a product.


Since products are being paid for rather than given away for free, the costs of the business are covered by the money provided by donors. There is also the potential for partnerships with government departments or similarly focused charities.




For this project, I wanted to understand how people feel about donating money, particularly donating money to the homeless. I hypothesized that people would have reservations about donating to a new organization in general, but I also expected that some people would have a level of distrust helping the homeless (along the lines of "What if they use my money to buy drugs or alcohol?").

I used Google Forms to create a survey that asked about how important donating money is in general, why they donate money, how often they encounter homeless people, whether they give them money when they see them, and why or why not.


I realized that my peers at school didn't really fit the target audience for this project, so I shared this survey on social media and received responses from a more diverse group of people. Here are some of the key findings from these survey results:

1. Everyone surveyed finds it important to actively contribute to the well-being of their communities.

2. People have reservations when it comes to donating to charity: Is this a reputable, trustworthy group? Will my money be used in an appropriate way (i.e. not to pay an executive's salary)? Is my donation amount too small to make a difference?

3. People do not want to directly give money to a homeless person or a panhandler due to:

63% of people do not donate because they do not have extra money on hand.

45% of people don't donate due to worrying about how the person will choose to spend the money  (e.g. on alcohol or drugs).

36% of people do not donate due to feeling uncomfortable approaching / interacting with the person asking for money.

27% of people do not donate due to distrusting the person / their story (e.g. someone who claims to be a disabled or a veteran)

18% of people don't donate due to the thought that it won't make a difference in comparison to the larger problem of homelessness.

Key results from my survey on people's donation habits.




My first step in mapping this system was creating a concept model. To fully explore the range of topics that are connecting to my vending machine, I started with a mind map, which I then refined into two cluster maps, and finally into a concept model.

I started by sketching things out in a notebook and moving into Adobe Illustrator once the map had been satisfactorily refined. Below, you can see my process. To see the final versions of my concept model and other systems diagrams, go to the "Final Diagrams" section of this page.

Mind map, 2 cluster maps, and 2 concept models for Lifeline vending machine.


I then moved on to stock flow diagrams. I determined my two stocks to be the number of people buying from the machine, and the number of people collecting goods from the machine. I used this diagram to show the different factors that would have an effect (an increase or a decrease) on the number of people using the machine for either reason.

3 initial sketches of my stock flow diagrams.


The feedback loops for this system demonstrate the way that different factors from the stock flow diagram influence and interact with each other. For example, more homeless people using the machine generates more popularity, which leads to less available stock in the machine. This in turn decreased the number of homeless people using the machine. I considered both balancing and reinforcing loops in these sketches.

2 initial sketches of my feedback loops.


At this point, I had a solid understanding of how my machine works and the system that it exists in; however, I had not closely looked at the audiences for it. I took what I learned from my earlier survey and I did secondary research on the average life and needs of California's homeless population to inform the personas and their perspective in the journey maps. There are two journey maps: one represents the journey of a person who is donating money to the vending machine, and the other represents a homeless person who uses the vending machines to get necessities.

The first 3 images show the journey map for a donor, and the last 3 show the journey map for a homeless person using the machine.


The purpose of the ecosystem model was to show which other groups are involved with the Lifeline vending machine. As in, where does the stock come from? What does Lifeline require from other groups and organizations (money and products)? What does Lifeline to supply to others (products and emotional value)?

Early versions of my ecosystem model.


Next was the information model. The purpose of this model was to identify all of the different products that this machine would need to be stocked with. This would help to understand the cost of operations, how to choose a supplier, and restocking frequency. It also covers factors like payment, locations, audience, and values. I determined the products that would be offered after doing research on what is most requested by local homeless shelters and outreach organizations.

Early versions of my information model.


My next step was the stakeholder diagram. I created this diagram to identify all groups and organizations who have a stake in the success of this machine. I also broke the stakeholders into tiers to show who is most directly involved and affected.

The first several versions of my stakeholder diagram.


The conceptual model demonstrates the an overview of the concepts in the system. From there, it branches out to include all relevant information about each aspect of the system. For example, "products" branches out into five categories, each of which also branches out further into more specific categories.

The first several versions of my conceptual model.


Of course, another important element is that people have to interact with the vending machine to actually use it. For this, I created task flows that show two different processes: using the machine to donate money and using the machine to claim a product.

The first two images show the task flow for taking a product, and the last two show the task flow for donating money.


The last concern was about how the machine and the environment it is in would look, as well as how people would find it. I sketched out some wayfinding concepts and solicited feedback from my classmates and instructors before moving forward and designing the final version of the machine.

Wayfinding concept sketches.


Final Diagrams


I used my sketches as a starting point and created a concept model in Illustrator. I tried to show as many aspects of the system as possible without sacrificing legibility. The vending machine is connected to different concepts and linked with a verb that describes the relationship between them. For example, the model reads "Vending machine targets a specific audience."


The final concept model.


After developing the stock flow diagrams further, I was able to pull out patterns and information to inform my feedback loops. Some key factors regarding the number of homeless people who are using the machine to "buy" their necessities are government support, the number of machines, the amount of donations, and the available stock in the machine.

Some key factors influencing the number of people who are donating money to the machine are the trust in the organization, the state of the economy, and the advertising around the community.