Special Olympics

Role: User Researcher

Client: Special Olympics

Through the power of sports, people with intellectual disabilities discover new strengths and abilities, skills and success. Special Olympics athletes find joy, confidence, and fulfillment — on the playing field and in life. Special Olympics has more than 4.9 million athletes in 172 countries — and over a million volunteers.

Play Unified is a subset of Special Olympics that joins people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team to promote social inclusion through shared sports training and competition experiences. Teams are made up of people of similar age and ability, which makes practices more fun and games more challenging. Over 500,000 people Play Unified under the Special Olympics banner.


July 20, 2018, is the Special Olympics 50th anniversary. As they ramp up for this milestone, they wanted to increase their relevance and awareness amongst centennials worldwide. People who know someone with an intellectual disability are more likely to get involved with their organization said Special Olympics, but they wanted universal appeal with a fun, community-driven branded experience. Too long have they ridden on endorsements and “surprise you” PR moments; Special Olympics wanted to reach out digitally. Previously, the nonprofit had partnered with the WWE to promote Play Unified, but the interest and web traffic increased so quickly that Play Unified teams weren’t able to accommodate all of the new players. Learning from this failure the design needed to consider differing community thresholds and allow for involvement more like a grassroots relationship than a national campaign.


Operating in a collaborative group, we worked through the user-centered design process to mock-up an app that gets people to engage in Play Unified immediately. The app promotes word of mouth marketing and social sharing to organically growing brand awareness and encourage online connection as well as in a face-to-face setting.


For this team, I conducted weekly rounds of research and reported back findings and recommendations for the next iteration of the design. My scope of work evolved from exploratory research to prototype testing. Working closely with the project manager, UX Designers, and game designers we collaborated on question themes to ensure the app was filling the need to their most pressing problems. I recruited participants, created the moderator guides, and conducted the tests, translated the findings, and acted as a user advocate during the design decision making process.


After the client brief, the team used the Rose Bud Thorn method of finding patterns and identifying positives(rose), the potential(bud), and problems(thorn). We established the location, online or physical, was a bud if we added online features but a thorn with limitations to where certified coaches lived, financial support had opportunities but was currently a thorn, and the emotional connection was a rose and a bud for those that could get involved. Following a Lean methodology, the team acknowledged our assumptions as untested and biased. I took these hunches and conducted competitive analysis and primary research.
brainstorming with Special Olympics team

Identify Users:

I turned to the client for insight to potential users so I could start recruiting for research. Initially, the team designed for a coach, player, and fan user group with separate flows. As a team, we wanted to build the minimal viable product well before committing resources to a secondary user group. The fan user group was cut in a later phase but would have served parents and friends of players coming to support teams.

Interviews: Play Unified Coaches

With the briefing from Special Olympics, I understood how Play Unified organized from the corporate office, but I wanted to know how local coordination of games and practice took place. I interviewed coaches at University of Miami’s Play Unified chapter. The coaches explained their operational flow, that Facebook and group text was their communication platform of choice, that they recruit new members once a year at the club fair, and that it is tedious to get University students cleared to play. A lot of paperwork is required to join the team, and that could be digitized, a coach suggested. While the design team considered the streamlining the player onboarding flow, it would have needed database management by the client, which was potentially beyond their technical staffing. The designers sketched initial screens based off of these interviews.

Task Flows:

Since I was spending the most time with the Special Olympics community, I wrote the task flows for the administrator and player flows. The featured task flows are for a coach to schedule a game and a player to join a Play Unified team. The coaching process illustrates the required information to create a game and the options for notifying the team members. The player flow navigates through decisions when searching for a specific team or browsing with filters.

coach task flow
player task flow


Based on the weekly research report and the task flows I created a sitemap was mocked up by a team member. Her approach to formulating a sitemap included digital sketches of how information lived on each screen. After multiple iterations and much collaboration throughout the team, we set the structure of the app for both the player and coaches.

Special olympics sitemap

Interviews: Online Gamers

To ensure social sharing and continued engagement we wanted to build a native gaming component to the game. We had a game designer I consulted with daily, but I interviewed three centennial online gamers to understand their habits and report my findings to incorporate means of initiating play and the user group’s methods of communication. There are not Play Unified Chapters around the world, nor in every city, but this app needed to engage people worldwide. Online play meant more opportunities for engagement.

Sketches based off interviews1

sketches based off interviews2

Focus Groups:

Focus groups were conducted with two user groups for the Play Unified App. The Miami-Dade County Unified Champions Schools Chapter Leaders and four Miami-based coaches separately gave insight to the current Play Unified experience and their perspective. Based on these findings the sketches were improved to consider division levels as a section of team page description. Also, not all of the Champion School Leaders had Facebook or Wechat making it a poor way to sign-up for the app. There should be a way to log in without social media.

low-fidelity protos for special olympics

low fidelity protos for special olympics

Usability Testing:

Testing the coach and player apps with their respective markets was imperative to the success of the design. As I was holding weekly testing, a portion of the group I met always partook in usability testing to provide concrete guidance to the design team. Three Miami-Dade County Unified Champions Schools Chapter Leaders, a Dade County Play Unified high school coach, and both of the University of Miami Unified chapter leaders tested the coaching app. The player app was tested more than the coaching app to ensure it was accessible to all members. Seven Play Unified Athletes and Five University of Miami Play Unified Partners tried the app through the design process. We enlarged the targets, reduced clutter, and improved naming to be clear through this process.

Prototype for Coaching App

Prototype for Player App

Final Product:

The app was well received by the Special Olympics; research and testing played a crucial role in framing and answering my team’s questions so they could produce a valuable tool. The client appreciated the search and browse capabilities for nearby teams along with seamless integration of online gaming to broaden reach. The ability to keep team members informed of event updates electronically will significantly streamline communication with this app.

Getting to know Special Olympics my absolute pleasure. Befriending and swimming with the Miami swim team easily made me a faster swimmer but, more importantly, I now understand the powerful support system Special Olympics helps to foster.