supporting sex workers: lo-fi prototyping

This is part five in a series detailing updates to our research which is grounded in the goal of supporting the safety and agency of sex workers. 

Design Team: Brittany SgaliardichLeah Divito


Many sex workers work in complete isolation. Often, there is no one watching out for them except for themselves. As a result, they may not know anyone in their personal circles who understand just what they are experiencing. This week, our design team has observed how necessary it is to have a space to connect with people who truly understand, empathize, and can provide informed support and advice without judgment. 



Image 1. Thread from “SexWorkersOnly” subreddit

Screen Shot 2020-02-08 at 1.32.26 PM
Image 2. Reply to thread on “SexWorkersOnly” subreddit

Screen Shot 2020-02-08 at 1.33.12 PM

Image 3. Reply to thread on SexWorkersOnly” subreddit 

How might we design a safe and exclusive place for sex workers to connect? How might we eliminate the limelight of an entire platform user base?

at a glance

In our studio class this week, our design team began to develop a lo-fi prototype for our concept, Poppy, a digital platform for female-identifying sex workers to connect with each other and discover resources, without censorship or stigma. The goal of this product is to create a communal space where women can share knowledge and build community on their terms. 


This week, we began prototyping and started to develop a low fidelity prototype. The process looked something like this.

  • Determine hypotheses or key questions. Before starting to develop a lo-fi prototype, we identified a few key questions to test:
      1. Will people sign up to be part of the pilot?
      2. Will people contribute to the discussion?
      3. Will people receive value from group discussion?
      4. Will people trust the platform enough to share their stories or insights?
  • Build the prototype. Believing a private messaging channel can serve as a proxy for our product concept, Leah and I evaluated a few different platforms that exist today. We assessed Telegram and Keybase, but ultimately selected Slack as the medium for initial testing. 
  • Conduct secondary research. To identify a baseline level for community standards, we began to research legal restrictions and contacted lawyers well-versed in censorship. We also reached out to business owners who build community through storytelling platforms. We continue to research different ways to foster community engagement through online discussion. 
  • Contact potential users. We reached out to several women whom we’ve built relationships with during previous phases of our design process. We received multiple responses with interest in joining the platform as grassroots testers. 
  • Storyboard the pilot experience. We mapped out the process for joining our Slack channel to initial user engagement. We plan to send our five core grassroots users this user flow as a way of onboarding them onto the platform. As we move forward, we must continue to build on the storyboard and address different methods for fostering discussion and getting community off the ground. 
  • Plan to scale. Leah and I began to ideate different ways to engage more women and reach critical mass for the platform. With an invite-only vetting process as part of our prototype functionality, we must qualify that each user meets access requirements (i.e. current or former female-identifying sex worker). We will explore existing networks, contact people on Reddit, and go to different strip clubs with an email sign-up sheet next week. 


uncovering blind spots 

Some of the insights gathered this week. 

quick and dirty 

One of the complexities in creating an initial prototype was selecting what tool to employ for the pilot. We had to compare the specialized abilities of various tools with the specific behaviors and functionalities that we are focused on testing. No existing tool is ideal, and we had to make sacrifices regardless of which we chose. 

It was echoed across many of the women that we spoke to that any digital tool that we might create must be cute and fun to use, especially given some of the dark and dangerous connotations that are attached to their work. We see this visual experiential aspect as being key to acquiring and maintaining users especially when we look at comparable existing tools like Reddit and Instagram which do not have the ideal look and feel as expressed in our interviews. Moving forward, this specific visual component is something we will need to include, alongside the Slack prototype, as a higher fidelity storyboard in order to allow users to envision an ideal version of what the platform could become.

leveraging our relationships 

We have felt tension in approaching potential users in this phase of prototyping. We understand that if our product is needed and valued, our potential users will be so excited about its existence that they will happily adopt it into their lives. Nonetheless, we also recognize that because our user base requires higher levels of trust than others, with every ask regarding their time, energy, and trust, we utilize that relationship and rapport. We need to consistently evaluate each individual’s level of interest, engagement, and skepticism to qualify if we are maintaining mutual respect and an understanding that we are building something with them as partners, not as research subjects. 

exploring legal 

Although we’ve explored many online resources and databases, we realize how challenging it is to obtain free legal advice as we enter an extremely policed product space. To vet this process, we’ve tapped into the resources of friends in law school, their professors, and networks. While we have developed a baseline understanding of legal dos and dont’s, we desire more certainty as we continue to prototype and test core platform features. This is more than essential in launching a new product, given that so many have already been taken down, we do not want our work to be in vain. We will proceed with contacts made and further vet the legal validity of the ideas put forth. 

unpredictable scale 

As we strategize around platform growth, we acknowledge the unpredictability of social network expansion. Why do some social platforms, groups, and discussions succeed over others? Regardless of the necessity of our platform, how can we guarantee it’s adoption? And how do creators monitor their evolution over time? This is where user engagement and marketing strategies, as well as community guidelines and peer-to-peer moderation, come into play. Next steps around these components, while thoughtful and intentional, must but flexible and open to change. 


moving forward 

This week felt like the beginning of something tangible. Even with such a low fidelity first attempt at vetting a prototype, it brings Poppy from an idea on a page into a seed of reality. 

We plan to continue storyboarding the different ways our pilot can be tested. We will focus on different facilitation and community building strategies. To further develop our growth strategy, we will leverage existing networks, engage with sex work focused subreddits, and visit different clubs in Austin as a way of validating interest in our platform. We will also onboard our core five users and co-create community guidelines as a grassroots team.