Designing for Personal Safety

What does personal safety mean to me?

When you see this questions, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? Perhaps the PPEs that we wear during a pandemic, or the iconic protective wear that comes in orange, or even the equipment you wear you wear when riding a bike. On Wikipedia, personal safety means:

Safety: the state of being “safe”, the condition of being protected against physical, social, spiritual, financial, political, emotional, occupational, psychological, educational or other types or consequences of failure, damage, error, accidents, harm or any other event which could be considered non-desirable. Safety can also be defined to be the control of recognized hazards to achieve an acceptable level of risk. This can take the form of being protected from the event or from exposure to something that causes health or economical losses. It can include protection of people or of possessions.”

From this, one can see that ‘personal safety’ can mean many different things and can manifest as a concept or as physical objects, for me, it means more as part of my value for health and is apart of my daily routine.

Personal safety greatly impacts one’s health and this is my most important value, as my family used to say, “what’s the point of anything if you don’t have good health? ” So this enacted in my life means, not putting myself in circumstances that could allow greater chances or risk to my being. Including, staying inside or with people late at night, avoid dark areas, tell people when you’re leaving and coming back, not taking drugs, driving responsibly, don’t carry valuable out in the open, staying away from risky people… Being cautious and aware of when risk might happen in my life is what I consider personal safety.

Knowing when dangerous circumstances might take place is one thing, but another important aspect is knowing how to resolve or seek help in these situations: understanding when you should call the police/campus police or some people may want to have emergent self defense equipment on them such as pepper spray.

Personal safety can mean a variety of things to me, but overall its having that awareness and recognition of when something harmful might take place around me.


Initial Secondary Research

With more research across a widespread of topics under personal safety such as social affiliation, public engagement, and natural disasters, I came to some interesting insights:

  • Personal safety can mean protection against perceived danger. For example, public transportation is not as dangerous as believed.
  • A major part of making people feel safe is allowing them to feel empowered and confident.
  • To design to protect against wicked problems, such as environmental issues, there are “direct” means of doing so such as wearing a mask, and also “indirect” means that attacks the grander problems, such as how to stop companies from polluting.

Amongst these topics, I wanted to focus on protecting one’s health in the context of mental challenges or in one’s daily routines. Specifically, alleviating mental stress or protecting against the heat. I wanted to explore these 2 topics and decide one because I think firstly, mental stress is something so prevalent in our current times during a pandemic and economic slump. And stress and self deprecation has been something that I have experience ever since growing up with myself as well as in those around me in a competitive environment. I have personal connections to people who have resorted to self-harm as a coping mechanism. Therefore, this topic has a personal meaning that I want to look into.

My second area of interest is protection against the heat or the sun because I grew up in a city that has unimaginable high heat waves that can sometimes go up to and beyond 41 C (105 F). This makes staying outdoors in longer time periods very dangerous. Direct contact with the sun is dangerous as well, as it can cause skin deterioration and cancer. My dad developed cell carcinom which was a result of sun exposure over time and had to get surgery to remove it. In China, people are very sensitive to sun exposure as well because lighter skin is considered a beauty standard.

Concept mapping

I decided to my further decide on my area of focus by concept mapping:

Concept mapping both areas of interest to decide direction

The concept mapping was helpful for me in seeing which topic I had more ideas for and also reflected where I had more interest in unpacking: how could I design for alleviating short-term overwhelming stress?

Within mental stress, I needed to further narrow down my area of focus, such as which specific stress factor I would be designing for (overworking, eating disorders, panic attacks). This would then inform me of what method am I using against this stress factor (an object that empowers you against the problem? alleviate this stress with physical means? Raises awareness? )

I started to also find current related products in the topic of mental health to help me explore this problem space.

Current landscape/inspiration

Stakeholders & Interview Questions

Stress affects every age group and gender, so I want to narrow my target users to young adults (18–25). I would be able to use my current college setting as my primary research and focus on the stresses mainly experienced at this age.

What I want to know further is:

  • What types of mental stress do people in this age group experience the most? (social stress, work/career stress, emotional sensitivity, loneliness…)
  • How do people relieve their stress? (talking, physical contact, meditating, relaxing, eating, sleeping…)
  • How does one feel when they are mentally stressed? (angry, depressed, hopeless…)

Online Questionnaire

  1. What is your age? How do you identify?

2. Working remotely, events in our daily life, news of of current events could all be sources of our stress.

What triggers high mental stress for you most often? (E.g. social stress, work/career stress, emotional sensitivity, loneliness...)

3. People have different responses to mental stress that includes anger, depression, a sense of hopeless and others. What are the feelings you typically have when you experience stress?

How do you feel when you are mentally stressed? (E.g. angry, depressed, hopeless…)

4. How often do you feel overwhelmed with stress? (1 — monthly or more, 3 — weekly, 5 — daily)

5. The most recent/memorable time you felt overwhelmed, please explain the reason in no more than 1 sentence.

6. What actions do you usually take to alleviate overwhelming stress/anxiety? For the actions listed, which ones have you found are more effective in relieving anxiety and stressful moments?

7. What do you think could have been helpful in the situation to better deal with the stress/anxiety?

Online Questionnaire Response Summary & Analysis

Survey Link

User stats:

  • 21 responses total (ages 20–24)
  • 10 male, 11 female

Response Summaries:

  • 14/21 people talked about having work/career related stress, some mentioned the current political situation, isolation/lack of being social
  • Most people talked about having some form of depression including being anxious, worried/uncertainty, restless, unhappy, isolation/loneliness. 2 people mentioned stress eating and gaining weight. Other responses said they felt angry, lack of patience, apathetic, trouble sleeping.
  • 13/21 people ranked their frequently of stress to 3–4 (8 people for 4).
  • When people talked about an experience of high stress moments, 13/18 people stalked about their school work. This included having heavy amounts of workload, not understanding how to do work, having multiple responsibilities, having no breaks. 4 people mentioned the recent elections stressed them out.
  • 8/18 people’s solutions to relieving stress was talking it out with others. Other responses were evenly spread out with about 2–3 people each: watching videos and gaming, sleeping, music, eating/cooking, reading, exercising, meditation.
  • What people would do in the future to improve the situation, 9/18 stated it would help to talk to others (2 specifically talked about getting therapy). The rest talked about taking more time for themselves away from media exposure and more on self reflection/self care (including spending more time on oneself such as cooking, sleeping etc.). One response was really interesting where they said that they would want to engage in a new local community that shared her career interest.

Analysis of responses:

Most people of this age in college are frequently stressed by school work and want to spend more times for themselves and with others. Even though I may not be able to change the fact that there is a lot of work to do during college, there are some steps I can take to design a product that can give people temporary relief during overwhelming stress at certain peak moments.

Relieve points:

  • Human interaction and empathy towards stress
  • Distracting mind from current stress with visuals, sounds, and taste
  • Pausing work/taking break for self reflection/care


From my online survey, I was able to receive more specificities on where stress was coming from for my user group and commonly how people relieve their stress. And it’s not a surprise that since all of the responses were from college students, that they were suffering stress mainly from school work. Now I want to do some longer interviews and start to find patterns amongst a couple of college students and see what triggers their mental stress.

Interview Questions:

  • What events in your life often give you overwhelming stress? Was the environment (where you were at the time) a contributing factor? If so, What type of environment and context were you in? (Where were you? Describe the 5 senses. what were you doing? was anyone there?)
  • What do you do when you want to relieve stress? How often do you use this solution? What does doing these activities make you feel?
  • What are some activities you do by yourself to relieve stress? Describe the activity. What does doing this make you feel?
  • If talking to people helped you relieve stress, who did you talk with? What’s your relation to them?
  • What did you talk with them about? What kind of replies were most memorable to you?
  • What kind of person to person connection gives you relief the most? (Physical touch, validation, compliments, empathy…)



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Patricia Yu

Patricia Yu


Industrial/Experience Designer, Human Computer Interactions and Physical Computing at Carnegie Mellon University