Low maintenance online portfolios for NYC subway performers that aggregate content published on social media by their audiences.

Student Project: Disruptive Design for Informal Economies Course, MFA in Design for Social Innovation

Team: Haya Shaath, Anna Braga, Jenny Emmons, Rhea Rakshit

Role: Research, strategy

Year: February – March 2014


The NYC subway system is the workplace of hundreds of music and dance artists. The MTA runs a program for about 350 groups and individuals, but there are many more who perform unlicensed. These performers need help getting traction outside the subway system.


The performers we met really impressed us with their ambition and skills, as well as with how much they were on top of their game and how organised they were. However, they expressed a need for marketing and web help, as they hardly find time off from performing to update and maintain an online presence which could significantly develop their careers above ground. Most performers had no more than outdated facebook pages and email addresses.

In our field observations we saw many commuters videotaping and photographing the performances. We realized a lot of documentation was happening, which was also probably shared in social media but wasn’t serving the performers since their information was missing from it. There was no need for the performers to invest time and energy in creating content – they just needed to aggregate and share it with contact details and they could have an instant online portfolio.

It was important for us not to over-brand or impose our own design choices on the performers so we don’t compromise their ownership. We wanted to maintain a fidelity to the magic of the performances as they were in the subway space – informal and expressive of the performers’ unique personalities.


Over the course of three weeks, we used IBM’s Design Thinking methodology to prototype a design opportunity that we identified by using insights drawn from the primary research that we conducted.

We conducted direct ethnographic research including field observations in the subway system, interviews with performers, synthesizing and analyzing the data collected by mapping user personas and scenarios, identifying a one week hill for designing a lean prototype, identifying a sponsor user among the performers, testing out our hypotheses and iterating for a second version of the product.


After two experiments we finalized a service proposal incorporating a quick sign up, low maintenance web platform that aggregates content through hashtags - as well as a guide for performers to create their own hashtag and ways of informing the crowd about using it. The performers we tested with were enthusiastic about our idea. We kept tracking them on social media and were happy to see them continuing to use the personalized hashtag component well after our final pitch.