Testing a Mobile App for Homeless Youth and Service Providers

Young people testing a mobile app.

YTH StreetConnect: Development and Usability of a Mobile App for Homeless and Unstably Housed Youth” (abstract). Bhupendra Sheoran, Cara Lynn Silva, James Elliot Lykens, Londiwe Gamedze, Samantha Williams, Jessie VanNess Ford, and Melissa A. Habel. JMIR mHealth and uHealth, Vol. 4, No. 3 (2016).

What it’s about: Sheoran and colleagues developed and tested a dual-purpose mobile app, YTH StreetConnect for youth and YTH StreetConnect PRO for providers, to connect homeless and unstably housed youth to health services in Santa Clara County, California. With funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Oakland, CA-based nonprofit Youth + Tech + Health developed the app through formative research, including expert interviews. The authors then conducted usability and feasibility testing with six homeless and unstably housed youth (ages 18 to 25), and with providers. Feedback from this testing and a focus group with the youth was used to improve the app.

Why read it: Homeless and unstably housed youth are significantly affected by sexual health issues, pregnancy, and dating violence, yet they are at risk for underutilizing services, Sheoran et al. write. The authors cite research showing that most homeless youth have cell phones, including smartphones, and prefer to access health care information via the internet. Given this population’s use of cell phones and smartphones, apps such as YTH StreetConnect offer a promising way to increase service utilization by these youth.

Biggest takeaways from the research: The authors found that the app was a functional and appropriate way for homeless and unstably housed youth to find health and other vital services available in a small geographic region.

The prototype of the mobile app designed for youth featured a location-based database of services, interactive mapping, user ratings and comments, emergency hotlines, access to sexual health information, and weekly text message health tips. The prototype of a tablet-based app for providers included referral functionality, access to best practices, and a medical questionnaire to assess young people’s vulnerability to homelessness and sexual health risks, among other features.

Following app development, the authors conducted “think-aloud usability testing” with homeless and unstably housed youth and providers. Participants were prompted to openly state what they were doing, thinking, and feeling while using the app.

The authors conducted a focus group with the same youth to elicit their user experience and recommended changes. Overall, youth liked the app, found it easy to use, and said they would recommend it to peers. Youth also expressed that they wanted the following:

  • Service information and map location provided on a single screen.
  • Inclusion of location information for other services such as transportation, education, and child care.
  • A peer-rating system for services as well as an online forum.
  • Icons used to represent services.

The final version of the app incorporated several of these and other recommended changes.

Providers said that they found the app easy to use and thought it would be a helpful tool in their work with homeless and unstably housed youth. Providers said they would usually give referrals to youth in person, but YTH StreetConnect simplified this exchange by bringing referrals online.

According to the article, giving homeless and unstably housed youth a confidential means to access resources can encourage their use of services and thereby improve their continuity of care. The authors say that nonprofit organizations could be involved in expanding the use of the app nationally and in evaluating its uptake by homeless and unstably housed youth. 

Additional references: Look for more articles about mobile apps and homeless youth and health in our digital library.

Read more about using mobile phones and social media to serve homeless youth.

Learn more about a mobile app for foster youth.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, the Family and Youth Services Bureau, or the Administration for Children and Families.

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