WIN: What I Need - Interview with the developer of a fantastic app

Did you have any prior development or coding experience?

No, my background is in policy- i.e., problem-solving. I identified a need to use mobile technology to connect and support those in need. When no one else would take on the challenge to build an app, I put together some volunteers to work with me and we learned how to design and spec an app.

What was the most challenging aspect of developing mobile app?

Realizing no one really understood either the need or the population so we would have to pioneer this concept. (Quite a “gulp” moment!)

I felt strongly that an app built to connect those who were experiencing homelessness should meet their actual needs and the only way to do that was to take the design ideas to them, show them wireframes and ask for their ideas on functionality.

That was time-consuming and there were a lot of barriers but we learned that young people under 30 when we could catch them, were just great at informing the app design!

Meanwhile, there were challenges for app designers. Many were of the mindset that any new app should have the “cool game” look/feel. It was a struggle to move them toward the understanding that a design responsive to the needs of a traumatized brain would need to be different.

Finally, since app design was a new world for me and my team, we had to learn how to prepare simple wireframes, create logic models, understand design theory as well as apply it to the needs of our populations--- a bit daunting at first!!

The interviewee, Dr. Denise McCain-Tharnstrom, the Founder and President of
'Our Community LA' and the developer of the 'WIN: What I Need' app. Drawing from her background in law, policy, and philanthropy, she has devoted the last 20 years to improving outcomes for these at-risk populations.

Name a few of your favorite apps and reason you love them.

Our app WIN is of course my favorite! I love what we do and that it is truly an example of Technology for Good. I also favor functional apps- such as notes, calendar, etc. for their simplicity and usefulness.

How long have you been working on this app?

We began working on the prototype in 2014. We launched the first version in 2015- and have been working on and upgrading it each year since then!

What need of the user did you have in mind when developing this app?

Our users (homeless and resource-insecure individuals and families) need trusted, free, & easy access to information about available helpful services.

In what way do you think your app is better than similar apps on the market? Please describe in detail what innovation you think you bring and what you are proud of in your app.

WIN What I Need was built because we believe no one should be hungry, unsheltered, or without access to needed resources simply because they do not know how to find help.

Our app breaks information barriers too often faced by those who are experiencing homelessness or struggling to avoid homelessness. It connects users to over 2200 free programs, sends community resource announcements, and has live links to emergency and other services.

WIN was built to serve our users, and is an excellent example of technology for good. When we built WIN, there were no other apps like it in the app stores.

WIN is innovative – the front-end design is simple, intuitive, and easy to use. The dashboard was designed to appeal to those under stress or trauma. It is colorful with no hard edges. We are proud that much of the look and feel of WIN can be traced to the input from our community of users.

Over the years, we have met with multiple focus groups of people experiencing homelessness. They have viewed user interface designs ideas, offered new function suggestions, and even helped name the app. Because they voiced a desire for dignity and privacy, we built a confidential app. (Unlike other apps that purport to serve vulnerable communities, WIN purposefully does not require users to sign in and the app does not collect any identifying personal information.) In response to the need to support our Spanish-speaking population, WIN is now available in Spanish.

We are proud that WIN is unique in its focus on empowering users while understanding they are not a commodity. It literally helps in the palm of the hand. (and yes, homeless people and impoverished people do have access to free smartphones under the Federal Lifeline Program!).

What are your future plans and expected features of the coming new versions of this app?

We plan to add interactive features to WIN in 2023 in support of those who are unhoused or soon to lose their housing. – In Q2, we expect to launch a new survey tool housed within WIN which will help users learn the type of HUD/other housing they may be qualified to apply.

Assuming new users of your app are reading this page. What do you want to ask them to do (contact you about X, Share the app, etc.)?

We would love for Los Angeles County users to share the app and help raise awareness in their community about how WIN can help those in need. Meanwhile, other communities who may be interested in WIN should contact us about licensing it – we can customize it for use in their community.

WIN: What I Need

About App:
WIN What I Need connects anyone who is struggling or homeless to free resources in 12 categories.

Currently available in Los Angeles County, CA, and Mercer County, NJ, WIN is free, easy to use, and designed to empower homeless, abused, and resource-insecure youth, families, and adults to find supportive services that will help them meet basic needs while building an independent life away from poverty, abuse and neglect.

Users can search for anything, from food pantries and homeless shelters, to free health services, educational resources, and more. WIN users can also receive alerts through the app about job fairs and other community events, connect to live assistance hotlines through the “I Need Help Now” page, and offer feedback about listed agencies.

In addition to serving homeless, abused, and struggling youth, families, and adults, WIN (What I Need) is a powerful referral tool that anyone can use to guide others who need help or supportive services.

The WIN app is provided in both English and Spanish and users can update their language choice anytime from their profile page within the app.


✔ Find job help, homeless shelters, free food pantries, healthcare, crisis support, drop-in centers, legal assistance, education resources, government benefits, public transportation, and more.

✔ Call domestic violence shelters, sex trafficking hotlines, mental health services, crisis, and suicide prevention hotlines.

✔ Search for programs that serve your age, gender or region of the county.

✔ Find specialized resources just for veterans, LGBTQ, foster youth, pregnant and/or parenting teens or adults.

✔ View human services near you – they are listed first if your location is on.

✔ Use the map to see where a program is located.

✔ Read detailed information about each program to find the best “fit”

✔ Read or submit comments about user experiences.

✔ Call or email agencies using WIN app live links.

✔ Get directions to chosen agencies.

✔ Share the app easily with others.

✔ Read or listen to Helpful Info explanations about program or service options.

✔ Search even for services without an internet connection (although some features such as mapping, directions, and real-time email are disabled).

Categories: Health & Fitness

Date: January 9, 2023

Developer: Dr. Denise McCain-Tharnstrom

About developer: The interviewee, Dr. Denise McCain-Tharnstrom, the Founder and President of ... Read more



App URL in iTunes
App URL in Google Play


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