Academic Case Study — July 2022 – September 2022

A harm reduction app that allows users to reduce the risks and harmful effects of the recreational drugs they use.

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Case Study

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The Problem

From 2000-2015 '...mainstream media sources have reported at least 68 deaths attributed to drug overdoses/poisonings in the context of music festival attendance’

(Turris & Lund 2015, p. 1)

I chose to focus on electronic dance music events,

as they attract a younger target audience, who are more prone to risking-taking behaviours. EDM events especially have a popular culture of drug usage, and have been increasing in popularity in the last couple of years.


To reduce the rate of casualty incidents due to drug usage at EDM events


I believe that attendees at EDME’s are reluctant to seek medical help unless they are in urgent need of care, so if EDME attendees are more inclined to use medical services as a preventative measure, we will see reduced rates of patients requiring urgent treatment.

Diving deeper into the issue

Canada’s toxic drug supply

'From January 2020 to June 2021, more than 9,800 Canadians died from an opioid overdose' (Lach-Aidelbaum, 2022, para. 2). Canada's illicit drug supply has increased in toxicity due to supplying difficulties during the pandemic.

Primary Research

Interview Objectives

To evaluate existing medical systems in place, and to gain further insight into the problem space, 2 expert interviews were conducted. In addition, 5 target users were interviewed to understand their motivations, goals and pain points within the context of this space. This totaled to 7 interviews, conducted over video call.

View Interview Script


Due to the limited amount of interviews, it is unclear how gender identity may impact user goals, behaviours, and pain points. Insights may not be an accurate reflection of EDM attendees as a whole as 4/5 users were male.
All interviewees reside in one province, and therefore may not accurately reflect all Canadian residents.
Though it may be more effective to provide a digital solution for people involved in providing medical care to EDM event attendees, due to time constraints and lack of resources, it was more feasible to access EDM attendees as my primary user.

Insights were gathered on shared pain points, goals and behaviours

Curating community

There is variance in culture and community depending on the specific event, as they each curate a specific type of crowd. Certain events have successfully nurtured communities where people are more inclined to look out for others, while others may increasingly attract attendees displaying risky, and violent behaviour.

Key Themes

Seeking help

EDME attendees typically come in groups. Because they are often on substances that reduce their ability to think and behave in a rational manner, it is important for them to stick together and take care of each other. Due to the large nature of crowds, event staff are not able to monitor the well-being of every attendee, and rely on their friends or bystanders, on behalf of the attendee in need, to signal to staff for help.

Lack of Guidance

Especially evident among first-timers, EDME attendees commonly exhibit risky drug usage behaviour at these events due to a lack of knowledge, experience and accessibility to drug checking services. Attendees who had not previously used on-site medical services are often not aware of what resources are available to them, and are hesitant to seek medical help for fear of judgement or legal consequences.

Chosen Direction

How might we make harm reduction more accessible for EDME attendees in order to reduce the rate of high-risk health cases at EDM events?


Experience Mapping

An embodiment of shared goals, painpoints and behaviours gleaned from my interviews

Following Kevin and his eventful night at an EDM event, to gauge any possible areas of opportunity for a solution

To aid in ideation for features my user would want, 30 user stories were created and grouped into categories, or "epics". This is the key epic I chose to work off on.

User Stories

MVP Feature Ideation


My target audience typically attends EDME’s in groups, The person actively seeking medical help is usually not the patient in need, but their friend or a passerby, as the patient may be physically/ mentally incapable of accessing care themselves.

There is a culture of people looking out for others, even if they are strangers. Though this varies depending on the specific event, it is an opportunity that could be taken advantage of!

At the event, my target audience will be inebriated, and cannot interact with their device proficiently, if at all. Their thinking, physical movements, and vision will all be impaired.

I am both trying to address my users’ needs AND shift their behaviour. Due to their false sense of security regarding recreational drug usage, as well as lack of knowledge of risks, I need to consider how I may convince/encourage them to use the harm-reduction resources available to them in addition to providing those resources.

Chosen MVP Feature

Helping EDM event attendees avoid taking substances that have an increased risk of overdose by showing them drug checking results that may be a match with the drugs they plan to use. 

Initial Task Flow

Low Fidelity Wireframes

Wireframes—Version 1

View Prototype

3 rounds of user testing were conducted over Zoom as well as in person, with a total of 13 user testers.

Round 1

Due to difficulty understanding technical terms and jargon, users were not able to understand parts of the process, as well as some of the data displayed in the results

Users had a false sense of security of the safety of their drug after seeing what they perceived to be a low amount of toxicity found in drugs that shared the same characteristics as theirs

User Testing


Before users can proceed, the app makes it clear that drug-checking results are meant to viewed as a general reference guide only, and are not an accurate indicator of the safety of their drug.

Increasing understanding

To aid users in knowing what options to select when choosing their drug characteristics, they have the added option of viewing characteristic descriptions

Wireframes—Version 2

View Prototype

User Testing—Round 2

A lack of knowledge of what drug-checking is greatly impacts their understanding of the app, perhaps an onboarding process is required.

The statistics shown in the results are confusing, and users don't immediately know how to digest that information.

Making a pivot

Because similar issues stayed unresolved despite small user testing revisions, I went back to the drawing board! In order to reduce the users’ false sense of security regarding the safety of their drug, as well as to provide them with easily digestible and actionable information, instead of showing all drug-checking results, I decided to show only drug-checking alerts that have been issued by recognized organizations. 

Further lo-fi wireframes exploration

Drug warnings in lieu of drug check statistics

To prevent users from making their own conclusions on how safe their drug is, they now can only view toxic drug warnings that have been officially issues by drug checking and overdose prevention sites across Canada. The information presented is also much more decisive and easier to absorb.

Helpful tips and advice

In the unfortunate event that users may have ingested these drugs, viewing a drug warning alert also sets users up to be able to identify the situation that there in, and guide them in how they should react.

Wireframes—Version 3

View Prototype

User Testing—Round 3

Users do not expect there to be any additional information under the drug warnings

Increasing visibility

In the results page, the call-to-action section that prompts users to visit a drug-checking site is moved up to be visible in the initial viewport so that users are aware that they can continue scrolling for additional content.

Wireframes—Version 4

View Prototype

Brand and Icon Exploration

Having finalized my mid-fidelity prototype, it was time to inject some storytelling into the product!

Final Logo

Marketing Site

To advertise Vare's services, a marketing site was also created.

Introducing Vare

Vare is a harm reduction app that helps Canadians reduce the risk and harmful effects that come with recreational drug usage when attending electronic dance music events. 

Convenient and easy to use

Drug-checking alerts provided by organizations across Canada are all centralized in one app, displayed in the same comprehensive format, and rephrased to use everyday language. These alerts warn users of toxic drugs that may be circulating in their area. For our target audience–who may not be inclined to expend much effort to increase their physical safety–this is an effective, convenient alternative that increases the chances of users avoiding substances that have a high risk of overdose.

Only see what's relevant

By taking a photo of one’s drug, Vare identifies its characteristics and only shows users alerts for drugs that may be a match with theirs, so that they can quickly find what they’re looking for. 

Helping you help your friends

In the event that the toxic drug is ingested, Vare teaches users to recognize symptoms in their friends earlier, so that they can seek help proactively. The app also provides emergency advice and tips for users to act upon while they await medical attention, as the volatility of an EDME environment could delay the service they need. Icons and summarized points are used so that the information presented is easily digestible.

Guiding you to potentially life-saving resources

To be 100% sure of the safety of their drug, Vare provides a call-to-action for users to seek out drug-checking services near them, a resource they may not have been aware of. It also reduces the obscurity and stigma against these services by providing information on how they work, and using non-judgemental language throughout. By encouraging users to take advantage of this service, the risk they take using substances at EDM events decreases greatly. 

Interactive Prototype

More than just EDM events

There may be potential to expand my target audience. I’d love to explore how harm-reduction can be accessible for a greater range of people who are in need of this service.

Key Learnings

Precious process

It's easy to be overwhelmed by an overload of information–of new opportunities, constraints and an endless amount of edge cases. By falling back to a step by step process model, I was able to move forward and iterate from there, instead of getting frozen in the first step trying to solve everything at once.


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