Step UP

A virtual marketplace designed to connect innovators


At any given moment, there are hundreds of projects across the University of Pennsylvania that need support and thousands of students looking for ways to get involved. However, there is no centralized system to connect these two groups.
Traditional approaches are manual, time-consuming, fragmented, and frustrating. Students don't know where to search for projects or share their skills and showcase themselves as good candidates, and faculty don't have a way to advertise their needs.
This issue was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic when the number of efforts underway by Penn faculty rapidly expanded and stay-at-home orders were put in place – halting the casual interactions between faculty and students that often lead to collaboration.


Step UP is a self-service web application that acts as a virtual marketplace, matching volunteers from the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Medicine with initiatives that need staffing. Users can create listings and recruit volunteers to support their projects or create profiles that detail their skillset and availability and apply to support projects. 


Since launching at the Perelman School of Medicine, Step UP has been well-utilized by faculty and staff, facilitating matches that help faculty move work forward and students gain invaluable experience.
It has also scaled to serve additional populations. For example, Penn Medicine's Radiology Residency program uses the platform to match residents with faculty mentorship opportunities.
The team is currently working with Penn's Provost's Office to make the platform a central resource available to all schools and centers.
Phase 1: It might work

Anna Delaney, MD
Cindy Christian, MD
Suzanne Rose, MD, MS.Ed
Andrew Parambath

Innovation leads

Damien Leri, MS.Ed, MPH
Katy Mahraj, MSI
David Resnick, MS.Ed, MPH
Tyler Martin
Mike Dong
David Asch, MD, MBA

Innovation Methods

Show me

Instead of relying on a verbal recount of experience, ask users to show you how they use a product or service. What people say they do is often quite different than what they do.

Observing users in action will help you understand the spectrum of experiences users can have with the same product or service.

Surveys, interviews, questionnaires, and focus groups don’t tell you what you need to know. Prompting users to show instead of tell often reveals what others have missed.

Show me

We leveraged screenshare to conduct “guided think-aloud observations” of users interacting with the Step UP platform. This helped us understand how users interacted with the product and identify framing and features that were confusing or missed entirely.

Fake back end
It is essential to validate feasibility and understand user needs before investing in the design and development of a product or service.
A fake back end is a temporary, usually unsustainable, structure that presents as a real service to users but is not fully developed on the back end.
Fake back ends can help you answer the questions, "What happens if people use this?" and "Does this move the needle?"
As opposed to fake front ends, fake back ends can produce a real outcome for target users on a small scale. For example, suppose you pretend to be the automated back end of a two-way texting service during a pilot. In that case, the user will receive answers from the service, just ones generated by you instead of automation.
Fake back end

We launched a simple landing page offering faculty and staff the option to advertise and apply for volunteer opportunities in the spring of 2020 when COVID-19 efforts needed support. More than 50 projects were posted to the platform in the first 30 days, and several matches were made. Users rated their experience highly and shared feedback about their experience.

Piloting a barebones version of the website helped us validate demand for a service like Step UP. It also enabled us to gather insights about what kind of features users needed before investing in the development of a fully functional platform.