International UX Research for People in Crisis

Conducting research for people in crisis all over the world is not easy. As a User Experience Researcher on the Facebook Social Good team, I have been doing exactly this over the past 2 years. Working closely with the design team, I have been researching the needs of people in difficult situations so that they can use their vast Facebook network to help each other. Design and Research worked closely together to create a plan — to understand users and make the best possible product, through an iterative research-design-research process, throughout the entire development lifecycle. By leaning on each other, we helped each other to see what to focus on and what to prioritize in research and in design.

Unique Needs for Different Crises

We started research by understanding users’ needs and the resources they used during crisis. Through in-person interviews and focus groups, we worked to understand the needs of people in crisis. We talked to people who had been in different types of crises in different locations (e.g, floods in Chennai, wild fires in Fort McMurray, earthquakes in Kumamoto, terror attacks in Paris, warehouse fire in Oakland) and learned that while people had different needs — for example, during floods, people may not have Internet or electricity for days, but during terror attacks, connectivity may not be an issue — they had similar needs too: We learned that people in crisis have empathy for each other, and even though they might be in crisis, they want to help their community. Through our research, we learned that people helped their communities in different ways. Some simply went to their neighbors to see how they could help. Some created elaborate spreadsheets and organized help from afar. We learned that people used various online tools to connect and share resources — they were creating groups to share contact information and organize relief efforts. People in other cities were helping to bring relief to people in crisis, sometimes even people in other countries organized efforts.

Damage from the Kumamoto earthquakes (left). The Fort McMurray community came together during forest fires, which forced people to evacuate (right).

Iterative Research-Design-Research Process

With a needs assessment in hand, we began to put early designs in front of people who had previously used Safety Check during a crisis. While we learned that people had found value in being able to “check in safe” and check on their friends using Safety Check, we wanted to take this to the next level and really harness the power of the connectedness that is Facebook to meet peoples’ needs during crisis.

Research in Chennai with people who used Safety Check during floods.

We took these learnings and designed a product to help people during a crisis. And then we iteratively tested the product with actual users — people who had used Safety Check or had organized relief for people in crisis. We started with very low fidelity mocks and increased fidelity with each project — from paper prototypes, to non-clickable screens, to a functioning prototype that people could interact with. With each research project, we iterated on the design, increased fidelity, and tested again — each time with a new user group: a new crisis and a new location.

Research and Design Team observing UX sessions in SF/Oakland.

Learnings Unique to Crisis Research

One great learning from this research was that it is important to talk to people from as many crises as possible. Each crisis situation taught us something new. For example:

  • Evacuation: We learned that in some crises, people evacuate — the “community” in those situations is far wider than people who remain near the crisis, and people who are organizing efforts may be further away than we anticipated.
  • Multiple Crises: We learned that sometimes there are multiple crises, like multiple earthquakes, which is a completely different experience than a single crisis.
  • Tourists/Visitors: We learned that people who are visiting a place when the crisis occurs may not know the area very well — the map features of our product in these situations is far more important than in other crises.

Had we not gone to the different crisis locations to talk to people about their needs, we may have missed important learnings that were unique to the different crises. Had we not talked to people who had experienced crises firsthand, we may have missed important learnings around how people operate under stress, and the resources that are important when in stressful situations.

Next Steps

I am proud to announce that after more than a year of the iterative research-design-research process, we are launching Community Help this week! Community Help is a new section of Safety Check that links people in the community during crisis to share resources. I am so excited to launch this publicly, to share what we have learned, and to continue learning from people who will use this new feature in future crises. See some designs and read more about the design process for this product from Preethi, the Safety Check Lead Designer.


Thank you to Veronica Jimenez, Laura Rivera, Maya Pan, Caitria O’Neill, and Preethi Chethan for valuable comments on an earlier draft of this piece.


Learn more about me and my work: http://www.romanocog.com/.