Human centred design & History education in conflict areas

Let’s start from the beginning. The basic idea was this: compare the historical timelines of two countries that have been in conflict with each other for more than 6 decades. It would be quite interesting to see how each country presents its own past. Simple enough, right? Not really.

As soon as we tried to implement this idea, we found ourselves facing a number of questions.

Defining the problem

How do we decide what sources to use? How are we supposed to compare? Who’s our audience? Should we tell our audience what the true version of history is? What bits of history are we focusing on, considering it’s a rather vast term? We’re not historians. Can we really do this?

I could go on and on about how we dealt with each of these questions. Some answers were just hunches that we decided to go ahead with, others came through getting feedback from our friends and colleagues who had been involved in various fields such as technology, international development, social enterprise, academia, education and so on. But there was one guiding principle at the core of our process and that was our intense focus on the end user, a human centred approach. For that principle to effectively guide us, we had to answer two fundamental questions.

Why compare histories at all?

The realisation that there is another side to every story is extremely powerful. It helps one have a better understanding of the world, and more importantly, allows one to be tolerant of different ideas.

To teach children history in a manner that perpetuates belief in the existence of a singular perspective has far reaching implications. As they grow up, a combination of confirmation and selection bias strengthens this worldview. They are primed to only look for validation of the singular story they were taught and also start selecting only those stories that fit their worldview. This leads to distrust and lack of acceptance when it comes to other perspectives.

Imagine if a child were, instead of being fed a singular story, given a chance. A chance to listen, acknowledge and understand that history is a combination of multiple, often even conflicting perspectives. The child may then choose to believe whatever convinces her or him the most. She could choose to empathise, sympathise or go back to believing in that singular story. But instead of forcing the child to hate for life, you trust in her ability to think for herself and choose.

That is why this problem is worth solving.

Who are we doing this for?

It is easy to answer that now, almost 4 years later but at that time it took a while for us to come up with a solution. And now it’s like the chicken and egg problem. I can’t remember if we decided our sources first and then based on that figured out our core audience or the other way around. But ultimately, we had our answer. We would focus on 12–16 year old schoolchildren during some of the most formative years of their lives, and our source material would be their history textbooks — to challenge their singular narratives.

The Nuts and Bolts of Creating The History Project

Here’s a rough sketch of what we had in our minds at that time.

The fundamental idea was that instead of dividing the book in halves with each half focused on a country, the historical narratives from both sides for an event would follow each other to make it visually powerful.

Once we knew that our core audience was going to be 12–16 year olds, we realised that we had to keep the content simple and interesting.

One of the first things that we decided, which also proved to be crucial eventually, was not to introduce a third voice in the book which would try to reconcile conflicting narratives. Our purpose was to show that there is always another side to every story, to show that history is made up of multiple perspectives. Hence, we would just compare the existing narratives instead of introducing a new one. This also fulfilled our goal of simplicity.

The second major decision was to juxtapose the two sides of the story visually, which is what you see below in its final form. Once again, simplicity is the key word here. If a child picked up the book randomly and decided to read a few pages, the fundamental idea of a story having two sides would become clear in those few pages.

The third and probably one of the most important decisions was to illustrate the content. This was completely guided by our users, the 12–16 year olds. Once we had managed to gather all the content (text), here’s how we ended up with this decision.

Umm were we interested in reading another history textbook on top of our coursework when we were in high school?
Nope. Were you?
Not at all. Why would anyone want extra work in high school?
Alright, we need to make this book as colorful as possible — almost like a comic book. Kids should want to pick this book up and go through it.

There’s probably some exaggeration in there but fundamentally, we realised that another text-only history book might not be very interesting for our end users. The experience of the user matters a great deal. Hence, we decided to illustrate the book to make it as inviting and engaging as possible.

This was the end result.

From the History Project’s first book

The Results

In 2013, we launched the first book of the History Project which focused on India and Pakistan in Mumbai and Lahore. Since then, we have been extremely lucky to have immense support from people from all over the world.

We did not have the resources to go into the field and follow all steps of how one might define design thinking. However, we did talk to a number of people who gave us feedback about the idea and how it could be implemented. Ultimately, one needs a guiding principle to go through all the feedback and figure out what might work best. For us, that was our target audience, our human centred approach — not just in terms of the end product but also how we approached the creative process itself.

Collaboration was at the heart of this project. To go through various sources, absorb the material and summarise it across a number of events was no easy task. Volunteers from India and Pakistan worked on the book together where each side worked on summarising its own narratives.

We also learnt the importance of embracing uncertainty. We realised that once you’re clear about what you’re trying to achieve and why you’re doing it, it becomes a lot easier to deal with uncertainty. Also, such a project had not been attempted in the region before. While a lot of people believed in the idea and supported it, there were definitely those skeptical of the entire endeavor. We realised that the skeptics were as important as our supporters. They pointed out issues that we might have missed. It was important to take note of these issues to figure out how to deal with them.

One other thing. It is also important to understand what you are not. We were lucky to decide from the beginning that we were not going to try to be historians. Hence, we approached the entire thing as a product, as an experience that needed to be designed instead of just a history book.

Going Forward

We are now working on the second book of the History Project and are iterating on what we learnt after the launch of our first book. In going forward, our user centred approach continues to guide us. For the second book, we have a lot more volunteers from all over the world and each time we’ve had to make a decision with feedback from academics, NGOs, media, educators, and so on, it comes down to whether it’d work with our end users or not.

Iteration also remains extremely important. We continue to learn by interacting with our end users and we are trying to incorporate those learnings in whatever we produce in the future.

We started working on this problem for one simple reason. It is a problem worth solving. Since then, the human centred approach has proven extremely useful for us. It also continues to remind us that we are doing this because we hope our future generations will consist of people who understand that history, in fact any narrative, is made up of multiple perspectives.

The History Project was recently featured in the Huffington Post and you can learn more about the initiative in the video below.