What we learned doing research for a U.N. agency

Varanasi. The streets are our classrooms. 2010 Lorenzo Fresh


Human-centered design has been lauded in recent years for changing the way organizations and private sector conceive new products and services in a rapidly changing and interconnected global world. Is one of the world’s largest NGOs being left behind?

We understand there is a great opportunity in front of us, in the intersection of research, international bureaucracy and dusty roads.

Fifth Beat is a research consultancy, designing digital ecosystems, prototyping real products and services, specialized in ethnographic investigations. We learned that a small team of motivated professionals in a dynamic agency can have impact on a global and transnational organization. By asking the right questions, anticipating glitches and conducting a set of worldwide interviews, we collected and analyzed precious data to generate inspiring user personas. A deliverable for internal stakeholders was crafted to hit an audience who had rarely been exposed to such a process.

Our research made it clear that listening to the voice of the employees is the starting point for change, even more so in a humanitarian non-governmental organization.

U.N. agencies are organizations, and organizations are made of people.

Through the eye of Fifth Beat Founder

“This story starts with a one-line email in my inbox: “Hi, I’m Mr. XX., I’d like to meet you to speak about how user centered design can help our U.N. agency”. I’ve always had a good feeling about one-line emails. I was interested in how I could contribute, so I answered and we scheduled our first call.

I always had a bad attitude towards the big building of the U.N. agency in Rome — thousands of smart professionals plus a bureaucratic process management equals a slow innovation attitude. To be honest, I was full of prejudices.

A small room, a smart manager and a stand-up desk were the context of our first in-person talk, just a week later, with one request: — Let’s move this dinosaur together, he urged. I had the feeling that we would be addressing a small project with a maximum level of commitment. Not the perfect equation!”

The first barrier: procurement process

After 10 days we already had a shared vision: let’s bring user centered innovation by conducting an 8-week project in a specific field to prove the benefits of our approach. We created a special non-profit organization price-list in order to lower the budget.

It took around 8 months to finalize a confirmation of the SOW (statement of work). In the meantime we revised the project plan three times and booked some resources in vain. But we are resilient, and that was a good stress test.

Varanasi. The streets are our classrooms. 2010 Lorenzo Fresh

Challenge: The peculiar scope

Through the researchers’ eyes.

Our research focus was on senior management professionals working for a humanitarian U.N. organization — to assess their behaviours and address their unmet needs. It meant dealing with extraordinary people who often put their own lives at risk in order to help others.

We still remember the first important meeting at their headquarters, where one of our main contact people declared: “User experience is undergoing an important phase. Let’s not lose the momentum”.

We sensed the client did not want to miss an opportunity to make a contribution to the organization in a clear direction — to listen and treasure the experience of their key actors. The IT Division wanted to incorporate the user experience vision to promote dialogue and bridge needs with the Business Unit. Human-centeredesign is treated as a strategic path, not just a tactical approach.

IT Division wanted to make available to a heterogeneous multitude of stakeholders a specific deliverable — a User Persona of the country director role, with a deep focus on their digital landscape and software ecosystems to gather information never collected before.

The agency is going through an historic organizational change and our operational task was to interview 13 pilot country managers on four different continents: South America, Central America, Africa and Asia.

A question in our head was: “How advanced, do you think, an international organization under the U.N., could be in terms of vision, processes, workflow?”

When we mentioned we would have liked to digitally encounter ourselves on Slack they immediately agreed. We were honestly surprised to understand afterwards, they obtained permission to use the external app while working with outsourced consultants to keep the workflow smooth.

Once the recruitment began, it was only then we understood the complexity of the mission.

Background documents to orientate our vision were bureaucratic and this is the tangled way these institutions represent themselves. One of the tasks was to decode the high volume of U.N.-centric implicit knowledge, including established workflows and lines of report. During the project we were surrounded by a universe of acronyms and initials; we were not ashamed to ask for a document that sums up the most commonly used and the most important.

On top of everything, given the high role they play, we knew it could be tricky to discuss a wide range of sensitive topics, from practical aspects to more strategic ones, without committing an inappropriate request of information or nondisclosure agreements.

The challenge was to grasp the complexity of their jobs, the fluid role between a diplomatic and an institutional charge and their inclination to be operative and aware of the fieldwork, with a holistic frame of mind. Last but not least, the specific context in which they operate, influenced by the political scenarios, could not be secondary.

A world in a wallet. India 2010 Lorenzo Fresh

Remote interviews

With very few exceptions most of the interviews were done remotely, via conference call, opting for a conversation without video.

How does one cope with the asymmetry when interviewing people in roles so powerful and delicate? I use a mantra: “I am a tool in this research. No judgment, neither flattery nor fear can scratch my professional identity. I am stubborn with a smile, I am cleverly naive.”

The necessity of recording the interviews for analysis purposes was stated clearly in the SOW.

The research team will go over the material in long sessions of listening, cherry picking essential quotes and organizing data.

We asked our contact person to tell the participants that the researcher will record the conversation.

Ethics is an essential factor of this profession. Needless to say, nobody can actually prove you are recording a remote interview, but ethics is not merely informing subjects that you are recording. It has a much higher value in promoting trust. Always question your decisions.

We experienced connectivity problems; sometimes the acoustics were bad, distorted or echoey, and often there was a delay in both our voices and the interviewees’. It is important to ask if the agency has a privileged infrastructure to connect with their local offices. In some countries the internet is still not trustworthy and Skype is not a granted solution.

Be ready to make a number of interviews per day, in different time zones. Use more than one watch, alarms, worldwide clocks, written notes. Share a calendar with your research partner, if you have one. Make an internal calendar where you write notes and make a public calendar, to share with the client and chart progress.. Your delay can never be the reason to reschedule a call; you cannot afford this. Be effective, punctual and discreet. You must live with these three words during the project.

And if they do not show up? We learned to be relaxed and flexible (or in the worst case, you can vent to your fellow researcher, but never to the client). Make up and show your availability. Immediately inform your contact person in order to keep track of the missed interview.

Communication in these organizations are polite but hierarchical. We opted not to write to the interviewee. Your contact person is in charge to do so. This is why it is a hard job: a Chinese whisper game on a world level, with people who are not there to play.

It was difficult to regulate the typical rhythm of questions and answers, especially respecting the pauses among them; sometimes we talked over the interviewee because of the voice delay, resulting in the not ideal interruption of spontaneous follow-up thoughts.

Along the interviews, we observed as a clear lesson, the necessity to balance the waiting time before probing and the fear of having the respondent losing interest. We worked on a thin line between voice over and uncomfortably long silences.

Sometimes we didn’t catch entire words or concepts, that we understood afterwards, when listening to the recording. There were missed opportunities to probe more deeply, but it was inevitable. Try to keep close to a 100% comprehension rate by being fully focused on key words in the answers to help decode a twisted sentence. Work on memory and jot down those keywords on a log book, along with the exact time in the interview.

We used English as common linguistic protocol. Although English is an official U.N. language, understanding and decoding the extensive array of accents was a challenge with each interview. It is a priority to listen closely and respect the effort of your non-native English speaking counterpart and do your best to put them at ease.

Vertigo. Bangalore 2010

Findings & Personas

Crafting personas was a delicate process: from abstraction to filling with features imaginary characters. It seemed we had always worked with them.

We collectively analysed and tagged the most significant quotes from the transcripts, then mapped the key dimensions emerging from them, followed by a cluster approach. The details about the methodology we used to extract our personas will be the topic of an upcoming post.

draft of the posters. Rome 2017 Fifth Beat

At last, the question was: how to hand over these findings and insights to the client?

We opted to create a comprehensive multi-size poster.

We wanted the personas to be visible, to be hanged on the walls and accessible to anyone , not just to the stakeholders who commissioned the research.

Ideally, they could be the topic of a lunch break discussion, or inspire people to submit a question for the project team.

Open conclusions

This is a project that goes beyond techniques, personas and different methods of research. It is all matter of listening with a vision.

What is the meaningof all this? We were not there for a document of allignment, to produce a long report of quotes or to investigate in people’s carreer. We were there to promote internal awareness and change.

We believe that humanitarian organizations and human-centered design are naturally connected — the human factor is deeply intertwined with the desire to improve peoples’ lives and enables organizations made by people, to have a greater impact.

We truly enjoyed working in this environment because we realized how much we can contribute to bridge these two fields.

We design products and services for people, with people. The attitude of walking in another person’s shoes is the engine of our work and curiosity is the fuel. The ability to transform research insights into innovation opportunities is the magic.

Then still nothing is done, you’ve only shaped the intention. What matters is the impact, and it’s all about a dedicated and diligent execution. Designers need to be responsible for the “last mile” of this phase. But this is another story and may not be easily conveyed on a post on Medium.

Researchers Lorenzo Fresh Franchini and Raffaella Roviglioni at work