Design Thinking for Social Change

In April of 2016, HackImmigration organized a 2-day Design Sprint that brought together people with unique backgrounds and perspectives on immigration. Read about our design process, stories and insights from the event.

Why a Design Sprint?

Design Sprint is an innovation framework that establishes a foundation for change. Design thinking was developed and popularized by thought schools like IDEO, and GV. It is a collaborative, interactive series of creative exercises. It guides product teams through exploring opportunities with the goal of coming up with a fine-tuned product concept.

What does design thinking have to do with immigration? After organizing a hackathon around immigration issues, we realized that the technology is not the bottleneck, but figuring out what to build is. Finding those fine-tuned solutions built on empathy and deep understanding of people’s needs is what would make a difference. We believed immigration was in dire need of change and fresh thinking. Being a designer, putting together a design sprint seemed like a great opportunity.

Finding those fine-tuned solutions built on empathy and deep understanding of people’s needs is what would make a difference.

The main reason to organize a design sprint around immigration issues was its unique quality to be a common ground for diverse groups of experts. Design thinking provides low-bar tools that allow people with different backgrounds to exchange ideas effectively. In many cases, non-profit, social cause organizations, or government agencies exist in a silo. Their experts don’t get exposed to stimulating exchanges with other professional areas. We wanted to bring together a diverse audience of activists, legal and policy experts, designers, and technologists and give them a powerful platform to create together.

Identifying areas of improvement and affected groups

Our Process

Design Sprint framework is highly adaptable to any space, stage and product. It is not a rigid process, but more of a series of mix-and-match techniques. You can adjust the process based on the needs of the project.

We started with identifying different areas of immigration (problems) and affected individuals (personas). The audience broke up into teams based on their interests, and a problem they wanted to solve. It was fantastic to see a paralegal working with an activist and a designer on the same team. It was exactly what we wanted to achieve with this event: bring experts in different areas together to collaborate.

It was fantastic to see a paralegal working with an activist and a designer on the same team.

Our event was shorter than a typical 3–5–7 day sprint. We wanted to go through enough creative thinking exercises to come up with meaningful solutions. We divided the process into 5 stages: understand, diverge, converge, prototype and present. All teams went through stages at their own pace guided by a facilitator.

1. Understand. During the first stage, we wanted the teams to share stories and explore the problem at hand.

  • Who/Do. Examine stakeholders and what their roles are throughout a process, project, or product. What do they need to do or do differently?
  • User Journey Map. Document the stakeholders’ experience from beginning to end to identify opportunities for improvement.

2. Diverge. After the teams had explored the problem and built an understanding of persona’s needs, they went through rapid ideation techniques.

  • Crazy Eights (2 Cycles). Sketch eight different ideas in four minutes. All ideas are fair game! Stealing and modification are encouraged.

3. Converge. This is the stage where all the different ideas come together to one solution. Teams debated the product route that they wanted to take.

  • Silent Critique. Pick and put favorite sketches on Post-Its and silently star favorites of the group to narrow down ideas.

4. Prototype. Playing out the scenarios and how users would be interacting with the product was essential to test and iterate on the design.

  • Storyboarding. Organize the steps in the user journey. Include brief descriptions of what’s happening and how your group’s solution mitigates the negative aspects.
  • Body Storming. Act out the user journey–even the inanimate parts!

5. Present. Teams presented their projects and learnings.
What problem have you defined? How did you start? What have you learned? What is the final prototype?

Diverge stage: Crazy Eights

Here are the stories of the teams exploring and tackling immigration issues during the sprint.

Following Refugees

There are 20 million refugees in the world today, including some who have been looking for stability for 3 generations, sometimes 4 or 5 generations. This topic is incredibly politicized. Syria is, of course, the crisis that is in the news today; it’s four million refugees. But what about other groups who are suffering outside of the headlines? There is a massive crisis in places like Burma, Central America, and places in East Africa, which are getting no attention and even less funding.

Team “Alpha” decided to tackle the problems that refugees face when relocating to the United States.

Problem: Helping refugees settle.

In the process of discovery, the team has explored the wide array of difficulties that refugees face when relocating. Refugees face social stigma, trauma, language barriers, lack of access to information among many many others. One of the biggest learning points for the team was that the information is out there, but it is not necessarily accessible.

The team went deep into the user journey and storyboarding to understand what refugees go through, and what might be the areas of positive change. They were acting out loud different scenarios, and how the solution would fit into Cecilia’s life, an imaginary refugee from Central America.

“Initially, we were thinking about a high tech solution and then we got, oh wait, what do people really want?”

Team “Alpha” wanted to bring a human exchange to refugees. The team came up with Center for New Home, a phone line that refugees in the US can call to get help settling down.

The main learning point for the team, which is different for most hackathon teams, was high-tech is not always the answer. The solution must fit in the user’s life, and sometimes it’s a phone line.

Helping Businesses Hire Foreign Talent

Immigrants are woven into the fabric of the Silicon Valley story. So many companies owe their existence to foreign-born entrepreneurs and employees. Immigrant founders started 52 percent of all new Silicon Valley companies between 1995 and 2005. And even though there is plenty of research showing the positive impact of skilled immigrants on the economy, the existing outdated law from mid-20th century makes it very hard for businesses to hire high-skilled foreign nationals.

The H1B visa, a visa for a foreign employee, is getting increasingly more difficult to apply for every year. The convoluted process requires hours and hours of back-and-forth between lawyers and HR leading to a lottery and then 6 months wait. Less than 1 out of 3 applicants received a work authorization in 2016, not because they were not qualified, but because they were not picked in the lottery. That has a profound negative effect not only on dreams and hopes of talented professionals but also on American companies striving to innovate and attract the best talent possible.

Problem: Streamlining H1B application process.

A team of a legal, HR, and design experts, which I will call “Beta”, committed to working on a solution for streamlining H1B application process. The team started with drawing a wall-tall diagram of all the different actors in the process. They had a lawyer, HR manager, a designer, and an H1B recipient on the team. Every person on the team brought a unique perspective to the map, and ultimately they filled in all the gaps.

Crazy Eights

The next challenge for the team was identifying one problem area that had a potential to have the most impact under the current legal system. In the labyrinth of connections and relations between all the players, team “Beta” found one particular area that could have optimized the process and saved HR and lawyers a lot of time — job descriptions!

“Great! I have this great job, it’s called Product Enthusiast,” and the lawyer says “That’s a terrible H1B job, you will never going get an H1B for a Product Enthusiast.”

A job description needed for an H1B application significantly differs from what companies post on their job boards. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) relies on a rigid and often outdated list of job titles and descriptions. Many new and uprising professions that are in high demand in Silicon Valley (like UX Designer) are not recognized by the USCIS.

Body Storming

Team “Beta” saw an opportunity to create a preventive solution. The team thought of a platform that could scrape job descriptions and run them through a text analysis algorithm that would look for specific keywords and how they affected similar cases in the past.

“If you can solve the issue with getting your job descriptions H-1B ready at the beginning of the recruitment process, it is going to save a lot of time later on in terms of back and forth between your recruitment team and your outside counsel to get these jobs ready.”

The team used body storming technique to figure out the best flow in the platform. Talking to an application like if it were a real person helps find and redesign parts of the application that are not intuitive to the user. Body storming helps design interfaces that seamlessly fit into users’ lives.

The greatest aspect of design sprints is being accessible to people of all backgrounds. It gives easy tools for creative problem-solving and makes everyone an active participant. The idea of H1B app wouldn’t have been developed in a matter of two days, if experts in HR, law, and also H1B recipients weren’t collaborating in an open and judgement-free environment.

El Informador

11.3 million undocumented immigrants call the Unites States their home and live in shadows, sometimes for decades. There is no way for them to get a legal status, no line to wait in, no place to go back to. Any day, anytime, they can lose their home. Politicians gamble on their lives to get higher ratings on TV, call them names for retweets, and threaten their existence just because undocumented immigrants have no rights to fight back.

Major industries like agriculture, construction and hospitality depend on the undocumented workforce, and would collapse if all undocumented immigrants got deported. Policymakers failed to introduce a legal solution to this tragic and complicated problem.


Team “Gamma” wanted to help some groups of the undocumented population under the existing law. They have started their process by telling stories: stories of people they know, their friends, even their own. Storytelling is key to empathy and understanding.

Problem: Lack of access to trusted information among undocumented construction workers.

The team identified some common patterns, and also a specific group of individuals they would want to find a solution for. Gamma has created an imaginary target user, or persona, Miguel. He’s a father of three, he has four US born children, he is undocumented, he is a construction worker, he is 40…

“So we thought of all the different areas where Miguel would be and we thought, what about these different work sites? Construction sites, canneries, factories…”

The team figured out that the main issue was a lack of access to legal help, but just being able to bring together all of their experiences, all of their different perspectives on this, helped them to create El Informador.

El Informador, the concept

The name El Informador, which means the informer, is building on the reputation of another trusted media outlet, El Observador. It is a newspaper that’s for a very long time has been a trusted source for this community.

“[taco truck] is common, it’s something that is relevant in their space.”

El Informador is a taco truck and also free legal assistance. Of course, it is not a full legal service, but something that paralegals would be able to volunteer their time for. The same way lawyers volunteer their time at Civic Centers. This would be a safe space to ask about the forms and how to navigate the space. Other times, the truck could provide translation services, desperately needed in that community, information about food stamps, healthcare, and other relevant services.

The key learning point was that you want to combine familiar and known experiences with what you are trying to deliver—something new and unfamiliar. Immigration is an extremely sensitive topic for undocumented. Many are very scared, for understandable reasons, to uncover their status. Free legal help definitely exists out there, but the team has put a lot of attention in creating a solution that would fit into Miguel’s life, and also could be a trusted resource.

Leveraging Data in Detention Centers

Team “Delta” has decided to help asylum seekers held in border detention centers. They were especially concerned about kids crossing the border in hope of escaping the violence.

In their process, Delta also put down all key stakeholders and what their roles were. Starting with Esperanza, who represents the detainee persona.

Esperanza: I am trying to get an asylum in the US. My parents are already there. There is a lot of violence in my home town. And I just got into this detention center.

The team also thought about all the other actors: border control, police, detention center workers, lawyers.

Aimee: I am a lawyer. I am typically driving 1–2 hours to get to these detention centers. There are hundreds of people that are detained. I don’t know who has already been represented by legal counsel. I have only one day, and I need to represent as many people as possible. All the volunteers and lawyers are trained at different levels, they might have done a good job… I just need to maximize my time.

By playing out the user journey, the team tried to find a moment where they could have made a positive impact. Finally, they figured out that they need to focus on the lawyer, Aimee. In the detention center, detainees have a very limited access to information, phone calls, the outside world. It is very much like a jail. The team had to focus on optimizing the time of a lawyer representing Esperanza.

The team designed a platform for Aimee that aggregates all the necessary information to build a successful case for Esperanza. Lawyers in detention centers just recently got access to the Internet and are using a very basic database already. It looks like a long text document written by different people. It is usually not consistent and hard to orient around. Delta showed a different scenario using the platform they’ve designed.

Aimee meets Esperanza at the detention center.

— Hi, I am Aimee!

— I am Esperanza.

— So, Esperanza, what is your full name?

— Esperanza Gonzalez Jimenez.

— And how old are you?

— I am 15.

— And where are you coming from?

— Puerto San José, Guatemala.

Aimee turns to her laptop and enters Esperanza’s information into the platform. The system analyses the data provides necessary information:

  1. Similar case: This is Humberto Jaramillo. He is from Puerto San José. A while back he had gang violence in his neighborhood. He fled the village with his friends, crossed the borders, crossed Mexico and reached the United States. Ralph Romero was his lawyer, who helped him seek asylum in the US.
  2. Detention center data: 12 people who came exactly from the same small village in Guatemala in the last two years.
  3. In the News: Death rate has increased by 140% due to gang violence in the last 4 years in the city of Puerto San José in Guatemala.

Aimee carefully looks through the aggregated data “Great! I think I have enough here.” The system prints out the next steps for the Esperanza’s case, so the next lawyer knows exactly what to do.

The platform solves the biggest challenge for lawyers working in detention centers: getting all the right information fast. A lawyer would need to prove the harsh conditions detainee is escaping from to make a convincing case. The best way to do that is by accessing similar data, news reports from the area, and most importantly stories of other refugees.

Team Delta went deeply into user journey and acted out all small details to get to this solution. Taking a part of a detained refugee or a lawyer or a social worker really puts you in their shoes, and makes you think How do I feel right now? What do I need to do? What is my situation like? Even though it is nothing like a real experience, it builds empathy and makes you think through every little detail.

Key Takeaways

  1. Design thinking and design sprints are not just for tech companies. It as a flexible framework, that can and should be used for social good.
  2. Because of the nature of design sprints, it is perfect for multidisciplinary teams and experts with different backgrounds. The best thing you can do to solve the problem is to bring together minds that think differently.
  3. The solution is not always the highest of high tech, it can be as low tech as you can barely remember or anything in between. The solution should fit into the users’ lives.
  4. Build empathy through storytelling. Storytelling is just as old as our species. Stories help us understand each other and relate to each other’s problems. Especially in social space, it is an imperative, that you don’t impose solutions, but work with people you are helping.
  5. Design thinking can be silly, so don’t be shy and be silly. It’s being silly for the social good. Draw doodles, give voice to a machine, and give original names to all your imaginary users. This way you can tap into your creative potential. There is science behind this.

Big Thanks

Peter Shin @petershin45 (main organizer), Krizia Delgado @kridelgado (panel moderator), Leslie Forman @leslieforman (facilitator), Gillis Bernard @Fern_Gilly (facilitator), Bo Schlagel @boschlagel (facilitator), Stephanie Guaman @elle712 (facilitator).