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There’s no denying it: design uses a lot of jargon. So much so that there are countless articles attempting to decipher it in layman’s terms, or recounting “tales of confusion, awkwardness and innuendo.”

Not only can the technical nature of jargon create a gulf between designers and those they should be co-designing with, it’s also important to fight against any impulse to regard it as universal. …


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Last year, Servis Finansye Fonkoze, Haiti’s largest microfinance institution, commissioned GRID Impact to assess its product and service offerings. As lead researcher on the project, it fell to me to determine how we’d recruit participants for the study — including protocols for compensating them.

If you’ve read my past writing or heard me speak, you know that I’m quite vocal about the need for research teams to compensate the people who participate in their studies, especially in vulnerable communities.

For one thing, it’s a matter of fairness. As a researcher, I am being paid, as is the driver who takes me to the research location and the interpreter who helps me translate. Why shouldn’t participants get paid too? Like all of us on the team, they are sacrificing their time in order to contribute to the research effort, and they often incur expenses too, like transportation to the research site or airtime to coordinate with the team. There’s also a significant opportunity cost, like time not spent caring for children or minding a store. In Haiti, some of the communities we spoke with were subsistence farmers, growing just enough pigeon peas, maize, and millet to survive. Time away from the farm can literally mean less food on the table. In more practical terms, compensation helps recruit participants, and serves as a very justified token of appreciation. …


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With ongoing initiatives in Jordan and emerging ones in Lebanon, the Airbel Center set out to find designers based in the Middle East who can not only conduct design research and rapid prototyping for projects it is leading in the region, but are also able to use their skills for social impact and work with vulnerable communities.

To that end, I was tasked with designing and implementing a two-and-a-half-day workshop last December to help experienced designers in Lebanon translate their skills to the social sector, invest in their capacity, and ultimately increase their confidence in the ability to do this type of work. …


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Proverbs are a powerful tool to convey a message that is firmly rooted in a local vernacular, and withstands the test of time as they are commonly passed down through generations and are widely understood by people of all ages. Interpreting proverbs — like interpreting the findings of a design research project — is rather complex, but is best done in context.

I learned this when researching community behaviors and attitudes towards family planning with YLabs and Population Services International (PSI) in Niger under the Transform/PHARE initiative funded by United States Agency for International Development (USAID). With an average of 7.6 children per woman, Niger has the highest rates of fertility in the world, and the region of Zinder has a fertility rate is closer to 8.5 children per woman. With nationwide strategic objectives set by the Government of Niger to increase contraceptive uptake in the country, a multitude of international NGOs and government partners are working to cultivate a better understanding of the social, cultural, and religious norms that stood in the way of that objective, and in doing so, work to promote a supportive environment for family planning through outreach and advocacy with religious and traditional leaders. …


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Credit photo: Ahmad Nouh

This is not working,” I thought as I looked at the struck through, scribbled out training agenda on my table that was already on its fourth iteration. We were nearing the lunch break on Day 3 of a 5-day design bootcamp in which 40 individuals had been chosen to participate, 12 of which were going to be selected to do a 10-week design sprint tackling the challenge of income in Jordan as part of the Mahali Lab.

The week started off with one question: How can we ensure that vulnerable households have access to sufficient, predictable income that does not expose them to risks? These 40 participants were split into 8 teams, each prompted to look at the challenge question with a more focused lens based on topic preferences they had ranked prior to the bootcamp. During the first couple of days of the bootcamp, the teams explored their chosen topic, conducted design research, and synthesized learnings. By that third day, they had begun brainstorming potential solutions. Given their nascency, the ideas at this stage were not particularly unique or groundbreaking. …


After conducting community explorations into which issues and problems the Mahali Lab should focus on, we ended up with one challenge that was voted on as the most pressing by community members: income.

Income, however, is such a broad topic that framing an opportunity space — a lens for constraining the problem that would maximize potential solutions and inspire participants to join — became a daunting task. …


Late last year, the IRC Jordan Country Office and the Airbel Center launched the Mahali Lab, a program inviting Syrian refugees and vulnerable Jordanians to develop solutions to challenges impacting their communities.

The lab’s objective? To launch three 6-month “design challenges” for local changemakers to tackle. The lab will provide them with a co-working space, financial support, access to mentors and experts to help strengthen their solutions through structured context analysis, prototyping, and sustainability planning. Ultimately, the IRC will provide the most promising solutions with funding and support to implement, validate, and plan for scale.

From the outset, the premise of Mahali was simple: we wanted each decision to be driven by the community, at every step along the way. In building an innovation lab from the ground up, this also meant being issue-agnostic, and not bringing our own assumptions to the table when it comes to the problems that the local community feels are most pressing. …


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— Nicole Ippoliti and Sarah Fathallah

Imagine you are in a country where women have, on average, 7.6 children. In this country, men routinely exercise dominion over every household decision — including the number and timing of children, and what (if any) contraceptive method their spouses will use. Finally, suppose that 94 percent of the population is guided by a prevailing faith in Islam, and religious teachings on contraception are interpreted and spread in very different ways by local religious leaders and clerics. How would you promote the use of family planning?

This country is Niger, a landlocked country in Western Africa on the southern edge of Sahara Desert, and one of the poorest countries in the world. For the past year, a team from YLabs, in partnership with Population Services International, has used human-centered design to develop and test solutions that increase support for reproductive health activities among religious leaders and young men under the Transform/PHARE project funded by United States Agency for International Development (USAID). We worked in 9 villages in Zinder, Niger using interviews, observation, and participatory research activities to explore how religion, social norms, peers, family, aspirations, and financial constraints affect attitudes regarding reproductive health. Through these conversations with religious leaders, youth, and communities, we sought to uncover the extent to which young people in rural Niger are influenced by their faith and religious teachings in decisions about the use of family planning. …


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“Are you sure you don’t want to drink a little water?”

We were on Day 13 of a 16-day trip conducting fieldwork in central Nigeria. The days were long and the temperatures would often climb to 45 degrees Celsius (115 Fahrenheit). What our fixer didn’t yet realize, however, was that I had just started 29 days of fasting from sunrise to sunset.

Because I do not wear the hijab or attend mosque services regularly, it often surprises my colleagues and acquaintances to learn that I am a Muslim. I used to think my last name was a dead giveaway but came to realize that was mostly only true for immigration officials. During my fieldwork in Nigeria, it also came as a surprise to our fixer, Chris, a devout Christian who was a drummer in his church’s band. Before that day, I think he saw me as just another foreigner. When he previously invited the team to his church for mass — we all went. Chris now had an unsettled look on his face. The revealed truth can have that effect on people. Conversations shift subtly. People look at you differently. And because human nature thrives on mental shortcuts and heuristics, people may put you in a box and suppose you inhabit all of its properties. …

About

Sarah Fathallah

Also known as سارة فتح الله or ⵙⴰⵔⴰ ⴼⵜⵃⴰⵍⵍⴰⵀ. Social designer and researcher. More about my work at http://sarahfathallah.com

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