1. Refugees and Asylum Seekers — What Design Thinking Can Do?

Jan 2016

“you know what”, I said “they should throw some Designer types at the current refugee problem and see what solutions they can come up with”. Chris Hall nodded.

June 2016

If you’ve followed the news lately or over the last 18 months the horrendous situation in Syria has pushed a lot of it’s population out into Europe seeking asylum. It is hairy, and scary.

I was in Amsterdam recently for a week-long course on Service Design Thinking. This is run by the Design Thinkers Academy.

The Design Thinking course we knew would have begun with a hairy problem. We would not know what it was. We would have been expected to use the tools provided to ideate and create a solution. We would have no more than a week. Little did I know this would be a throwback to my remark in January AND I’ll get to Design a solution.

The Design Council’s Double Diamond

Design Thinking follows a process of 4-step process of Discover, Define, Develop and Deliver. Although there are more than one variant of the process I find the UK Design Council’s Double Diamond the easiest to understand and follow, a good structure and clarity — this is also what we used for this Bootcamp.

Design Council’s Double Diamond, img source:

Jay Asad runs a very hands-on refugee support network organisation, called The Refugee Company .

Jay Asad at the Design Thinkers Academy Bootcamp June 2016

This organisation helps speed up the process for refugees to integrate in Dutch society. Himself a refugee form Syria, and arrived in The Netherlands just over a year ago, Jay is spearheading this organisation to help other Syrian refugees integrate and be part of productive society. Jay’s challenge for us was “Once given permission to work, can you help us design a solution that makes the process of integration for a new refugee faster?”

The solution needed to be designed in the week. We were divided into teams of 6–7 and asked to start. The first day of the week started with Jay’s introduction to the problem, as defined above. Followed by an introduction to Market Research by Els Dragt from MARE research.

Market Research

Well, simply put you need to understand both Qual and Quant methodologies to really get a hold of the problem you’re facing. Marketers reading this are nodding everywhere. Yes, Quant provides the right numbers but Qual is more about whats not been said. It gives you a way to listen to the non-verbal signs. Els talked about how to look for body language and other signs while collecting information which will help build a complete picture of your persona. This starts with researching as many aspects of the challenge as you can but then quickly identifying the persona, problem, and the stakeholders.

Our client was The Refugee Company, and the challenge was to come up with a solution which enables Syrian refugees who await in one of the camps in Netherlands to be able to join Dutch society as productive individuals as soon as they get their permission to work. Networking, up-skilling, work experience without being legally able to work whether voluntarily or paid. Quite a task.

Each team was divided into 3 groups

  1. Interview recent refugees (potential persona — not sure?)
  2. Interview The Refugee Company (Client — maybe a persona?)
  3. Interview the Dutch public (key Stakeholder)
  4. Desktop research (Market Research)

As part of the first exercise I decided to join the group who would interview the refugees. With a little anxiousness, Estefania from my group and I went into The Refugee Company. Keeping in mind what Els taught us about surroundings — What I saw was a start-up who is using every single inch of space available to “do something” for the refugees. They were huddled in groups on a big table, about 8 of the employees, all volunteers. There was some merchandise for sale. And there was a working area with sewing machines donated to them on one side. Right at the back was the kitchen.

I interviewed Jay Asad, who spoke about the facility, the process and timelines associated with seeking asylum from Syria, his own journey. We also delved into the process of leaving Syria, I wanted to get as much information to be really able to put myself in the shoes of an asylum seeker, as much as one can without being one. Jay told me about methods to leave the country, the emotional journey and touch-points including authorities and people smugglers and dodgy boats. I used this interview to dig deeper into the emotion and reasons or motives behind the persona’s intent. Keeping in mind both verbal and non-verbal information.

Interviewing at The Refugee Company — we did interrupt lunch but were very thankful for their time
With Faras (left) and other participants after the interview

My second interview was with Faras who spoke to us about his own journey as a refugee from Syria. This really painted the picture for me and helped us all understand about the various educational backgrounds, work experiences, age and demographics of his fellow refugees. All seeking a way out into normal life once again.

At the same time part of my team was out on the street collecting information from the Dutch public, asking them open-ended questions about the refugee situation. It was essential to gain how the public perceived this challenge. For the most part we got a very interesting mix of answers and used this information to build the stakeholder map we are dealing with.

One of the teams chanced upon meeting with with who collects foreign coins to donate to refugee organisations. So far €58,000 has been donated

It is incredibly important to not guide your interviewees and dig a bit deeper into the real emotions and answers behind what you might get when you just first ask a question.

Andrey, Charlotte, a Dutch local and Lina (L to R c-wise)
Chris Hall (right) interviewing the locals on the street

Some tips to ask better questions:

  1. 5 Whys? — each time you get an answer ask Why?— repeat 4 times. This forces the interviewee to dig deep and you can get some gold.
  2. Look for non-verbal cues — folded arms, emotional reactions and try and explore more where you see a reaction that can be explored more as you see fit. (I’ll find some links to help understand this better)
  3. Take photos and make short videos where you can to remind you of the space you operated in. When you get 30 seconds, use your nose and smell the surroundings to really use all senses.
  4. Listen, or your tongue will make you deaf. Always best to have a partner taking notes when you ask the questions. If you cannot afford this, let the interviewee know you will be writing down in between so you can remember everything they tell you.


“What is the sum of 5 plus 5?”

“What two numbers add up to 10?”

Notice the difference in these two? The first question has only one correct answer. The second one has many answers. Source

As the week progressed we had David Kester (ex-Head UK Design Council) as our coach for the second day. David, a master at Design Thinking built on re-framing a problem so it captures the exact essence of the wicked problem we are solving. We all know we look at the world with our own set of lenses. We have been conditioned to do so. Education, Experience, Time (lack of) and a Solution-driven culture all factors leading up to a mentality of rushing to defining a problem using the very set of traits we have accumulated over the years. This is not necessarily a bad thing, mostly. I’ve read before how jumping to a solution is a result of evolutionary traits. However, when looking to define a problem, we must ignore all this. Un-learn and look at all angles.

In my case this started with really going back to what Jay had said about the problem of speeding up the process for refugees. By now, we have collected a ton of information. We have photos, interview notes, official refugee policy information, more questions(!)

Awesome team members — Charlotte, Andrey, Lina, Robin, Estefania, Pamela and I

“But, wait.”

“We do not have any control over Immigration policies.”

“yes, and sometimes refugees are forced to change camps”

“How about the persona’s emotional journey”

“Wait, who is the persona?”

“What would it take to make the client’s company a success?”

“Also remember guys, COA (Dutch Immigration) is a stakeholder.”

“Ok, wow. Cool”

All this leads to a very confusing dump of information where my group is now struggling to make sense of it all. We had moments where everyone wanted to share something and the confusion would increase even more. I was chosen as the Chief Happiness Officer — someone who makes sure everyone gets a chance to speak and that everyone is participating in the process. My task was to foster collaboration and keep the conversation moving along. because time was limited and we had to move onto prototyping soon.

Penny drop 1 — Our client is the Refugee Company and not the actual refugee. We cannot influence an individual and need to design a solution using the client to support the refugee’s journey.

Penny drop 2 — The persona in this case, is the refugee, for whom the client wants to design a solution that fits with his emotional journey and enables to find him a space in Dutch society as soon as he is ready to start work.

What do we know:

  • A complete breakdown of COA’s policy on asylum seekers and refugees
  • The scale of the problem — refugees skill-sets and experiences.
  • Data on number of refugees, ethnographic information, costs of housing
  • An understanding of timelines on visa processing
  • A deeper understanding of the emotional as well as the actual physical journey of a refugee in The Netherlands — empathy towards the persona.
  • Detailed information on the workings of camps — the facilities, restrictions, capabilities and resources available to new refugees

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Next post — the Re-framed problem and more.

About me:

Service Designer based in Sydney. With a background in Marketing Strategy and Digital. I love designing for Services and can help you work through the Design Thinking framework for your organisation. I like a challenge and love to hear from like-minded people.


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