Designing for vulnerable communities in Jordan

Learning to build trust, listen to, and document the stories of Syrian refugees in Jordan

Dima Boulad
Oct 11 · 8 min read

Moving is often described as one of life’s most stressful experiences. I should know. In the past decade, I have moved three times. Even in the best of circumstances, the process inevitably involves struggles. How do I find service providers for things like electricity and cell phone service? How do I make sure I find the right insurance that suits my needs? During one move, I struggled to find the right papers to be able to rent an apartment, and I was desperately searching online for the correct information for the process to be completed.

Now imagine you’re a refugee, having fled your home with the bare minimum. Life feels like a state of permanent displacement, with little certainty about what the future will offer. How would you seek information and try to get answers to your most pressing questions then? I may empathize with the problem based on my experience, but because the situation is so far from my own, I can’t fully imagine the contours of the challenge faced by displaced people.

It might seem obvious — how can problems be solved without the perspectives of those who deal with them? But in practice, incorporating the perspective of those who are experiencing a problem is an enormous challenge. In Jordan, when the IRC and UNHCR launched a design research study to identify and assess the various communication flows which exist between refugees, and between refugees and humanitarian organizations, we knew that a participatory approach was required.

Working with community designers to conduct research to understand context

The IRC uses human-centered design as a structured methodology to understand the needs and desires of people affected by problems. In this particular project, we went even further, launching our community design group, in which members of our community innovation lab co-led the process with us. The Mahali Lab, a community-driven innovation initiative in Jordan designed to enable Syrians and vulnerable Jordanians affected by the Syrian crisis to identify problems in their community and develop local solutions to them, had helped our researchers learn and practice the skills they would need for this design challenge. After sharing the goal of the research and conducting training on human-centered design, we reflected on our roles in the field, and how we could leverage our personal experiences to relate to and understand the population with which we were working.

Understanding our beneficiaries’ context before we start research

As soon as the project started, I sat down with Baraa’, Ibrahim, and Mohammad, three of the community designers from the Mahali Lab, for an initial chat around the subject of acquiring knowledge and information. To understand how to even approach the problem, it is important to place the people we are designing for at the core of the study. Deep understanding requires more than reading reports on a screen, and initial discussions with the community designers helped bring some refugees’ stories, fears, doubts and questions to the surface.

The stories were the guiding path for the research. Baraa’, who lives in Jerash, shared stories she had heard from her neighborhood, while Ibrahim shared some of his personal struggles as a refugee living in Amman. The thinking was, “If you can understand the who, then you can understand the what and why of your design.”

Co-creating as a team

Our team discussions, which I used to develop a diagram for the main research questions, helped chart the course of the study. After generating a few tools to understand what people do (actions), what they think (attitudes) and how they feel (emotions), we tested them together to make sure the flow was good, and to carefully craft the language in Arabic to avoid any misunderstandings.

Building trust

Talking about the future with vulnerable communities that have been displaced for over six years is a tricky maneuver. After eight years of conflict in the region, refugees are tired, frustrated with assessments, and hesitant about opening up to strangers — building trust was crucial.

Part of our research aimed to understand how refugees view their futures, including their hopes and fears, so that we could understand what information would be useful for them. How do we make sure our beneficiaries are comfortable sharing with us? How do we ensure we are creating an environment in which our beneficiaries tell us what they really feel and not just what they think we want to hear?

We crafted an introduction to the interview with the help of other departments in the IRC, so we could make sure we were being open about the process. We also asked for consent and reminded our beneficiaries that they could opt out whenever they wished. While conducting in-depth interviews in people’s homes, we started by sharing a personal story to make the interviewee more comfortable, followed by questions about their families and the situation back home, all the while weaving topics from the discussion guide into the conversation. Baraa’ and Ibrahim, being Jordanian and Syrian, respectively, helped in building that trust, taking notes with a pen and paper only and avoiding the use of any alarming recording devices that could have made our beneficiaries uncomfortable.

Quietly observing, actively listening

A conversation that helped us understand how this interviewee views the spread of rumors on WhatsApp.

In order to understand how refugees make sense of the information they receive, we asked them to walk us through the receipt of a typical SMS. They then role-played how they felt when receiving the text message and with whom they shared the information. These exercises gave us more insights than asking them directly about their behaviors. We learned the value of being comfortable with silences and of knowing how to strike the right balance of speaking and holding back, leaving enough space for the interviewee.

Seizing candid opportunities

In one interview with a woman, I was invited to her home. As soon as I stepped into the living room, I saw that she had visitors over, other women. We had a brief conversation, but I quickly put my notes away and accepted an invitation for coffee. Some of the most interesting insights we heard were the ones shared after we had put our note-taking papers aside, often over a cup of coffee at the end of home visits. People tended to be more relaxed and shared more in these social settings.

Document, analyze, iterate, repeat

Using rigorous documentation after every interaction ensures that no detail is missed from moments when note-taking might have interrupted the flow of the conversation. In the field, we had one strict rule for documentation: Take a moment at the end of each home visit to write quick notes about it, and add any talking points that we might have missed. At the end of each day, we would circle back and discuss what worked well and what needed improving before going out in the field again. Daily reports helped us keep ideas fresh and document them with as much accuracy as possible. This also helped us adjust our process. For example, Ibrahim had realized that the layout of one tool didn’t allow him to take notes properly while talking to his interviewee, so we iterated on that after the first day.

The team during synthesis

When analyzing, two heads (or four!) are better than one

Collective analysis can go much deeper than an individual understanding of what was gathered. Each community designer can bring in a unique part of the story and contribute to the common understanding of the problem.

Discussing our stories with each other made it easier to exercise our empathy muscles, to build on each other’s ideas, and to understand information provision from a refugee’s point of view as much as possible. We set up camp in an office at the IRC, and visualized all our findings and generated insights together. A visual presence in the office also made it helpful to grab the attention of other people at the IRC, the curious passersby who would stop, ask questions, and sometimes point out great parallels in our analysis.

How humanitarians can use design findings to change their approaches

Based on two weeks of interviews and focus groups led by our community designers, we discovered three archetypes of refugees accessing information:

  • Thriving networkers — They’re well connected in society and able to effectively navigate various information streams to get their questions answered.
  • Dependent strugglers — They depend heavily on someone else in their social network for information.
  • Independent doubters — They prefer to validate information directly (“see it for themselves”) and don’t trust most sources.

These findings helped us create a framework through which we and other organizations can better understand refugees’ specific needs and more effectively target our interventions.

For all archetypes, the information that most helps them sits at the intersection of specificity (how relevant the information is to their problem), timeliness (how quickly they can get the information), simplicity (how simple is it to understand) and expertise (coming from a verified/trusted source). While these characteristics are in common throughout the archetypes, the mechanisms by which different archetypes are most likely to receive and share the information are very different.

The refugee-centric process helped us ensure that refugee perspectives were at the core of how we presented our findings to the Durable Solutions Working group, an inter-agency coordination body made up of more than 30 organizations working with refugees in Jordan. Although no refugees were at the table at this stage, our findings ensured that they remained at the center of these actors’ conversations. We developed a framework for organizations to assess their own communication pathways: When providing information, are we reaching the thriving networkers, the dependent strugglers, and the independent doubters in a way that meets their needs and preferences?

Using participatory methods, we facilitated a space for discussion and generated solutions and insights with everyone’s unique expertise — all expressed in reaction to the problems as expressed by different archetypes of information consumers in the refugee community. Each organization left with ideas on how they can integrate these new perspectives into their work.

The IRC is also taking direct action based on this approach, in particular by developing and testing different solutions based on each one of these archetypes. As we develop our prototypes, the community designers continue to co-create with us.

The last ideation workshop with the Durable Solution Working Group

The Airbel Impact Lab

The Airbel Impact Lab designs, tests, and scales life-changing solutions for people affected by conflict and disaster. Our aim is to find the most impactful and cost-effective products, services, and delivery systems possible.

Dima Boulad

Written by

Designer and Problem Solver moved by positive impact.

The Airbel Impact Lab

The Airbel Impact Lab designs, tests, and scales life-changing solutions for people affected by conflict and disaster. Our aim is to find the most impactful and cost-effective products, services, and delivery systems possible.