Field Notes: Gaining Clarity in Premarital Counseling Through Prototyping

Aug 4, 2017 · 5 min read
Church in Gulu, Uganda

A few weeks ago we introduced The Palava Project, Airbel’s effort at preventing intimate partner violence (IPV) through designing and testing various solutions. In our research and ideation phase, we unearthed three crucial opportunity areas with the biggest potential for change. One area includes tapping into existing premarital relationship advisors and counselors. How might we design a way for these leaders to reduce palava on a community-wide scale and avoid training for a significant attitude change?

Across multiple contexts, we’ve seen that Pastors are an influential source of premarital counseling sought out by couples. While premarital counseling offered in the church is a prerequisite for couples who want to have a Christian marriage, during this period, couples are also eager to build their new identity as husband and wife and improve their relationships in line with Christian teaching. This means that premarital counseling is a potential earlier opportunity to transform gender roles and improve power sharing, communication skills, and emotional regulation within a relationship.

Not only is premarital counseling an important service that Pastors provide to the community, but it is also a revenue-generating activity for the church, meaning that Churches and faith leaders alike are invested in offering a differentiated premarital experience. Pastors are hungry for tools that can make a positive difference in the community, and our trip was to ensure that the tools we develop are seamlessly absorbed into their existing premarital counseling, so that couples can successfully gain the skills for a peaceful marriage. With these observations and assumptions in mind, we sent our team to Ethiopia and Uganda to test our couple’s premarital counseling prototype with faith leaders.

Packets Make Poor Teachers

Our first stop was in Ethiopia, and in collaboration with World Vision, we created 50+ pages of tools, all compiled in booklets, for Pastors to use in their premarital counseling classes. But within 24 hours, we recognized that our assumptions about how these leaders would consume our content was misinformed. After a long day in the Channels of Hope training, we asked our Ethiopian peers to spend the night looking over our tools and curriculum for counseling before giving us feedback the next day. Every morning we met with excited faces who had merely given the materials a cursory skimming. While each person expressed interest in the content, no one spent the time looking through the instructions to understand how the activities worked. There was too much friction in learning. Our first failure and challenge was to understand how to better communicate with faith leaders.

The original prototype for a premarital couples counseling kit.

There’s an App for That — The Importance of Rapid Prototyping

Because of this constructive feedback in Ethiopia, we had to act quick and update our prototype before entering Uganda. We asked ourselves, could video be a better teacher? With the assistance of a design team, we prototyped a tablet app entitled “Becoming One.” The purpose of the app was to have a peer explain all of the material from the booklets without requiring reading. We were lucky enough to work with Vincent Langariti, an experienced couples counselor from Uganda. Vincent takes the user through a step-by-step guide to the activities mentioned in the booklets. For this initial trip to Uganda, we only tested the finance section of the app, entitled “Finding Financial Peace.”

Prototype of the app

For the faith leaders, Vincent was a trusted voice set in an approachable format. The easy-to-understand videos cut out a potentially cumbersome training session and made the training something they could explore over and over again from the comfort of their own home. Even Vincent echoed similar sentiments with the other pastors:

“[The Palava toolkit] will give Pastors the confidence that they need to speak into difficult couple issues as it takes the guess work out of counseling. It is easy for the Pastor to grasp, it doesn’t require long days of training and the format is a new and exciting one. And for the couples who use it, it will break the culture of silence around the critical issues of sex, finance, and communication in relationships. It will also help them in a very practical way to develop tested skills to strengthen their relationships.” — Vincent Langariti

When we tested the prototype with faith leaders in Gulu, Uganda, the lesson was clear: people could easily repeat an exercise they saw demonstrated in a video. This was in stark contrast to the common looks of confusion we received in Adama, Ethiopia.


Our failures were key in creating a successful and constructive trial. We realized the need early on for more engaging and contextual communication, and rapid prototyping allowed us to quickly update our approach. A visual, action-based solution is something that both countries seemed to embrace. It also reinforced the importance of local collaboration — a standard practice across the IRC. After adapting the content for cultural appropriateness, and having trusted members of the Ugandan community like Vincent express easy-to-digest information, the “Becoming One” app seems promising. Our next steps in development will include amplifying the religious content, as well as incorporating more local testimonials. As mentioned before, this is just the first of three concepts we’re developing to help prevent IPV. Make sure to follow us here as we share our future field notes.

Curious about how Airbel integrates research and development in the humanitarian space? Read more about our methodology.

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.


Written by

Design Innovation Lead at the IRC

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.

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