Framing a Design Challenge: What Do We Mean by the Income Problem in Jordan?

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. While accessing enough income for a dignified standard of living is a recurrent problem in people’s lives, someone who is employed, whether legally or without a permit, might experience this problem differently from someone who is a small business owner, or someone who relies on cash assistance or remittances from a family member to meet their basic needs.

To ensure that we were framing the income challenge in a way that is easily digestible and more “actionable” for future Mahali Lab participants, we conducted a short design research sprint to map out different aspects of the problem, their inter-connectivity, and the relative importance to community members. This is what we found.

User profiles and perceptions of income

“I have no problems meeting my basic needs,” a young man named Mohammad said as we started to discuss income, much to the disdained look of the other participants. Even physically, Mohammad was removed from the rest of the group, far to one side of the room, close to the door, almost ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

Mohammad was also one of the lucky ones: he was a Syrian man who had found a Jordanian partner to start a business with. Under other circumstances, that business relationship would be thought of as asymmetrical, one-sided, unfair. That’s because Syrian refugees cannot legally own a businesses under Jordanian law. Despite this limitation, many resort to arrangements where a Jordanian person signs all the paperwork related to the business while the refugee is responsible for doing the work.

For Mohammad this meant plenty of work to ensure that he was selling enough mobile phones and accessories to build a thriving business, while giving away 50% of his revenue. But Mohammad was happy with this relationship: if his business partner was satisfied, it meant he wouldn’t try to leave him out to dry. The only thing he lamented about was the fact that he had to send his partner on international trips, such as visits to their Chinese supplier. “He doesn’t have the experience,” Mohammad said, “but what can you do.”

To the other participants in the workshop, Mohammad had no business complaining. He was making money, of which many of them could only hope to earn a fraction. The woman sitting closest to him, Sabah, was a widow and mother of four. She tried starting a business from home, making makdous (stuffed cured eggplants). However, the money she earned was so low that she needed to supplement it with cash assistance from an NGO just to pay rent and put food on the table. “Sometimes, I just stop making makdous because I don’t even have enough money to buy the ingredients,” Sabah said. “If they decide to stop giving basmat ein* tomorrow, I don’t know what I will do.” Other women in the room, many of whom were widows or had a spouse in another country, murmured and nodded in agreement.

*“Eye fingerprint” in Arabic, a reference to UNHCR-provided cash assistance accessed through iris scan technology.

Mapping the sources of income workshop participants relied on along with
the threats and opportunities in accessing said income.

If the stories of Mohammad and Sabah are any indication, there is no single archetype for a Syrian refugee income earner in Jordan. We recorded the different sources of income that people rely on on a monthly basis, along with the threats and opportunities in accessing said income. This allowed us to complete profiles of income earners from different sources. We found that there were fundamental differences in needs between community members who rely on multiple, often insufficient, sources of income over which they have no control (such as money received from a spouse living abroad), compared to those who draw from one source of income that can meet their needs but may be volatile, in part due to potentially exploitative work or business relationships.

The profiles to the left relied entirely on a single source of income from employment or a business, whereas those to the right needed to supplement multiple insufficient sources of income with debt.

Additionally, we wanted to get an understanding of how community members perceived certain sources of income compared to others, in terms of safety, predictability, ease, and fairness. No single source of income fared well on all fronts. Even formal employment, typically thought of as stable and relatively secure, was perceived as more difficult to access, and unsafe in terms of potential work conditions, particularly in the occupations open to refugees (mainly construction and agriculture).

Likert scale rating of people’s perceptions regarding different sources of income.

Problem map and causal relationships

We also created a problem map that mapped the barriers — and causal relationships — to generating income from all of the different sources that communities had mentioned: employment, small businesses, cash assistance, and borrowing (while not a source of income per se, it is relied upon so heavily by the community to supplement other sources of income that we decided to include it). Using this problem map as a backdrop, we added key quotes and insights from our focus group discussions and interviews.

The problem map (top left) was color coded according to each source of income. Key insights and quotes were mapped against the different sections of the problem map.

Translating insights into a challenge frame

All the insights and materials created during this design research sprint were used as inputs for the challenge framing workshop, where we invited economic specialists working on home-based business regulation in Jordan, a Syrian business owner and employer, and a young Syrian jobseeker who generates income through virtual/online income opportunities. The goal of this workshop was to challenge the way the income obstacle had been interpreted during the design research phase, generate hypotheses for how the problem could be understood and solved, and select the most promising hypotheses to transform into a challenge frame.

Small business regulation specialists and a Syrian business owner and employer discuss and challenge the problem map section related to small businesses.

Based on the discussions in the workshop, the critical elements that emerged were sufficiency, predictability, and safety — the degree to which the income source exposes the income generator to risk (mainly exploitation or deportation). These three cross-sectional themes touched on various concerns that participants had around generating income, while bridging some of the common challenges individuals considered when navigating their income options. This led us to formulate the final challenge statement:

How can we ensure that vulnerable households have access to sufficient, predictable income that does not expose them to risks?

What we learned

  • Our team spent a significant amount of time debating the degree to which the design challenge should be broad vs. specific. On the one hand, we wanted to ensure that the challenge frame was broad enough that it invited a wide range of solutions, but narrow enough that the participants could hone in on opportunity areas where they feel they can make an impact. Based on our experience later in the process, we feel we ended up with a slightly broader challenge prompt.
  • In this first challenge, we took the lead in understanding the problem and packaging the research we had done as inputs for the lab participants once they joined Mahali. For future challenges, the participants themselves will be more actively involved in understanding and framing the problem.
  • One of our initial goals at Mahali was to try to engage diverse perspectives and stakeholders in synthesizing, analyzing, and framing our challenges. Due to the time pressure in organizing the framing workshop, we didn’t include as many different points of view in framing this income challenge as we would have preferred, but hope to improve this in the next challenge.

This blog post is part of a series that unpacks the experience of Mahali Lab in Jordan. Learn more about the creation of Mahali, and how we involved the local community in determining the problems that Mahali focuses on.

This project is funded with support from the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID), and in partnership with the Start network.




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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Sarah Fathallah

Sarah Fathallah

Also known as سارة فتح الله or ⵙⴰⵔⴰ ⴼⵜⵃⴰⵍⵍⴰⵀ. Social designer and researcher. More about my work at

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