Re-Designing the Design Process

Lessons learned from Mahali’s first design challenge

For the last several months, the Mahali Lab has been driving vulnerable communities in Jordan — particularly Syrian refugees — to solve the challenges they face in their daily lives using a range of innovation methods. During the final innovation pitches from Challenge One, I sat with a panel of judges from the Syrian refugee community, the private sector and the humanitarian sector as Team Fanous confidently presented their solution. Their idea was to build a peer-to-peer platform, where vulnerable laborers under-served by the formal labor market could register their skills and connect directly to informal income opportunities in the North of Jordan.

Rewind to two weeks before the final pitch, and we didn’t know if any of our design sprint teams would be presenting solutions at all. Dozens of ideas had been tried and discarded, the final two teams broke down into four teams at the last moment, and emerging concepts hadn’t been properly tested yet.

Taking into consideration the broad degree of obstacles Syrians have in the labor market and the tensions between host communities and refugees, the challenge of income proved thorny. This was especially true for participants who were coming in with ample experience of going through the problem, but not enough knowledge of the systemic constraints and the sector-expertise to develop a successful solution that could scale and sustain itself.

Team Fanous receiving training on how to prioritize various ideas

This raised a crucial program design question: How could we design a process that allows innovators to test earlier, learn faster, and take more risks? After a few weeks of reflection and extensive interviews with previous participants, we distilled the best practices of the first challenge, learned from unexpected results, and came away with a fresh design for Challenge Two. So, what did we learn?

Participants in the application hackathon going through an icebreaker to help form teams

1. Select changemakers, foster teams

Mahali works with vulnerable populations, and we know that start-up teams are unlikely to already be formed. Early on it was clear that we needed to be looking for outstanding individuals to participate — yet, we know that going through this process requires a team because various skill sets are needed to design, test, and implement a solution. While the selection process in the first challenge identified talented, driven individuals, it did not necessarily identify talented people who can work together in a team and innovate. Teams that don’t have the chemistry aren’t likely to develop a solution and stick with it through the scaling process. This meant that the criteria we had used for selection was not quite aligned with the end goal of the sprint, and this posed a risk for the sustainability of their solutions.

Participants being guided by lead design researcher, Nada (middle), on how to narrow the problem statement

2. Narrow the frame with community involvement in advance

In the income challenge, we knew we had a very broad frame; however, we had no way of narrowing it without introducing our own biases into what may be the most important challenges faced by vulnerable people in Jordan. Our initial idea was to work with the teams to very quickly narrow the frame, according to their own research. That did not work. Teams had a difficult time settling on their piece of the problem and committing to it. The wide frame also meant that someone who applied because they were passionate about small business support could have ended up working on designing an insurance mechanism, if that’s the direction their team took — not necessarily the area of their passion.

An example of a mindset card, “Living with Ambiguity,” translated into Arabic for community innovators

3. Build new mindsets

One of the key obstacles that we saw with our Sprint teams was a lack of confidence. They were interacting with new tools, new methodologies, and they weren’t sure where the path would lead them. This made it hard for them to make critical decisions — like choosing a problem area or eliminating solutions. A lack of familiarity with key innovation mindsets like comfort with ambiguity, learning from failure, and iteration made it hard to have a common language about what they were going through, and what would support their success.

4. Integrating existing evidence is a special challenge for non-English speakers

While we had a researcher on board to support the teams, we hadn’t settled on the right approach to build the innovators’ research skills. With most research available only in English, the researcher became more of a “rapid translator” to try to get the teams access to critical information for their solution. This blind spot was a risk for teams, as the research is a critical part of understanding the context, sizing the market, and knowing what other solutions are out there.

A community member being guided by an innovator on a design research activity to understand the challenge of income

5. Human-centered design is just one tool

The human-centered design (HCD) methodology generated some really interesting insights from the teams and brought a new perspective on challenges in the income space. However, during the idea generation phase, the HCD approach alone didn’t bring the teams to innovative ideas. Even using a range of different thought exercises and constraints, it was hard to get the teams to take creative risks in their thinking until many weeks into the design sprint.

6. Test immediately

The best way to learn about an imperfect idea is to test a prototype. Teams in the first design challenge often felt that they needed to do more research before taking a certain idea forward, rather than using prototyping as a research tool that provides rapid feedback on a concept.

7. Curate critical feedback

We focused on bringing in diverse perspectives to give the teams feedback, knowing that the heart of innovation is when unexpected perspectives meet and magic comes from their union. However, in the delicate early stages of the ideas, some of these perspectives could feel irrelevant — or worse, disorienting and counterproductive. Targeted invitations to give feedback resulted in much better feedback for the teams and this showed in their solutions. Moreover, it better engaged potential partners that can support the teams beyond the design sprint.

8. Representation in leadership positions matters

Female participants noted that having a strong, female lead for the design sprint was the most important factor that enabled their participation and motivated them to keep going.

Changes to look for in Challenge Two:

1. An application that filters for commitment

A longer written application that is its own filter for commitment and dedication– the innovation process is not easy, and if you can’t persevere until the end of a 13 page application, then you probably won’t persevere for a 10-week design sprint, 6 months of incubation, and beyond.

2. A hackathon to build solutions earlier on

Instead of having an in-person “application event” that tests for isolated skills, we will be bringing finalists together for a two-day hackathon to take them through the full design process — from digesting the challenge research to pitching a solution. This will give us a chance to observe their teamwork, give the participants a clear taste of what’s ahead, and start them on solutions long before the design sprint starts.

3. A bootcamp to build better teams

It’s longer! Instead of a five-day training on the design process, it is a three week immersion into the problem space, with plenty of time for teamwork, team-switching, and framing the challenge. Participants will end the bootcamp with a team they chose themselves, a challenge frame that they developed through their own research, and a solution.

4. A design sprint to put solutions to the test

The next design sprint will have participants go through the full cycle of prototyping, iterating, and even making a business model canvas in the first two weeks of the sprint. The rest of the sprint will be continuous iteration on that work. Innovation mindsets will be embedded throughout, with weekly rewards for teams that demonstrate the seven mindsets identified by We will be putting users at the front and center by starting off with personas co-created with users from the community, who will stay involved throughout the whole sprint. Research will also be a major theme — with targeted workshops that build skills rather than creating dependency on the Mahali team.

Authored by Lillie Rosen, Innovation Coordinator

This blog post is part of a series that documents the journey of the Mahali Lab in Jordan. Learn more about the first design challenge that the Mahali Lab participants, like Wesam, worked on solving.

This project is funded by UK aid from the British people; however the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official policies.

The research & innovation arm of the International Rescue Committee. We design, test, scale life-changing solutions for people affected by conflict & disaster.