When words don’t work

How human-centered design tactics can help you uncover what’s working— and what isn’t

Alex Alden
Sep 10, 2018 · 4 min read
Teachers in Mtendeli Refugee Camp, Tazania sorting cards to rank which learning tools they preferred.

I look up from my notes, and across from me is a primary school teacher who is also a Burundian refugee living in Mtendeli Refugee Camp in Tanzania. We are sitting behind a red mud-brick school on hard wooden benches and the Tanzanian sky throbs a deep blue above us. He is explaining how much he loves the program and that it is perfect. I put my pen down thinking, “Not again…”

Up until this point, traumatized teachers have not had a set of strategies to cope with overcrowded classrooms and misbehaving students. Combine that with the daily stress and frustrations of living in a refugee camp, and this can lead to teachers lashing out against their students and even resorting to physical violence. This violence increases the students’ preexisting trauma of being a refugee and can lead to negative actions, such as children dropping out of school. To stop this cycle, the International Rescue Committee recently launched a pilot to prevent violence against children through an innovative training program that leverages the best practices in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and positive classroom management techniques to give teachers a toolkit that can help them manage their stress and reduce instances of corporal punishment against children.

We knew the curriculum was good, but we wanted to make it more responsive to teachers’ needs and to discover any latent gaps that needed addressing. After a week of qualitative interviews, I was hearing the same response over and over: “We love it, the program is amazing.” However, we knew the program wasn’t perfect and that it could have been improved. Sometimes, in situations where you are the outsider coming in asking for information and feedback, people want to please and words don’t work. This was one of those cases. We had to employ a set of human-centered design tactics that encourages them to demonstrate their experience instead of recount it.

After sorting the cards as to the tools they liked to learn with, the teachers matched what they would use these tools to learn

To understand how the teachers were experiencing the training sessions, teachers would go through a mock session and I would observe them. Even though the teachers were aware of me at first, they became caught up in the training and I could immerse myself in the heated debates that occurred around giving up corporal punishment. I could begin to better design tactics that addressed their concerns. Additionally, I could observe the questions that were being asked and where the points of misunderstanding lay.

We also wanted to know what other types of supplemental material could make the program better, so we tried a tactic called card sorting. We proposed a set of teaching tools on cards and asked the teachers to prioritize them and to add their own set of tools as well. Whereas in traditional interviews it was difficult for the teachers to say they didn’t like something, through the nature of the activity they had to choose which tool they preferred, giving us a clearer perspective into preference for learning methods. Once they prioritized their cards, they were then asked to map the cards to what they would like to learn using that tool. From this activity we were able to understand how to leverage these learning tools according to what teachers wanted.

Based on the findings, we had several key realizations to build prototypes off of. One was that while teachers were remembering the curriculum in a sort of rote-learning way, they weren’t really analyzing when and under what different scenarios they could use the techniques they were learning.

Refugee teachers in Mtendeli testing the game prototype

In order to address this insight, we developed a game that gave teachers a set of scenarios they could encounter themselves in with students and they had to choose the best way to react and would be rewarded based on their answer. Part of the game was also explaining why they made the choice they made, which gave the group facilitator a chance to correct their reasoning if they were off. Also, not unimportantly, it was fun! It broke the ice between teachers and they got competitive with each other to get the most tokens.

Through several rounds of testing with the teachers and the facilitator, we iterated the prototype until we got it right, adding more complex scenarios and making the facilitator guide super clear and easy to use. In the end, we learned when words don’t work, you have to get creative and design activities and methods that allow your users to show you what they want instead of just telling you. Only through this will you get at the real insights.


Read more about how we use human-centered design in our community innovation lab in Jordan.

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.

Alex Alden

Written by

Alex is the Director of SINGA Spain and a design strategist. Follow her on Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alexandraalden/

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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