Strategic design meets social good

Radina Doneva
Oct 24, 2016 · 11 min read

The story of a Common Good design sprint with Hyper Island students, ITC & United Nations to help refugees earn income online.

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Photo Credit: UNHCR/Frederic Noy

The refugee crisis is one of the most acute global issues with rippling effects to the international community. There are over 60 million refugees and internally displaced people worldwide and very little media coverage on the severity of the situation outside of Europe. War and violence are forcing millions of people to flee their home countries and seek asylum in neighbouring states where they usually face hostile resistance from the already economically challenged locals.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is faced with a huge humanitarian challenge to provide living conditions in camps — that are running out of capacity and resources. Refugees are confined to isolated temporary settlements with basic conditions until a feasible resolution and opportunity for relocation is found. UN humanitarian aid provides food and basic necessities and so millions of humans are restricted of their individual agency and opportunity to create their own livelihood. Among them are skilled professionals limited, by their situation, to be contributing members to the community and their own life.

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Imagine Didier living in Nakivale refugee camp in Uganda. He is 21 years old and fled his home in DR Congo in 2006 after his parents were murdered. Upon arrival to the camp he struggled to find work. UNHCR provides useful workshop and internet cafés where Didier can learn new skills online. He is presently a skilled videographer and speaks 5 languages. However, there are no opportunities to apply his skills in the closed environment of the camp.

Shortage of resources and difficulties with host countries are pressuring UNHCR to shrink their operations on the ground and close some of the camps. There is a pressing need to find alternative ways to enable livelihood opportunities for 21 million refugee camp residents and the time is now!

The Opportunity

It’s a wicked problem. By their nature wicked problems resist resolution. The foundational theory on wicked problems by Horst Rittel advises a policy of small steps, in the hope of contributing systematically to overall improvement. One of the ways we begin to look at this type of problem is through the Cynefin framework. Recognising it as a complex problem — one where there is a high degree of uncertainty and lots of loosely coupled relationships between the component parts — we needed to probe before sensing and responding. So we are taking on it with a design sprint!

Every wicked problem is a symptom of another problem illustrating the interconnected quality of socio-economic political systems. — Horst Rittel

The Sprint

Two MA students from Hyper Island — Gabriela Triffiletti and Thomas Anderson — reached out proactively to Common Good with the idea to collaborate on creating work opportunities for refugees. They have already engaged with the topic doing in-depth research so we invited them to join us for a design sprint at our studio. Together we started our exploration with a broad question:

How skilled refugees can make sustainable income from working online?

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Sprint team: Tom Anderson, Gabriela Triffiletti (Decider), Rita Cervetto, Aimee Tasker, Radina Doneva, Phil Hesketh

Research download

Rigorous research is the foundational part of any human-centred design project. The refugee crisis is a complex undertaking that requires in-depth understanding of the landscape. Prior to the sprint Gabi and Tom spent 4 weeks of exploring all angles of the refugee situation — reading reports, interviewing experts at the UN, independent activists in the field, and speaking directly to refugees living in camps and urban areas of Uganda — all to get as close as possible insight into the underlying problems and needs of the people and circumstances being designed for. On day one of the sprint they shared synthesised findings with the team to help us understand the refugee status, stakeholder insight, and current efforts of help with the situation globally. They also delved in to the socio-cultural specificities of the various affected regions worldwide.

Key learnings included:

  • Africa is most severely affected world region
  • UNHCR provides internet facilities in camps
  • The majority of camp residents own a mobile phone and many among them use smart devices
  • Facebook is a preferred method of sourcing information and communicating with friends and family
  • All refugee host countries, except Uganda, restrict refugees from working legally

Gabriela and Tom identified personas representing refugees both in urban settings and living in UNHCR camps to help us empathise. The differences between urban refugees and camp residents are in terms of professional skill level and availability of work opportunities, however, both personas share the same most pressing needs: resettlement and capital to start a new business and life.

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Be ambitious, but realistic

Being aware of the enormousness of the problem at hand we needed to narrow the scope of the challenge. We decided to focus on people living in refugee camps in Uganda and owning a smartphone (something we found was common in our research). Why did we make these key decisions? Because:

  • UNHCR are in Uganda, and can partner in implementation
  • Availability of internet access in camps
  • Legal labour policy for refugees in Uganda

Marrying capability with feasibility

We focused our efforts on one opportunity area: micro work in Business Process Outsourcing (BPO).

Myriad of businesses worldwide reap efficiency and cost savings by sub-contracting low-skill, manual labour intensive operations to third parties. Common tasks involve image tagging, transcription, digitisation of paper documents and translation among other services. Such activities can be easily broken down to small batches of tasks and sent out to numerous third-party agents without compromising confidentiality. The bottom-line is: job done faster and at a cheaper cost.

Plenty of companies are already doing great work in this area — among them are social enterprises like Samasource creating employment opportunities in underprivileged communities around the world. Our mission became to extend this proven BPO concept to refugees.

We learned from our research that many of the camp residents are multilingual so we identified translation services as the most advantageous area for exploration. Next step was designing an adequate business model considering the particular refugee context.

Don’t rely on Google — invest in languages to grow your business — The Guardian

However, there were still too many assumptions and questions: Are refugees’ language skill adequate for translation service? Are they technically capable enough to operate a digital platform? Are there any customers for such service? Who would that be?

We needed answers, fast.

Bring on the experts! Luckily we were able to get the right people on the phone for advice:

  • An UNHCR official in Geneva
  • An independent activist running educational workshops with refugees on the ground
  • Refugees!

What a goldmine! We learned that French is native to the majority of the Ugandan camp residents who are also advanced in English to be able to communicate with UN humanitarian staff. Two of the official UN working languages English and French, both are in high demand for documentation translation which is a task often outsourced to external companies. Our UN advisor confirmed the feasibility of outsourcing some unofficial texts for translation to refugees. Moreover, our activist advisor ensured that he works with refugees who have good technical and language skills and are eager to employ them.

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How do we make this work?

Wisdom nugget #1 :

If a sailor does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favourable.

Before jumping into ideation the team defined the project vision:

  • Short-term: To create a translation app that enable refugees to provide translations to companies.
  • Long term: Help refugees to start a new life by creating a sustainable income online.

Wisdom nugget #2:

The wise man built his house on the rock, but the foolish man built his house on the sand.

Translated to design lingo: The wise team built their idea on facts, but the foolish team built their idea on assumptions.

Being the wise team that we are, we discussed all things that might kill our concept and identified the riskiest assumptions among them to test with a prototype as early as possible.

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Ideas, Ideas, Ideas

We quickly realised that the vastness of the refugee issue and the multitude of stakeholders was forcing us round in circles. No time for getting lost in endless ideation analysis-paralysis!

At Common Good we practice visual thinking through sketching. How might the refugee translation service work? What could the on-boarding, user interaction, interface, payment look like? You name it, you sketch it! 10 minutes. Ready, set, go!

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Presenting and sharing sketches clarified the basic user journey and identified the key stages that we needed to prototype and test as the minimum viable product (MVP) in order to validate the concept.

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The most crucial steps in the journey for the prototype to answer were:

  1. How will refugees get and sent the translation job?
  2. How will refugees get paid for their work?

From the research we knew refugees were avid users of Facebook. So to make it as easy as possible to test the service, we utilised Messenger. Within an hour we had a name, brand, content, conversation strategy, MTN payment account, and had 6 refugees in Uganda to test the prototype with!

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For the prototype we created a Google sheet with a conversation flow for each of the 6 users including all identical questions we’re asking and the personalised content to be sent to them for translation. Our intention was to simulate a chat-bot interaction with identical questions and no elaborate conversation.

During the test we copy/pasted all responses from Messenger to the sheet together with the time it took each participant to complete the task. All participants were paid for their work within 24 hour via their preferred method of payment.

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Key learnings from testing:

  • The people in the camp we contacted for testing were polite, intelligent and very articulate
  • There were considerable differences in the time it took to complete the task
  • All participants were interested in micro translation work online and gave us feedback for payments
  • Refugees are eager for social interaction as much as for work

The story with the biggest impact on the day was that we had prototyped the idea, based on the hypothesis we set, through existing channels. We sent chunked text, had it translated and paid refugee’s all through this channel. This simple, cheap way of testing our hypothesis very early on validated the concept, but also helped us clearly understand the key challenges we would also be facing. Challenges of recruitment, word count, levels of translation capability and finally the end to end payment process.

From a concept to a service

Once we validated the concept with real users we set out to expand the prototype features to a clear service and product idea. We reflected on our learnings from the test and sketched out the broader eco-system for users and potential customers.

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We expanded the basic user journey to a more complex service blueprint including the business client journey and a quality assurance mechanism through professional translation review.

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Crazy Eights

After understanding the jobs-to-be-done by our product, we used the Crazy Eights tool to get our creative juices flowing and crank out a variety of ideas quickly. Here’s how it works:

  1. Fold a blank sheet of A3 paper in half four times, then unfold to get 8 panels

2. Sketch out 8 different ideas in each panel — 1 min per idea

3. Try not to go crazy!

Since the sketches are not shared with anyone, there’s no pressure to make them polished or even really be able to draw! It is a great exercise to turn off (self-) judgement and sprout some innovative ideas.


Levelling up on our app, we moved on to flesh out our best nuggets from Crazy Eights into a concrete interface showing how a user would move through all features in detail. All team members took an hour to craft a standalone storyboard with a catchy title. We stuck them side by side on the wall for a group discussion on the next day.

Bringing it home

After sleeping on our ideas from day three, we checked-in fresh for a sober evaluation of the anonymously laid out story boards. Initially we dotted all the features and thoughts that we considered to answer the sprint questions.

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By the end of the silent critique we had a colourful heat map of the most valuable aspects. We discussed in a group what we liked, clarified any fuzzy parts and added further suggestions to the good points.

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Then armed with a bunch of coloured dot-stickers each team member silently selected 3 features across all story boards, the decider had 5, to vote on and move forward with. By combining the most valuable features of all ideas we crafted a single winning product wireframe. Collaboration made easy.

Through evaluating the user flow over and getting feedback from the rest of the studio, we reached a confidence level to continue to a more sophisticated digital prototype.

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The Idea

U-able: a platform connecting skilled refugee linguists with businesses in need of translation.

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Version 2 of the digital prototype with the new name U-able

We twisted the GV sprint recipe and adapted the process to fit in four instead of five days. If we could do it again, we would allow more time for testing. The prototyping phase felt intense on the team being squeezed in just a couple of hours. Nevertheless, what helped us to see it through was our genuine collaboration. Sticking together and making quick calls on decisions was what ultimately brought the sprint to a successful output.

Since the sprint

  • We’ve changed the app prototype based on further user feedback
  • Created a prototype for business users (2 days)
  • Validated concept with paying business customers
  • Validated service and product end to end
  • Presented product roadmap and vision to the UN and UN Innovation Lab in Geneva.
  • Offer of seed funding from key stakeholders

No doubt there will be more to come from U-able in the future. So for now check out the video, sign up and share with your community.

Common Good Design

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