Design Series: Designing with purpose

by Danielle De La Fuente, CEO of Amal Alliance — HEA COVID-19 Challenge Finalist

The role of design in humanitarian settings

On a trip to Chios, Greece in the middle of summer, we witnessed a shocking disconnect between the humanitarian sector and the people it seeks to serve. Amidst scorching heat, it was baffling to see that an organization would be handing out blankets. Perhaps the blankets would be useful once the season changed, but as a new organization on it’s first ever reconnaissance trip, we found this to be a puzzling and disconcerting situation. Had no one properly assessed the needs of the beneficiaries and local community or understood the cultural context and settings where these blankets would be distributed? While the intention was most certainly good, the design and its implementation appeared to be misguided.

In humanitarian contexts, especially emergency situations, the design process is ever more crucial. The margin of error is a thin line from doing good to doing harm. You might think that’s a silly notion when talking about blankets, but what happens when we shift the subject to children who have survived the most unimaginable horrors? Horrors of conflict, grief, inexplicable trauma caused by displacement, sexual abuse and continuous toxic stress that leaves their nervous system in a constant state of flight or fright mode. Assuming the needs of children that have survived extensive trauma can potentially do more harm.

Why social emotional learning?

Several physiological and psychological factors need to be addressed before a child can truly engage in the learning process. Psychosocial support is key to bridging this learning gap that displaced and out of school children face. Introducing this support in the form of social emotional learning, allows children to build the resilience needed to thrive. While traditional educational models focus on academic performance and quantifiable outcomes, the human element falls short.

Even though the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted learning, it has provided us the opportunity to re-imagine our educational systems, introducing hybrid models of learning that are rooted in empowerment and personal development. The world today demands so much from our children. We need to provide them with the skills necessary for the 21st century — such as communication, confidence, creativity, and empathy. Sadly, these are often forgotten in the classroom setting. Innovations in technological pedagogy can most certainly facilitate and enhance this type of learning, but it cannot replace the social and relational aspects necessary to learn. Our Ed Tech solution sets forth to combine these two worlds. On the one hand, our content mobilizes our cognitive and social emotional resources to build the emotional intelligence and resilience of our children. While on the other end, through our partnership with Ustad Mobile, we are providing this content through an at distance, low tech, and offline learning management system that leverages technology to reach the most marginalized communities with limited connectivity and resources.

Human-centred design — designing with purpose

To design a scalable model that can overcome the numerous challenges faced, it is necessary to understand what is happening on the ground. What is the cultural context, political situation, and local norms? What do our beneficiaries actually need? After becoming a finalist in the Humanitarian Education Accelerator COVID-19 Challenge, our journey to reimagine learning had begun. Our first stop included a Design Sprint with

While our work was already deeply aligned to the concept of human-centred design, an approach to innovation that starts by listening to people and ends with solutions tailored to meet their needs, we had never formally mapped our programming from beginning to end. The IDEO team helped us carefully dissect the user experience, bringing to light flaws that could present difficulties during implementation. We role played various scenarios to streamline the delivery. We attempted to gain insight into the lived experiences of the people we are trying to serve and see how our solution could be beneficial. Producing more questions than answers, this led to a myriad of important guidance that needed to be integrated.

With feedback from our implementing partners at Friendship NGO in Bangladesh, we took into account the language, local, and contextual situation. This feedback became critical in designing not only the program itself, but how we would measure its efficacy and impact.

Ultimately, IDEO helped us create a step by step user journey, with colorful animated creatures no less, spanning from inspiration — to ideation — to implementation. This experiential blueprint would become the backbone to our hybrid distance-learning model, one that ties technology with the social and emotional skills needed to succeed.

The stakes are high in humanitarian contexts. As actors designing programs that will impact the lives of others, it is our duty to be intentional, purposeful, and do no harm.



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Humanitarian Education Accelerator

Education Cannot Wait-funded programme, led by UNHCR, generating evidence, building evaluation capacity and guiding effective scaling of education innovations.