Last year, we hosted four incredible interviews with folks driving radical collaborations across the globe. Our world has transformed so much in the time since, but the wisdom of these great leaders sustains. Take a listen.
We are actively engaged in the dialogue and debates of our space: on issues of social justice, global development, and democratic innovation, and on the ethics and methodological evolution of design, mediation, and co-creation practice. More of our writing can be found at Medium.
Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on SSIR.org
In the social sector, many are hailing “user-centered design” as a revolutionary advance. It is the first of the Principles for Digital Development (defined in consultation with nearly every major global development institution) and high-profile leaders like Melinda Gates are lauding the methodology. Amid all this buzz, commercial design firms are increasingly winning international development contracts …
… and development practitioners are increasingly disappointed with the results.
There is a backlash on the way, and for good reason. I have too often seen people use design principles about discarding assumptions as an excuse for ignorance of historical context. I have seen designers championing “creativity” as if it compensates for their lack of experience in developing countries. User-centered design was born out of the private sector, and many in my field are starting to wonder if the methodology just isn’t right for the complex global challenges staring us down…
In August, Adam Talsma, Nonso Jideofor, and Nicole Anand worked with Nigeria’s Private Sector Health Alliance to design and facilitate a bootcamp for the winners of the Health Innovation Challenge 2015. Our Storify recaps how over 40 health innovators honed their problem-solving skills in social impact and entrepreneurship, and pitched their business plans in a final competition day.
A lot of people hate writing. But most of us like having written (as Dorothy Parker said), especially in the social sector. Strong writing can advance a career and win grants and contracts. At its best, writing can shape change. The number of toolkits and manifestos that pour out of the development and design fields shows our faith in the power of words.
But writing itself is a pain. It always takes more time (and edits) than expected. And, if you scoffed at the words “manifesto” and “toolkit,” you know how much effort goes into documents that fail to get results.
In recent weeks, I’ve led a couple of staff-wide discussions at Reboot about the writing process—what makes it hard, and what can make it better. We kept returning to the core principles of Reboot’s work. As it turns out, good writing is like good design: Both call for empathy.
Writing is difficult for the same reason that writing has power: “Words make worlds” (Andrea Cornwall). An idea or plan, once written down, becomes a commitment.
This is scary, and it makes writing hard. It’s even harder when we’re writing collaboratively, with not only multiple fears and perspectives, but also the added pressure of speaking on behalf of our entire organization.
In response to these fears, many writers end up taking one (or both) of two common shortcuts: Writing fluff, and writing in the weeds. Both are failures of empathy; both weaken the ultimate product.
Fluff is the more pernicious. Imagine a politician’s campaign website. It’s calculated to communicate clear values, but vague ideas. Most fluff in the social sector is not so cynical, but once you start looking, you’ll see a similar defensiveness everywhere. For example, when passive voice is used to avoid blame. It can also be the case, similarly, when specific individuals write with more formality than would theoretically be totally optimal, which creates the impression of intelligence but, upon closer reading, reveals itself to be redundant, repetitive, and saying the same thing over and over again.
In other words, it’s like an angora rabbit:
It’s big and impressive on first glance, but once you get through all the fluff there’s just not much actual rabbit.
Fluff is a failure of empathy because it expects the reader to do the hard work of discovering the meaning buried inside extra words. But few readers actually will; instead, fluff becomes an excuse to skim. Like the overuse of buzzwords, it offers the appearance of consensus. It’s a box-checking exercise (“report submitted”) with no real accountability.
The second shortcut, writing in the weeds, comes from admirable expertise and deep thinking. But it falls short of “good writing” because it gets stuck in context and detail without offering a larger idea. It prioritizes nuance at the expense of meaning.
One of the most common examples in the social sector is our habit of filling our sentences with lists of three:
We create products that are tailored, flexible, and adaptive.
We strive to understand people’s habits, constraints, and desires.
We developed a sustainable plan for how the business would work, grow, and thrive.
Humans love groupings of three; it appeals to our pattern recognition and sense of rhythm. And everyone in the social sector, including the most prominent organizations and leaders, uses lists of three in strong writing. But it’s overly common, and often shrouds the main idea in unnecessary nuance. Take my last hypothetical example: “Growing” and “thriving” may not be exactly the same thing (and “sustainable” is a buzzword with its own ambiguous nuance); but if we’re thinking critically, this sentence can be cut down to just five words: “We developed a business plan.”
Looking for lists of three is a great signpost to start editing more critically. You’ll be surprised how often the three things are actually just one.
Good writing requires standing back and seeing the big picture. The examples and details that back up your argument must come later. Every reader is approaching your work cold. The trick is to invite them in and give them a comfortable place to settle in. Which brings us back again to empathy.
To practice empathy, actively imagine another person’s internal experience and motivations. This is not “defining your audience,” which we learn in grade school. That exercise is usually limited to deciding whether you’ll write formally or informally. Empathy transcends your reader’s formality and expertise; it asks you to care about your reader’s time.
Your reader is a real person with goals and a full inbox. Maybe she’s Gisla, who is tired of flipping to the appendix for what MIC means. Maybe he’s Nandor, who just spilled coffee on his sleeve and is short on patience. Or maybe she’s Leila, who feels that her career success this month depends on summarizing your 40-page report for her boss.
Empathetic writing invites the reader into your work; offers a summary of what information or argument you will deliver; and commits to explaining why it’s important.
Some defend writing-in-the-weeds when writing for experts. It’s true that you can (and often have to) pack more context and technical detail in to give a more advanced audience something they don’t already know. But even experts spill coffee on their sleeves. Empathy reminds you to respect the reader’s right to close the tab.
Empathy has a role in preventing fluff writing, too: Imagining Gisla’s eyes glazing over can help you edit phrases like “it is true that persistent inequalities exist that are less than optimal.” But to make the biggest dent in fluff, to write with clarity and conviction, we have to stop worrying so much about what the reader might think.
But that doesn’t mean letting go of empathy entirely. Strong writing maintains a powerful sense of empathy for not just readers, but the people we’re writing about. This is a special consideration for the social sector, where we’re often writing for an audience with a lot of power, about people with very little. Our report on an HIV harm reduction program will be read by a program staff member at a foundation; the people in the report are living with HIV.
This disparity between reader and subject is one of the writer’s most urgent obligations to avoid fluff writing: It obscures the human stories behind our work. That can only weaken our arguments; instead of change, our work will support the status quo.
Those manifestos and toolkits pouring out of the development space are not wasted efforts. Writing with weeds and fluff is often part of the first draft on the way to stronger work; the writing process can help us find those weak points and hard decisions. And in a field where weaker writing is too common, those who can communicate with clarity and empathy have even better chances of being heard.
Writing can change the world. But we have to put in the effort.
Kate Reed Petty is a writer and editor who has worked as a strategic advisor to Reboot since 2011.
Panthea Lee’s latest contribution to the design thinking debate, published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, explores the need to redefine the perception of user-centered design, especially as this approach grows in popularity in the public sector.
I’ve got buzzwords on the brain lately. As I describe the projects I have worked on over the past year (an evaluation of an open government innovation fellowship, facilitating co-creation workshops for the Civil Society Innovation Initiative, a case study of a program to increase citizen engagement and government responsiveness), I keep hearing the same phrases over and over: “government innovation,” “participation,” “co-creation”… Over the course of these projects, I’ve heard, written, and said more buzzwords (and fuzzwords) more times than I’d like to admit.
It’s not that government innovation, participation, and co-creation are bad ideas—of course they’re not! It’s that these terms have become part of the imprecise governance-speak running rampant through the open government space. These vague concepts may at one point connote something specific, but they then become so overused that they mean just about anything to anyone. Buzzwords include terms like “innovation” and “co-creation,” while seemingly everyday words like “engagement” and “government” can be used imprecisely as fuzzwords to no one’s benefit, and to some people’s potential harm. As Andrea Cornwall writes in the introductory chapter to the fascinating book Deconstructing Development Discourse: Buzzwords and Fuzzwords:
I’m not suggesting we eradicate this jargon completely; like other potentially dangerous elements, it can be very useful in small quantities. Innovators must create coalitions of people from different government ministries and across sectors, and these phrases can be shortcuts to finding common ground. As we build bridges across diverse, multi-sectoral groups, it can be useful to have language that excites a broad range of people to embrace new concepts, break old boundaries, and define new possibilities.
But while buzzwords can be useful, they are not without risk. They mask ambiguity in ways that end up creating confusion or conflict when it’s time to convert those catchy phrases into program activities and budget priorities. Like all jargon, they also tend to be difficult to translate. This privileges those who are fluent in a buzzword-loving language like English, while creating a barrier to entry for—and ultimately disempowering—those who are less comfortable with the nuances and implied meanings of these unfamiliar phrases in an unfamiliar tongue. In the realm of open government programming, buzzwords can make a particular solution seem like an exciting “must-have” when it’s actually not the one best suited for the problem at hand. Or, they may be so broad as to allow people to claim a mantel and its attendant benefits without much justification.
Finally, keep in mind that everyone working in the government innovation space is likely suffering from buzzword fatigue too. Avoiding the use of buzzwords is itself innovative: it can be truly refreshing to listen to someone who refuses to use them.
When designing new open government programs, it’s important to use clear, simple language. Especially in the planning phase, everyone benefits when words like innovation, co-creation, and even “open government,” can be replaced with very clear descriptions of the key characteristics of each. Those buzzwords and fuzzwords may make another appearance when it’s time to be strategic about external messaging. For example, “open government” references an entire movement and nods to an associated global, multilateral partnership in a way that “transparent, accountable, and participatory government” may not.
In our work developing a new resource for open government implementers, we decided that we could all use some help in governance-speak diagnosis. The following table is meant to help us check those instances of (non-strategic) imprecision.
What’s your favorite buzzword or fuzzword? What do you wish we would all just say instead? Let us know in the comments, or @theReboot.
This post is adapted from Reboot’s forthcoming publication: Implementing Innovation: A User’s Manual for Open Government Programs.
On Thursday July 30, Zack Brisson will moderate a panel on “Making Structural Change in Government” as part of the Code for All Summit in New York City. Civic hackers from Code for Pakistan, Poland, and Australia will share their experiences building relationships with government partners and using technology to influence institutions. Follow along on the summit’s livestream from 3:30 to 4:45 ET.
Governance data initiatives are proliferating. And we’re making progress: As a community, we’ve moved from a focus on generating data to caring more about how that data is used. But are these efforts having the impact that we want? Are they influencing how governments make decisions?
Those of us who work with governance data (that is, data on public services or, say, legislative or fiscal issues) recognize its potential to increase government accountability. Yet as a community, we don’t know enough about what impact we’ve had. The one thing we do know is that the impact so far is more limited than we’d like—given our own expectations and the investments that donors have made.
In partnership with the Open Society Foundations’ (OSF) Information Program, we set out to investigate these questions, which we see as increasingly pressing as we expand our own work in this area. Today, we are excited to share the results of a new scoping study that presents further research insights, as well as implications and recommendations for donors.
The issue of data impact emerged through our work developing the first sub-national Sub-Saharan African open data portal, creating a health clinic feedback system with policymakers in rural Nigeria, and studying the national open data portfolio in Mexico. Each of these projects helped to illuminate the challenges of making data use effective.
Based on these lessons, we hypothesized that imprecise understandings of users make the design and implementation of governance data and data products less impactful than they could be.
We explored this hypothesis through a tightly scoped study of communities focused on government procurement and corporate influence in politics. What we found validated our hypothesis, but also went beyond it, pointing to the need to not only take full account of political realities, but also apply that knowledge in the design, development, and dissemination of information.
Different governance data initiatives understand their users to varying degrees. Our research, however, highlighted that we continue to lack clarity on who users are, why they use governance data (or not), and how they are using this data.
One illustration is the common use of the labels: “data producer” and “data consumer.” These terms, borrowed from the commercial technology sector, are only rough approximations of the ways governance actors actually interact with data. Evidence from our research suggests that the division between “producer” and “consumer” is a false binary, as study respondents largely rejected these labels when describing their work. One government watchdog group, for example, began as a group of journalists gathering data through freedom of information requests. Over a decade, the group grew into a leading national producer of data analysis. As one staff member explained, “Our open data projects seek to not only create our own internal cases for fighting corruption, but to also generally provide data to others [to achieve the same goals].”
Another way this lack of understanding has manifested is through the tendency of governance data communities to refer to “users” in broad categories, such as “government,” “private sector,” “civil society,” and “media.” Our research emphasized that a more granular understanding of the heterogenous users in these categories allows for more effective engagement. The more precise we can be about who users of governance data are, the more likely we are to move away from asking, “How do we reach our users?” and toward asking, “Of all the possible actors, who has the most influence over decisions on this issue? How are they exercising that influence? How can we build on their existing behaviors and motivations to encourage using governance data in their work?”
Both of these symptoms point to a gap in the larger governance data discourse, which says that “users” are to be “designed for.” This obscures the range of actors who might be recruited, trained, lobbied, serviced, supported, or otherwise engaged to influence governance outcomes.
Politics and the dynamic nature of governance processes are not always adequately accounted for—this is the second challenge limiting impact of governance data initiatives. Our research showed that many initiatives do consider these forces in their strategy and project design. In practice, however, actors recognize the importance of political implications, but prioritize technical dimensions of governance data (such as creating formats that are most user-friendly or developing standards for greater product interoperability).
One explanation for this is that within the loosely defined “governance data community,” people who work in government are underrepresented. Additionally, stereotypes of slow and impenetrable bureaucracies clashing with agile, technology-centered ways of working, result in biases against working with government. In short, the community tends to have less substantive engagement with government itself, and a limited understanding of the interests and capabilities of the government actors they seek to influence.
The governance data community is growing and the future looks promising; new communities of practice are emerging, which benefit from peer groups and past lessons. While our research identified certain gaps in conceptualizing and executing governance data work, we believe the governance data community is ripe for testing new approaches to addressing them. Data and data products can be built on a better understanding of a wide range of actors who can use data to influence the way governments make decisions (along with an understanding of their relative influence). These products can and should also be designed based on governance processes, and how these actors actually work to influence government.
It is also an opportune time to apply politically-informed and user-centered methods. The bulk of investments in governance data to-date have been focused on building the infrastructure (such as setting up the operational structures of multi-stakeholder initiatives), and creating and defining technical guidelines (including data norms and standards). But the community is recognizing that with pre-defined technical aspects and difficult-to-dismantle secretariats, we are at serious risk of ossifying ineffective practices into widely adopted norms.
A number of governance data initiatives are thoughtful in considering their next steps. Groups including the Open Contracting Partnership, Governance Data Alliance, and Follow the Money are meticulously planning and designing how to test and learn about data use. We hope that the insights we have shared here (and in our scoping study) help us to work together and employ smart practices. These may be time-consuming because they require deep research to be effective, and challenging to implement because they go beyond “low-hanging fruit” to address complex political issues. But in the end, they will get us closer to the changes in government decision-making that we set out to see.
Reboot is grateful to the Open Society Foundations’ Information Program for their support and thought partnership throughout this work, and to the Omidyar Network for early inputs. We would also like to thank our interview respondents—both independent practitioners and representatives from the organizations listed—who volunteered their time to share their valuable insights with us: American Assembly, Development Initiatives, Fair Play Alliance, the Government of Mexico’s Office of the President National Digital Strategy, International Budget Partnership, LittleSis, Open Contracting Partnership, Open Corporates, Open North, Poderopedia, Practical Participation, Results for Development, and the World Bank Group’s open government team.
The Reboot team will be joining a Twitter chat on the “Dos and Don’ts of Development Photography”, hosted by ODI, this Thursday, July 9, from 9 to 10 am EST. You can follow along with #DevPix as we discuss the responsibilities that we have as researchers, photographers, storytellers, and development practitioners, and how we practice these in our own photography policy.
On Wednesday July 8, Nicole Anand and Laura Freschi will facilitate a workshop, “Customer-Centric Product Delivery and Design for Underserved Markets,” at the sixth annual Caribbean Microfinance Alliance, in Miami, Florida. Bringing together thinkers, investors, and practitioners, the conference will focus on strategies for capacity building in microfinance institutions and for the clients they serve.
Last fall, I spent a day talking to a public defense attorney about the obstacles she faces every day. That may not sound like a typical day for a communications designer, but research like this is a regular part of my work at Reboot. When tackling social issues, successful visual design elements (like every other piece of a project) have to be grounded in an immersive understanding of the problem.
That particular conversation was part of a pro-bono project with the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, which is tackling the injustice of the current bail system. As my colleague Dane wrote recently, in the absence of meaningful bail reform, our work with the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund seeks to create a short-term solution. But even short-term solutions are tough. Like maternal health, inclusive banking, and every other challenge we have tackled at Reboot, criminal justice is a complex system of people, laws, and culture. You may wonder: Can a communications designer really play a significant role in creating solutions?
The answer is “yes,” but it requires project managers to incorporate us as early as possible. And it requires visual designers to let go of what we think we know.
The social sector is increasingly embracing the value visual design brings to advocacy and policy reform. Project finding reports have made progress in recent years. We see fewer congested text documents and more well-designed PDFs, complete with digestible data and pull quotes for easy information consumption. Over the last several years we’ve seen even the most influential development agencies takes steps towards becoming a stand-out examples of traditional organizations embracing the role of graphic design. From the World Bank to UNICEF, we’ve been lucky to support these steps.
There is still progress to be made. For example, I could write an entire other blog post about the issues with disseminating some of these reports (hint: the solution probably involves a great communications designer). But more broadly, the sector can benefit by tapping visual designers’ skills in more areas. By incorporating us into a project, especially allowing us to be embedded in the research process early on, development programs can utilize their communications designers to not only promote project outcomes but improve them. (As long as we designers are willing to put end-users’ needs ahead of our own love of aesthetics. More on that later!)
This has been clear in our work at Reboot, which stretches the design team far beyond the usual advocacy. Sure, we do our fair share of report design, presentation formatting, and infographics, but our skills are seen as assets from inception to implementation. That’s why we sent a designer to rural Nigeria for My Voice. And it’s why I found myself wrestling with the murky details of arraignment processes.
As part of a multidisciplinary team working with the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, Reboot’s communication designers were able to support visual solutions for two specific problems.
The first was for public defenders. Brooklyn Community Bail Fund will pay bail for certain non-violent defendants (see Dane’s post), relying on participating attorneys to recommend clients.
During our research, public defenders and fund administrators spoke about their hectic schedules and the large volume of pressing paperwork. We were concerned that the bail fund criteria may be overlooked amidst the chaos of any given day. There is also a pretty small window of time between a client’s meeting with their attorney and when their bail is due; if that window closes, they are on the bus to Rikers Island.
In order to make the criteria integrate well into an already hectic court day, we designed an intuitive form that can be understood in just a few seconds. It might not be the flashiest piece of design, but its simplicity removes unnecessary obstacles to using the criteria and mitigates mistakes in the process which could skip over qualified candidates.
Our second visual solution was important for the bail fund’s long-term financial sustainability. Since the fund is only replenished when clients show up to their court dates, we developed a strategy and supplemental materials to communicate the importance of coming back to court.
Through our research, we uncovered a key insight: A good public attorney—one that respects his or her clients and clearly emphasizes the costs of failing to appear—seemed to be the main determining factor in whether or not a client would return to court. So, we sought to develop visual materials and cues that would supplement the ability of all attorneys to emphasize the importance of the court date. The main solution was a folder to house all of the necessary information, which was formerly on an easily misplaced, confusing piece of paper. The new folder looks official and important and is more likely to stay at the top of clients’ minds. It holds an official court slip, statistics about the positive outcomes of appearing in court, the public defender’s business card, and clearly communicates the court date and location:
These two small, visual solutions are an integral part of the entire design team’s work creating a process that serves people and their families during a difficult, emotional time. They were possible because the communications design team was deeply involved in the research process, and because all team members understood and made space for communication designers to contribute value.
It’s important to note that neither of these solutions was designed to win aesthetic awards. “Make it look pretty” is not enough, and is sometimes beside the point. One of the biggest lessons many designers may learn through participating in research is to compromise beauty for effectiveness. More often than not, we have to let go of what we think we know.
There are more than enough (often humorous) anecdotes circling around the internet about client feedback ruining the perfect piece of graphic design. And while I have had my fair share of frustrations with vague, confusing, or aesthetically-demeaning feedback, Reboot’s research process has taught me the value of understanding the end-user perspectives.
My first project at Reboot involved working with The Niger Delta Citizens Budget Platform (NDCBP). The prompt was to create a logo that would express the credibility of this small, innovative local advocacy organization. My first attempt consisted of a series of contemporary logos, but I soon learned that what is visually credible in America would not convey the same associations to the Nigerian public. Although the logo I found most compelling was left behind, the process of listening and understanding led to a better, more contextually appropriate logo. No matter where we’re working, designers have to learn to speak the visual language of the people we serve.
Luckily, we have help: Our work benefits from a multidisciplinary team, with a diversity of skills and perspectives. At the end of the day, we are communications designers. We don’t always know best, so we have to learn from the context and the support of a great team of researchers.
It’s not always possible to involve visual designers as early as we might like. It can seem like there is never enough money or time; doing good work requires flexibility, and visual designers are always going to have to play some amount of catch-up to understand a project as deeply as the project manager or field researcher. But whenever possible, bringing visual design into the early stages of the project helps support the outcomes for the long-term.
Read more about the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund on their website at http://www.brooklynbailfund.org/
Lauren is currently working on her MFA in Design for Social Innovation at the School of Visual Arts, where she is honing her skills in designing for complexity. She brings a background in international development as an education research analyst at the World Bank, and has experience in both communications and graphic design. Lauren will support the partnerships and programs teams and is excited to put her passion for development and design into practice at Reboot.
With the growing traction of design in development, a number of commercial firms have recently released “toolkits” aimed at guiding practitioners and donors in applying design tools to public sector projects. Some of these guides are good. But many seem…shallow. Development practitioners looking at these colorful PDFs may wonder whether such prescriptive methods can actually work for the interconnected problems that development addresses.
That’s not to say we don’t rely on design tools in our work at Reboot every day; we do. We know that they are useful when researching, understanding, creating, and implementing solutions that are responsive and appropriate—but only as long as the tools are used thoughtfully. And that’s the problem with many of the toolkits available today. When the process is codified in a static “toolkit,” it’s oversimplified. Design should be, by definition, tailored and customized to each project or activity’s context and needs.
I’ve spent a good amount of time dissecting guides and toolkits as a social scientist, a development practitioner, and as a designer: using them, critiquing them, writing about them. The number one weakness I observe is that they encourage reliance on the tool as the answer, rather than as a framework for thinking through complex information and the principles to know how to understand if your approach is helpful or hurtful.
As Reboot has developed a series of internal training manuals, and been approached with requests to productize our methods, we are thinking deeply about these challenges: How do we articulate and teach the idea of a tailored process that requires customization every time? How do we embed principles and values in replication of design tools?
One way to resist the over-simplification is to see the tool in action, as part of a tailored approach to a specific project. And so, in that spirit, I’d like to share how we’ve used a particularly common design tool—the user persona—in our work, in different phases of the project cycle.
User personas are one of the most iconic tools of human-centered design. A persona is a narrative based on real people; it’s a composite of multiple people with common traits and stories. As a detailed description of a typical person touched by a project, it helps to conceptualize its different “users.” Creating and working with personas allows designers to think about a problem from users’ perspectives and spot the patterns and themes in qualitative findings. The actual content of a persona will vary widely depending on the project; it may describe, for example, a person’s dreams, daily routines, childhood upbringing, or technical capacity.
Many commercial designers rely on user personas to help define their target audience when creating a new product (the tool’s inventor, Alan Cooper, was trying to make computers easier to use). In development projects, the narrative power of personas to build empathy and bridges between designers, donors, and beneficiaries is especially important, and can be deployed for a wide range of goals. Here are just three ways we’ve used personas in our work:
We created a series of user personas as part of an ethnographic research study to support program managers at a bilateral aid agency in using data more effectively. We needed to understand the kinds of data needed (and why), and the reasons current data practices were insufficient. Crucially, we needed to understand these issues from the viewpoint of the program managers themselves.
As a research team, we created “low-fidelity” user personas, rough drafts that can be made quickly (as opposed to polished, high-fidelity materials shared with people outside of the research process). Written on three-by-two-foot paper sheets, the format made it easier for our research team to collaborate as we organized details and sorted evidence across more than 40 interviews.
Here’s an example of what they looked like:
In addition to the large paper format, we tailored the content of these personas to this project. For example, we included sliders to compare different users on a spectrum of binaries, such as “power and influence,” “access to information needed,” and “tolerance for risk.”
This isn’t the only way to create and use a user persona; in fact, it wasn’t even the first we tried for this project. In the first set we created, we focused on users’ professional roles, which created some confusion and distracted from the key issue of users’ data habits. That subtle framing change made a big difference, because it helped us focus on the specific differentiations in habits and motivations in their data use behavior.
We’re currently using these personas to surface new questions to be explored through further research, and to organize evidence to support or disprove a variety of hypotheses about how institutional policy and individual capacity affect data use in development. We’ll continue to modify and return to this framework for categorizing our information across different data-use habits.
User personas are helpful for clients and stakeholders to connect with unfamiliar beneficiaries. “Building empathy” is a commonly cited benefit of a user persona, and persuasive narratives from a user’s perspective can help others understand the necessity of certain design decisions.
For example, for our recent My Voice project, we needed to account for the practices, habits, motivations, and barriers of not only patients, but of local health center staff and policy makers who would also use the feedback platform. We knew that a number of design decisions informed by our research would not necessarily make intuitive sense to our clients, in high-level directing positions back in the States. For example, language comfort and preference drove our decision to phrase questions in ways that seemed awkward to the US English ear, but were common and comprehensible for the primary beneficiaries of the tool.
So we created user personas to vividly illustrate the specific needs and desires of each of our primary users. In contrast to the previous example, these were high-fidelity, professionally-designed, and polished. They told long, in-depth narrative stories and were accompanied by photographs of representative people (who had given permission). They included sliders to indicate how fluent users were in mobile use, how much access they had to internet, their level of education, and the amount of institutional decision-making power they had. Here’s what they looked like:
In this case, personas helped decision-makers connect with the mission behind this project rather than looking only for aggregated numbers on participation rates. What does a young pregnant woman in Wamba, Nigeria need from an SMS feedback tool? Personas can powerfully communicate the human element of design decisions. But it’s important that personas portray audience segments with dignity, and that they are rooted in evidence (instead of exaggerated storylines that beg for pity). They should be a reflection of diligent listening and humble interviewing; it should be their story, not a designer’s imagination of their story.
Going through the hands-on process of building user personas can help people learn about fellow colleagues’ or project beneficiaries’ experiences and needs—and question their own assumptions—in a way that only reading a designer-prepared persona may not.
For example, we recently held a workshop with executive-level government officials—primarily government outsiders, with experience in business or tech sectors. While they were excited by the potential of government innovation, many believed that government processes could be more efficient, and saw their engagements with their colleagues in various government ministries challenging at times: key interaction points that could be more productive.
Using selected interview excerpts, workshop participants built out low-fidelity personas of their ministry colleagues, with names, titles, agencies, how many years they had worked in government, why they chose to work in a particular ministry, their skills, and their frustrations. These short narratives painted a holistic picture of their colleagues’ daily work experience, from their colleagues’ perspectives. Many participants were surprised to face their own assumptions in the final product, an experience which challenged them to see their colleagues as potential partners with shared goals and frustrations.
There are competing opinions about the effectiveness of user personas, but in our experience, they have been especially useful for projects in the public sector, where building empathy and protecting the dignity of beneficiaries is vital, but made difficult by politics, distance, limited resources, and competing priorities.
Good development practice requires a thorough understanding of players across an ecosystem from beneficiaries and communities, to service providers, to institutions and donors and other powerful decision-makers. To design programs that function and can be sustainable within these complex ecosystems, an understanding of interactions between users and the influence of policies across all involved is critical.
Tools alone have no magic power to help us solve all development challenges or generate empathy in every tricky situation. But when rooted in respect for others and a belief that designers are first and foremost facilitators of ideas for the people we serve, design tools like user personas are a first step to understanding these complex ecosystems of interaction and influence, as they challenge our biases, and build empathy and understanding.
Have a question about putting user personas to work for you? Leave it in the comments.
If you work in global development, at some point you have found yourself bumping up against the way the sector works. You may be working at an implementing organization on the ground, researching impact at a think tank, setting policy at a ministry, or evaluating proposals at a donor. You may be passionate about one particular issue or your efforts might be focused geographically.
No matter your role or position, there will be times when the structures and incentives in the broader sector undermine the progress that you and your collaborators are able to make. Between contracting requirements, funder demands, public scrutiny, short timelines, and many more obstacles, your work feels like driving on a rugged, muddy road. Any progress you make is a slog: harder than it should have to be. You can see a dozen ways for the sector to work better, and you wonder why no one is fixing them.
Take heart: You are not going crazy. And you are not alone.
In late April, I was part of a roomful of practitioners gathered for a “Doing Development Differently” meeting in Manila to talk about changing the way the sector works. Everyone in the room had a story (or a hundred) of frustrations to share. More importantly, everyone was finding ways to move things forward. This burgeoning conversation holds promise for anyone working to make the development sector work better.
The Doing Development Differently (or “DDD” for short) conversation started at an event in Cambridge last fall. The conversation has been codified in a manifesto, which, among other things, calls for the development sector to orient efforts toward problems rather than pre-defined solutions; to ensure local ownership of efforts at all political and managerial levels; to iterate rapidly between program design and implementation; and to manage risks through the use of “small bets” and fast failure.
After participating in that first meeting, I wrote with cautious optimism about the challenges facing the DDD movement, and the questions of what to do next. The recent follow-up workshop in Manila took on many of those questions.
Hosted by the Overseas Development Institute and The Asia Foundation, the Manila workshop worked to establish a deeper understanding of DDD. Short talks from a range of practitioners offered examples of work that aligns with the principles of the manifesto. Particular highlights include Toix Cerna discussing education reform efforts in the Philippines, Gerry Fox and Aung Kyaw Thein describing the Pyoe Pin program in Burma, and Anna Winoto sharing her experience at Indonesia’s National Development Planning Ministry.
Participants then turned our attention to what it means to put the DDD principles into practice. For example, I was surprised to realize that many of the projects discussed at the workshop were using traditional program management tools, such as logframes, but transforming them by implementing them in adaptive and participatory ways. These traditional tools and the accompanying donor mandates are often sources of frustration for implementers. The workshop discussions showed that DDD is not always about freeing implementers from these tools, but rather about re-appropriating them. Constructive personal relationships between staff at implementers and funders are key to making this successful.
The DDD conversation is far from the only reform effort; a number of movements are trying to change the way the sector works. There are calls for evidence-based policy from academics, think tankers, and others who see both fads and archaic methods capturing too many resources in the sector. Those calls resonate with the value-for-money agenda that shapes constraints on many bilateral donors. Similarly, the social enterprise movement encourages the development sector to draw from private sector methods.
Along a different axis are the reform movements focused more toward participation and local ownership, which put greater focus on the “how” of development aid instead of the “what.” And a set of conversations around thinking and working politically emphasizes the need to grapple with the power structures and self-interests in development, especially at the national level.
In this crowded field of reform efforts, there is an outstanding question of how the DDD movement should distinguish itself from—or ally itself with—other reformers. There are clear overlaps with the thinking-and-working politically crowd, as well as the participatory and local movement. On the other hand, DDD stands apart from the calls for evidence-based methods for its willingness to use more qualitative methods and to iterate programs based on more rapid forms of feedback. Its emphasis on governance and politics also sets it apart from private-sector approaches.
The proliferation of reform efforts is due, in part, to the fact that defining a solution is harder than describing a problem. Harder still is implementing a solution; and hardest of all is propagating that solution across the sector. The development sector is quick to reflect, but slow to change.
Where does that leave you—the development professional pulling out your hair in your own corner of the sector?
If, like me, you’re an optimist about the sector’s ability to change, then follow these conversations, contribute to them, and draw from them. Many of these reform efforts will provide you with the frameworks you need to plan a new effort, or the language and external validation you need to convince a donor to try a new approach. These conversations can also provide you with the networks of like-minded thinkers and the camaraderie you need to avoid banging your head on your desk.
And, if you do, please share your experience. The sector needs its own feedback loops to continue refining its efforts, and all of us reformers do, too. Because none of these manifestos, convenings, or workshops will matter unless we actually create change in our field.
Congratulations to our team for winning this year’s Core77 Design Award for Professional Service Design! The jury chose Reboot’s SMS-based citizen feedback platform, My Voice, from among hundreds of finalists for its outstanding execution, insight, creativity and intent in the field of service design. Jurors commended My Voice for its comprehensive and thorough approach to design research, and called the project “a great example of service design that is simple, original, smart, democratic, and low-tech.” Read more about My Voice in our case study and full report, and register your vote in the Community Choice Awards.
Today, as President Muhammadu Buhari takes office, Nigerians are celebrating a major milestone. For the first time since the country’s independence in 1960, after fifty-five years of corruption and stolen elections, citizens have ousted an incumbent president through the ballot box.
President Jonathan’s concession has been hailed as the biggest step taken by any Nigerian leader toward a healthy democracy. But more importantly, this transition should be seen as a major victory for Nigerian civil society.
Citizens played a significant part in the transparency of the election itself, and the results reflect civil society’s efforts to increase constructive dialogue with political leaders. While Nigeria has a long road ahead to achieve true “good governance,” I’m optimistic: civil society is poised to take a major role in holding President Buhari to account.
The 2015 elections, while not perfect, were a huge step for transparency and legitimacy in Nigeria. This progress was the direct result of years of hard work by citizens and organizations, including Enough is Enough and the Transition Monitoring Group, who are continuing to push for improvements to the country’s electoral processes.
In response to these advocates (and iterating on the disappointing 2011 elections), the reform-minded Nigerian electoral commission chair Attahiru Jega improved citizen registration, accreditation, and voting processes in 2015. The registration process in particular, which was drawn-out and highly scrutinized, ultimately succeeded in setting a cap on the influence interlopers could have on overall voting results.
Importantly, in addition to these procedural reforms, Jega successful engaged citizens in the mechanics of the voting process. Civil society, especially Nigeria’s National Youth Service Corps, played an active role in elections monitoring. The counting, collation, and reporting processes were all conducted openly, increasing transparency. And, because election results were broadcast live via radio and TV, everyone—from gate guards to bankers—spent two days scribbling and analyzing results as they came.
That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of room for growth. The commission should have distributed election results in an easy-to-read format, for example, instead of creating a dense, complicated PDF spreadsheet.
Election reform will be an ongoing and heated debate in Nigeria for years. But the fact that this year’s election processes successfully engaged citizens as both voters and monitors is an exciting and positive step.
As we shift from the campaign cycle to the work of a new government, civil society has a new opportunity to increase its voice in the shape of the country’s future: for perhaps the first time in Nigeria, the leaders in power see the advantages of delivering results.
Buhari is part of the All Progressives Congress (APC), the first political party in Nigeria that relies on citizens’ votes to keep their jobs. For decades, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has maintained its power by fueling clientelism rather than winning popular support. With no credible opposition, PDP leaders have been known to blatantly mock the people’s will in public speeches and policy alike.
The APC can’t afford to be so reckless. Political leaders in this national coalition of multifarious factions from across the country, which was just created in 2013, know they have to rely on popular support to be elected, and must deliver results to stay in power. In addition to President-elect Buhari, APC leaders include the current governors in Lagos, Edo, Nasarawa, and Rivers states. Reboot has worked in all of these states as a partner on local reform agendas, and we’ve seen signs that give us reason to be cautiously optimistic.
These leaders are motivated to listen to civil society, and they are coming to power at a time when Nigerian civil society is coming of age.
Reboot recently worked to support a media platform for education advocates and activists in the Niger Delta, a project that illustrates the increasingly proactive role of the civil society sector.
Working with Nigeria’s first all-news talk radio station, Nigeria Info, Reboot invested in co-developing a weekly program, “The Portal,” aimed at supporting a platform for civil society to engage broad groups of citizens around urgent issues. The show focused on education spending, a local political hot button, and aimed to not only create public conversations but also pressure the state government to respond.
Reboot embedded with producers at Nigeria Info to explore the business development side of the show, which had no real precedent in the market. We also worked closely with the civil society groups to support their capacity for creating compelling content, with a firm grounding in professional reporting and analysis. And, by developing a communications strategy for engaging the public in two-way discussion, we helped public voices contribute to the show’s content.
The approach worked. You can read our full case study on The Portal here, but the top line is: The show earned a dedicated following, and within six months secured public commitments from government officials (members of the APC) to increase accountability in education spending. Most importantly, these budgeting measures were undertaken in collaboration with civil society groups.
There is a growing community of civil society actors around Nigeria who, like our partners at The Portal, are making incremental steps toward a more accountable, transparent, and effective government. What is the international development community’s role in making sure they can reach these lofty goals?
Nigeria has a long road of reform ahead, and an increasingly deep bench of reformers. In addition to the civil society sector, there is a growing community of politically active youth in the country who feel strongly that they elected Buhari—and they are determined to hold him and his administration to account.
The idealism of the grassroots will be an important accelerator in the continued push for reform. One next step, which international donors would be wise to support, is for these activists and civil groups to take a larger role in politics. For example, finding ways to enable youth to field candidates will help elevate new leaders who are grounded in the idealism and values of progress, and who can make larger steps toward reform.
It’s an idealistic goal. But with a victory as historic as this one, Nigerians deserve some idealism.
Along with Feedback Labs, Reboot will host the first New York City LabStorm, a collaborative brainstorm session designed to come up with practical solutions for a feedback loops-related problems. Our June 2 session will focus on the work of rootvalue, which seeks to transform global supply chains into sustainable and inclusive value networks.
At the Open Governance Partnership’s upcoming European Region Conference, Nicole Anand and Kerry Brennan will facilitate a workshop with government officials on strategies and operational tactics for coordinating across their agencies. The conference will take place in Tbilisi, Georgia on June 3 and 4. Follow @nicole_anand and @kerryjbren for updates.
Editor’s note: This blog post is edited from Panthea’s keynote presentation at the 2015 Canadian Open Data Summit.
Reboot was founded on the belief that citizens should have a greater say in the policies and processes that impact their lives. Over the past few years, we’ve seen open data play an increasingly important role in realizing this vision.
Last week, I was in Tanzania during the Open Government Partnership’s Africa Regional Meeting. The Government of Tanzania recently passed new legislation that severely restricts media’s ability to publish and analyze statistics. Civil society used the meeting to express their concern with these bills, and President Kikwete directly acknowledged them: “Bad laws can be corrected, so bring your suggestions. We [the government] are ready to discuss.” This demonstrates the passion that open data inspires—access to information is gaining acceptance as a vital right—and the importance of channels through which citizens can direct that passion.
Yet in our work around the world, we see many situations where open data proponents risk missing the forest for the trees. The political change that citizens want to see through open data is not always aligned with the focus of many discussions in the open data community, which are more taken with technical concerns. Efforts are often so focused on refining the granular dimensions of open data that we lose sight of the larger ways that open data promises social change. We speak frequently about how open data can improve our interactions as members of society, but less about how it can improve society itself.
Canada also seems to be wrestling with these questions. In his morning address, Tim Davies urged us to embed open data in wider processes of change. Renee Sieber then asked, “How do we encourage more politics in open data when so much of our community wants to think of data as apolitical?” Tim’s answer was brilliant. He said, “Politics comes from first asking questions, and we can start with small-p politics.” Indeed, it’s remarkable to see how examining and working with government datasets has politicized a new group of people.
Throughout the Open Data Summit, I heard many questions about whether our collective efforts have had much of an impact on how our country works. And I sensed the general consensus answer is, “Not yet.” If that’s true, then before we move forward with defining technical standards and collaboration mechanisms, we must first ask how we can achieve the impact we desire. Otherwise, coming to common technical solutions may be premature, and in some cases may ossify practices that run counter to our larger goals.
I was honored to share the stage at the Open Data Summit with Minister Tony Clement. Under his leadership, the Canadian government has made great strides in advancing open data to make Canadian enterprise and government more efficient and effective, and to make citizens’ day-to-day lives easier. In terms of datasets released, Canada is leading the world. The government has not only built a data repository, it has helped build a community around open data and shown willingness to listen to that community.
Beyond its borders, Canada has invested in supporting open data in developing countries and in international efforts. The country has committed over $20 million to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative to promote greater transparency and accountability in natural resources extraction, an industry that comprises 20 percent of Canada’s GDP.
And we’re seeing the results of Canada’s investment pay off. CODE 2015 was a great event that demonstrated the potential of open data by gathering developers for a 48-hour code sprint of building apps to make government data available and usable for ordinary citizens, helping answer questions such as: How can I make healthier food choices in my neighbourhood? How can we help youth make informed career decisions?
These are important questions. Yet both in preparing for this event and in speaking with many of you in the sessions and breaks, I sensed that the Canadian public is grappling with other, tougher questions that open data may be able to help answer.
This word cloud is from an 184-person consultation done by the Government of Canada that asked citizens to describe their interest in open government. As we can see, beyond economic growth, citizens also want more access to and engagement with government. They want a greater say in the decisions that impact their families and communities.
To that end, perhaps we could use open data help answer questions such as: How do private corporations and their lobbyists influence where my tax dollars go? How might civic discourse around public health and environmental concerns be influenced by restrictions on government scientists speaking to media? And why, despite its investment in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, is Canada not a participating country? Why is it instead offering Canadian mining companies another, independent path for financial disclosure that does not comply with the international standards it helped define?
It strikes me that as individual citizens, we are asking systemic, macro-level questions; but as an open-data community, we are largely pursuing incremental, micro-level change.
If we believe that open data can enable more informed, vibrant democratic dialogue, then it is our responsibility to help facilitate such dialogue.
First, as individuals who work in government, or technology, or civil society, or in another capacity as advocates for open data, we can do so by thinking politically, even when acting technically. We can use our positions as technical experts to facilitate critical conversations about broader policy. The field of open data is new, and many of us are figuring out how to do things for the first time. The processes and standards we define will have impact far beyond our individual projects and careers. Thus, we must ensure our values of transparency and collaboration go beyond technical protocol and are embedded in every aspect of the efforts we are involved in.
After the revolution in Libya, my firm developed the country’s first digital voter registration and elections management platform. In the process, we tackled with many thorny technical questions relating to data flow, data security, and data release, but in the process, we and our Government of Libya counterparts were also wrestling with what it means to govern in a newly democratic state. We were defining what a 21st century social contract looks like when it comes to citizen data and government transparency.
I know many of you are working on similar technical challenges, and as you do so, I urge you to keep in mind what the technical protocol we define today may mean for the our governance structures and processes in the future.
Second, we need to think about how our work can empower citizens to act politically, too. As we saw earlier, citizens are already thinking politically; we need to make it easier for them to act on their convictions. We need to design targeted, effective feedback loops between citizens and government.
One platform which does this very well is POPVOX, which was founded by my friend Marci Harris. Citizens log on and identify the issues that are important to them, and POPVOX lets them know when relevant policy conversations or legislation are happening and provides them a channel to share their views with their elected representatives. It enables citizens to participate in the democratic process at the specific moments when their voices will have the greatest impact. As you can see from the testimonials, users are happy: “I know that when I express my opinion on an issue, my legislators will receive it in a timely manner, not as a junk mail ‘petition,’ but as a relevant communication from a verified constituent.”
Going back to the CODE apps, one of them asked: How can I make healthier food choices in my neighbourhood? To this community, I ask: What data can we provide citizens to contextualize the answers they get? Perhaps we can provide data about how the national meat, dairy, and egg lobbies have been able to influence Canada’s Food Guide to increase the recommended servings of their industry’s products. Or we can provide a way for citizens to generate their own data so that the choices they get aren’t just those from Starbucks, KFC, White Spot, and other Big Food corporations?
Finally, as we push for open data to be a priority, we need to act with empathy for governments. As Demond Drummer said, “We need to help technologists understand the slow, lumbering process of democracy.”
I recently had a conversation with a Treasury Board employee who was frustrated because he felt that his hard, day-to-day work to advance open data had been overshadowed by recent controversies over the cancellation of the compulsory long-form census. While he was sympathetic to the criticisms, he noted that the decision was above his pay-grade. Getting criticized for something that was out of his hands felt unfair, and impacted his motivation to work on the issues that were within his control.
When I first started in this field, I often assumed malintent when a policy wasn’t properly implemented. I thought that politicians just issued nice-sounding statements to gain political support. Over the years, I’ve learned that while this is sometimes the case, the implementation gap can often be traced back to poor planning. Many implementing officials or agencies are left holding the bag when they never received sufficient political cover, budget, or human capacity.
This perspective has given me more empathy for government. Deeply understanding how government works is important for aligning our work with strategic priorities, and for designing new avenues to accelerate open data that are both creative and feasible. In our work with the Government of Mexico, we’ve seen our counterparts very successfully wield the Open Government Partnership to establish the political authority for many innovative initiatives. It provides both incentive and cover for civil servants to experiment. We’ve used ethnographic research to ground our evaluation and advisory work. Doing so helped us identify the ‘sweet spots’ of political significance for a new initiative, integrate with existing bureaucratic timelines and processes, and navigate channels for institutional change both formal and informal.
It has been an honor to be here at the Open Data Summit, and it is clear that the value of this community is its power to organize around a shared vision. There has been robust, successful action around technical goals. It is time to tackle our political aspirations and to reconcile the concerns we have as citizens with the work we are doing as professionals.
Photo: Flickr user nicmcphee