Completed Episodes

Adam Fivenson ‘Using a human-centered design approach to design foreign aid programs’

John Carter
July 3, 2018
Join our CIRCLE Community to discuss this episode

Connect with other ethically driven change makers from all over the world.

Learn more
Completed Episodes
July 3, 2018

Adam Fivenson ‘Using a human-centered design approach to design foreign aid programs’

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Pretium est ipsum dictum lectus mauris netus. Diam sed sit quisque facilisi luctus feugiat.

Episode shownotes

Episode Transcript

This transcript was created using the awesome, Descript. It may contain minor errors.
Note: This is an affiliate link, where This is HCD make a small commission if you sign up a Descript account.

CHIRRYL-LEE RYAN: Hi and welcome to another episode of ‘This is HCD’ coming to you from Brooklyn, New York. I am your host Chirryl-Lee Ryan and in this episode I’m speaking to Adam Fivenson, a user researcher and self-described ‘non-designer’ of new technologies for civic engagement.

Adam works at DAI, an international development company who tackle fundamental social and economic development challenges caused by inefficient markets, ineffective governance and instability.

Adam has worked on projects around the world from Thailand to Sri Lanka, Ethiopia to Colombia and Indonesia to Cambodia. Right now Adam is working on a project in Guatemala.

Welcome to the show, Adam.

ADAM FIVENSON: Well thanks so much. I really appreciate being on the show and I’m an avid listener so really excited to have a chance to talk to you and speak to your audience as well.

CHIRRYL-LEE RYAN: Before you tell us about your experiences working all around the world, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and your experience with human centred design?

ADAM FIVENSON: As for my experience, as you mentioned I work for a company called DAI. We’re an international development company and we work in about 120 countries all over the world. My primary role is an internal technologist helping projects and proposal teams think about how technology can work, oftentimes cannot be useful in the overall strategy and design that they’re implementing. And so I got in to that role through essentially a broad interest in technology that started from when I was a kid playing video games on the computer and has sort of led me through a peace corps, which I did in the Dominica Republic, where I taught kids essentially how to use computers and did some small scale design projects around civic engagement in the community that I lived in and that brought me onward to a Master’s degrees in International Relations and International Development at Georgetown University in Washington DC and through that program was connected to the company that I work for now, DAI, and started off with DAI in a project management type role, learning the nuts and bolts of how these projects are actually implemented, how the money moves, how the accountability works.

A significant amount of the effort that we put in to implementing the programs actually goes into accountability processes in making sure that as we’re spending what really is US taxpayer dollars overseas and others places that we’re doing it accountably, we’re doing it effectively and we’re doing it fairly. So that was my job for the first sort of year or so and through my interest in technology and networking connections in DC, I started up a happy hour event called the ‘Technology for Democracy Happy Hour’ that we’d be running for the last couple of years and with another couple of institutions, one of them is called ‘The National Democratic Institute’, the “International Republican Institute’ and also IREX which is an international media company that sort of works in our same space. So through that experience sort of made strong connections and then over time within my organisation was sort of seen a little bit differently with more access to the technology and design space, particularly in the international development field and was able to transition into my current role, which is, as I said, kind of helping our people think about how technology may or may not support their programs.

So I hope that answers the questions.

CHIRRYL-LEE RYAN: Well you hit on one thing that I thought was really interesting which was being part of the peace corps; want to tell us a little bit more about that?

ADAM FIVENSON: Sure yeah so before that I was actually living here in New York working as an internet marketing specialist for a medical company and I enjoyed the job, I enjoyed the work but I met some peace corps volunteers whilst I was still living here and they’d had an amazing experience in Jordan teaching English and so I said ‘man that sounds incredible. I love living overseas. I love being a foreigner in the sense that there’s so much to learn. There’s so much to discover; you know culturally food, dance, music, all these things. And so really was eager to take advantage of the opportunity and also try to do some work for good while I was at it. So I ended up being sent to the Dominican Republic. I was a Spanish speaker before I went and so I was prioritised for Spanish speaking countries. That also meant my experience was a little bit different from some other people in the sense that I was placed in a very urban setting.

I lived on the outskirts of Santo Domingo and I taught essentially computer classes in a small non-profit that is a combination of a dentist’s office and a computer school so it’s kind of a rare combination in the world’s non-profits anywhere you go in the world but they were an interesting organisation and you know I had a great experience supporting them. While I was there in the Peace Corps I also worked on some really interesting biodiversity projects that were not necessarily tech and design related but just for a dimension we worked on a pirate ship project where we essentially protected and promoted a real pirate shipwreck just off the coast of the Dominican Republic. Indiana University was running a project and brought us in essentially as their divers and so every month or so we would go out to this area of the country and sort of count the fish, count the biodiversity, check and make sure that the coral was still alive with pH levels changing in the oceans all over the world. I mean you guys know this probably better than I do in terms of the Great Barrier Reef and bleaching and changing there. Now we’re seeing the same thing in the Caribbean here. So that is not necessarily designer-related but a worthwhile aside.

To come back to the design track, while I was in that role I did quite a lot of work in the community where I lived to help young people think about how technology can link them to information and link them to solutions and my personal attitude is that technology’s never the solution. It’s a tool that can help us to find a solution but only when it is presented and designed in a way that orients people towards that solution; such that they’re working together, such that you’re thinking about institutions and organisations that are in that space and affect the problem and can bring you towards a solution. And so through that line of thinking, as I said you know I got very interested in how technology can really be applied more effectively and that sort of led me to an interest in design and thinking about okay it’s not just sort of sitting down with someone with their phone and saying ‘hey, let’s think about how this can help you’. It’s really about exploring options you know on a very broad level, really understanding what that person’s individual challenges are; how that compares to people around them and understanding the institutions around them and that’s a really important part of my work now and I’m sure you know any designer who’s doing a good job is about those things.

So as you said, I don’t consider myself a designer. I didn’t go to design school. I’m by trade I consider myself more a journalist. But have really enjoyed the experience of learning what design is all about and frankly I really feel that design is very similar to journalism in that a lot of it is just talking to people, understanding what their problems are and then laying over the top of that a sort of an understanding and experience in what technology can do and can’t do to solve some of those problems.

CHIRRYL-LEE RYAN: You touched on just then a little bit about where you’re currently working now. Do you want to tell us a little bit more about DAI?

ADAM FIVENSON: Sure yeah DAI’s been around since about 1970 and we are one of a number of organisations that compete for contracts from an agency called the US Agency for International Development. So from an operational standpoint we’re a government contractor, from an ideas standpoint we’re a private company that works on solving some of the world’s biggest challenges. So, as you’ve mentioned, operate in Somalia, we work in Uganda, we work in Cambodia. We’re all over the place. Most of my work is, as you mentioned, is in Central America but as the company we implement five to six year long term international development programs and that essentially boils down to having a deep understanding of what’s happening in the country and why an issue is a problem and then making a very reasoned and very empirically designed set of solutions or designing a very empirical program over a five year period that will address those problems.

So to ground that a little bit, one of the main programs I work on is a transparency and accountability initiative in Guatemala called Nexos Locales. It’s based in the western region of the country and operates in about 45 municipalities and the goal of the project is essentially to ensure that municipalities and local governments in that region of the country are better able to support local economic development, are better able to support the growth of jobs, are better able to support the growth of a positive social sector in their communities and the way that we do that is by working with those municipalities on how they budget money, how they spend money, are they transparent with how they do that work? How closely are they engaging with citizens in their community and citizens groups? And so a big part of it is sort of improving how they actually operate from a technical standpoint but also working with citizens so that they’re more aware of what the municipality should or should not be doing with the money that they as tax payers are contributing.

So from an operational standpoint, personally I’m one of about 60 different activities that that project is doing; everything from training local civil society groups and how to demand accountability to working, as I mentioned, with people in the municipality on how to in a more open, transparent way, manage the money that they execute. So the activity that I’ve been supporting and working on for the last two years is a mobile app for budget transparency and citizen participation. And my role in that project has essentially been the user research and design aspect, you know working with the mayor of that community who had a, essentially his platform that he ran on was to be part of a platform of transparency and he came in to his office on a wave, a broader wave of transparency advocates who were elected to public office after in 2015 they had a massive national corruption scandal that ended up sending the president, vice-president to jail which sort of created a lot of grass roots pressure for more transparency and this is one of the communities where an advocate was elected. So he came to our project and said ‘I want to find a way to open my budget’. And I’ve been working with him ever since on this broader project.

CHIRRYL-LEE RYAN: What you’re saying is really interesting because a lot of the designers that I talk to have aspirations to do design for good and what that means and what it looks like in reality can be two different things.

So maybe you could tell us a little bit about what human centred design looks like when you’re in remote locations working with emerging economies and a little bit about what it’s like designing beyond boarders.

ADAM FIVENSON: There’s a lot to unpack there and I would say that a lot of it boils down to first of all the dynamics of the industry that we work in and what their requirements are that are generally a part of most of the projects that we work on and because these are projects that come from USAID who is a government agency whose priorities are set by the Federal government, whose priorities are set by the current political ones is that it has a big impact on the types of things we work on, how we work on it and also, as I mentioned, the accountability mechanisms that go into that. So that’s important because we don’t get to step in to just any project and do design, we have to essentially sell our services internally to projects and proposal teams to convince them that the work that we’re doing is worth it, is useful, that they shouldn’t’ just hire any software programmer or whoever in the country that they’re working in to throw a system together, that it’s important to think about what your users, you know first of all do they have phones? Second of all how do they use them? You know there’s so many questions that go into finding the right technology solution in a context where we have no idea how rural farmers in Rwanda are using their phones or you know are they using smartphones, right?

So the first step is sort of finding the rationale within the context of one of the programs that we work on and in the context of Guatemala that was very easy because it came from this mayor who actually requested our help. For the most part within our organisation we use a methodology called Frontier Insights which is essentially rapid assessments that we do in the places that either our programs or our projects or proposals are trying to operate to get a sense of how people are using technology, how they’re communicating more broadly, not just through technology but do they read the newspaper? Do they watch TV? Do they listen to the radio? So we build that profile of that population that we generally have never met and generally no very little about but need to get some basic information about in order to at least put some ideas together to then sell that internally to the people within our organisation that will say ‘okay, let’s move forward with this’ or not. So a lot of it is about making that rationale and saying that it’s worth it, that there is a possibility or that we could develop something that would be useful.

So for example, last year we were working on a proposal in Rwanda that was supposed to have to do with youth entrepreneurship in the agricultural sector. And so I spoke with that team and said ‘hey we should go and explore. Let’s go and investigate and talk to these folks.’ And they said, ‘sure let’s try it’. So they sent me over to Rwanda. I linked up with a local non-profit there. We put a whole survey together and then we went out to about 20 different small communities a couple of hours from Kigali, out into the mountains. It’s a beautiful, beautiful country but asking folks ‘yeah, do you have a phone? How do you use it? What apps are you using? And how many text messages do you send?” We ask about you know the basic technology questions. We ask a lot about how folks communicate in general as I mentioned, how do you find out about the news? How do you find out about jobs? Just to build that profile so we can make the internal rationale. Beyond that it’s mostly remote work; you know we don’t have a chance to travel to the field as much as we’d like because it’s expensive for our projects to bring international, you know we say STTA, short term technical assistance, right. So short term trips, it’s quite expensive for our projects to do that and so whenever possible we work remotely. In the context of this Guatemala project, most of that has been remote. The first year and a half I did do remotely and that was basically a lot of phone calls with the mayor, a lot of phone calls with the young guy that he hired to the municipality to sort of manage the design process and a lot of phone calls with the local software design firm that we ended up hiring to do the actual programming.

So the first sort of year and a half was all done remotely for this particular project and since then I’ve been able to go down a couple of times. And so to respond more directly to your question, what is the ACD aspect of this broader project and what does it look like? We hired a local non-profit in the community to do this initial scoping work; you know I put the survey together, I trained them over Skype and then they went out and did about 100-150, I guess I think the total was about 140 actual street surveys of folks and just to get a sense of yeah you know how to folks use technology in this community?

The mayor might have an idea and say ‘man we’ve got to build this cool app’ but you know before we as a project are going to invest you know $20,30,40,50,000 in a design project of course we want to get a sense of do your users even have smart phones? Because he might think anecdotally based on his experience in the urban centre where he lives that ‘oh yeah everyone I see has got a smart phone’ but he’s in a municipality of 100,000 people and about 10,000 live in his particular part of it. So we focused very hard on getting a sense of how people use technology in the urban centre, in the periphery and then also in some of the more distant areas of that community. There’s no specific metric, there’s no specific sociological guidance around what the right number is. We found about 60% of the folks that we interviewed, even though it’s a very, very small sample, it’s not scenically representative.
That’s something I have to say oftentimes in our field because people are very empirical in how they make decisions and so bringing that HCD perspective, saying we’re just going to get in there, we’re going to check it out, we’re going to see what’s going on, we have our assumptions but we’re going to go and ground and them and then we’re going to try some stuff, we’re going to prototype. So based on that initial survey, we found that about 60% of the folks that we were working with had smart phones and then we said ‘listen, it’s worth it to at least try.’ You know this seems like there’s a possibility here to develop a tool. It might end up being an app, it might be a Chabot, it might be an SMS system. Let’s just try some stuff.

So we ended up hiring this local design firm, you know software development firm who came in and did the actual ux. I mean they you know I sort of laid out here are the requirements. We did a whole prior organisation exercise with the folks in the community who said that the number one thing we want is more budget information, the number two thing we want is to be able to report problems like potholes or broken street lights. So we did a whole exercise to sort of get a sense of what their priorities were and what they wanted from their municipality. And then based on that sort of put the initial requirements together, along with some wire framing and user profiles and that was what we passed on to a local design firm that I then worked with you know once again remotely for about a year to put this project together.

Since then, subsequently the launch, which happened in May of last year, I’ve been down two or three times and that has been to do with sort of what you might recognise as HCD work. So doing you know design thinking sessions with the original community to get feedback on the tool and see how they feel about it, see what they would like us to change. But also going to two new communities that we’re expanding to and I really see HCD in this context, not just as a design methodology but also as a tool that we’re using to bring these different actors togethers, to bring civil society, local organisations together with local government to have some conversations about you know how are you spending our money? What does that look like? How should we understand what is happening with the budget and the money that we are paying to you? So trying to create that accountability through the process. So that’s how I see it as most useful.

CHIRRYL-LEE RYAN: That was a lot to take in.


CHIRRYL-LEE RYAN: (laughs) but one thing that I took away from that is that designers have been coming back to this idea that a lot of designers, most designers in fact, have the best of intentions with what they do and I think what I took away from what you said was that it’s not enough to have a great idea for something, you know there’s so many players in a space that you really have to think deeply about what it is that you’re actually going to make and that you need to, and this is where the human centred design process really add a lot of value, is to get all of those different players involved. You can use that process to try and figure out whether something is the right thing to do in a particular context. Do you think that’s fair?

ADAM FIVENSON: Yeah as you say it’s always a challenge. I still have questions of did we make the right decisions along you know throughout our process.

CHIRRYL-LEE RYAN: I’m not sure that there are right decisions actually. I think that retrospectively with design there’s an idea that it’s an outcome and not a process and just the term ‘process’ indicates that it is something that doesn’t end. And I think that’s a mindset that people need to understand about design, that it isn’t about an outcome or whether it was right or wrong because there’s always going to be some things that work and some things that don’t. But it’s more important to think about that ongoing process and it’s definitely something I think about, the legacy that the things that I make today will have because eventually someone else is going to have to re-design what I’ve done and someone’s going to redesign that as well and it’s going to keep going and going and going. So you know being able to think of design as a process rather than an outcome is a very important thing that designers need to understand.

ADAM FIVENSON: Absolutely and as I was trying to say, from my perspective, because we’re working on a project that has to do with local governments and accountability and citizens and what that relationship should look like. To HCD is a perfect methodology for actually creating an interaction because it’s not enough for me just to say that you guys should be meeting and you should be talking to each other and you should be having these important conversations. Our job in international development isn’t to come in and fix you know every problem for everyone. It’s teaching a methodology, right? I mean our whole goal is to sort of show folks what opportunities or options are there for them and in the context of this particular project HCD has been the way that I have found, that’s made it easier for me to create that communication, create those schemas, social schemas really around meetings and around discussions, around these important topics so I couldn’t agree more with what you’re saying.

CHIRRYL-LEE RYAN: Maybe you could go into a little bit more detail of the day to day of the practice of human centred design when you’re maybe 2,000 miles away from the people that you’re working with or vice versa when you’re 2,000 miles away from your studio or your office and you’re working remotely. I’ve done a lot of research globally as well and I found that I had to have certain types of things with me and there was certain ways of working that helped a lot. And every different scenario is different but you know everything from the way that I packed through to what I take with me to potentially the digital collaboration tools that I use, you know try to overcome language barriers or cultural barriers. What tools do you use to be able to do that?

ADAM FIVENSON: Yeah that’s an excellent question. So part of it I think boils down to the way that we travel and because it’s done through these broader US government projects I do actually generally when I’m going to a place have a team that I’m going there to meet, particularly when I’m doing work through a project. If it’s for a proposal then it’s maybe more along the lines that you’re describing when I’m just going in, I’m going to land and you know I just get straight to work. A lot of it is just about the preparatory work. I mean we try to find local non-profits that we can work with that are in the same area as that we’re interested in operating and work quite closely with them particularly if I’m talking about Frontier Insights, you know this rapid assessment methodology that we use. For that we’ll sit down and we’ll design the survey maybe two/three weeks in advance, we’ll find a local partner, get their ideas on it, get them to help us translate it, set up all the logistics in advance, get the numerators lined up. And one of the things I think is most important about making these kind of trips is understanding something about the culture before you go. So I try to read the tourist stuff and get a sense of you know if I have an extra day, what can I go and see. But more importantly I try to read some fiction work actually that takes place in that country. I feel like oftentimes that’s going to give me the best sense of what that culture values and what sort of things are important to the people I’m going to be working with. So that’s one of the things I do, I try to either a book or read the latest news, I read a newspaper from that country.

CHIRRYL-LEE RYAN: I think that there’s a lot of designers out there, not just designers but people who work with designers and in the design process, which is just about everybody, who would like to be able to do this type of work. I think it’s the dream of most designers to work in interesting locations with interesting people, trying to understand how to make the world a better place. And for a lot of designers it seems a little out of reach. Recently I was speaking with a friend of mine and it suddenly dawned on me that maybe I have a little bit of designer privilege in a way because I get to do all of these fantastic things and go and talk to people in different locations and make things that are really magical but not everybody does. You know there’s designers out there who are just battling to get the okay to do research with their stakeholders. You know there’s still a lot of questions around the value of the design process and isn’t design an outcome and not a process. People don’t understand that. So it’s a really interesting position to be in to be able to talk about this kind of design and help people understand how they can get involved in it and so that’s probably a great segue into this question which is if you could give some advice to new designers or just designers who want to move into this type of space, what would you recommend?

ADAM FIVENSON: The number one thing is to go. Just go. Go and be in these places. I understand what, particularly in the context of poverty, go and understand what that’s like, what that means for people who are living there and if you want to do that domestically there’s obviously a lot of opportunities, you know especially here in America, if you live in a big city. But also of course internationally, if your calling is international. That’s what I always say to folks who are coming from a different field and want to make that transition. And I know that’s hard and I don’t mean to say that as just a you know you can just drop everything and drop your life and move to another country but in our industry, in the international development field, that’s one of the biggest drivers or key qualifications to getting hired is having significant experience in low resource settings overseas, speaking another language. Those things might seem quite distant for some folks but my experience through my life has been that when I go somewhere A. I have incredible rich experiences, you learn the language over time and you find opportunities to do design. That was my experience in the peace corps, for example, was just by nature of being in a place and thinking man, this is 2010-2012 and we were a good way along the current technological revolution but in some of the places that we were working in, particularly in poorer areas in Santo Domingo, the capital, folks might have had phones, they might have had you know some smart phones but they were still figuring out how does this really apply to my life and what are some of the ways that I can be using this to solve problems.
So part of my approach in that context was just look for opportunities to do design, do my own work, do it on the side. And once again, I recognise that everyone’s got to pay the rent, everyone’s got to eat and that makes that every difficult sometimes. So my recommendation is if you’re day to day job is keeping you too busy to have any time for anything else during the day, try to get some experience in international themes at night. If you’re American, the peace corps is a great option. It still exists, people think it’s something from the 1960s that only the hippies do but I have to be honest with you, it’s a great opportunity and a great way to access the international space in general.
As far as mixing that with design, I feel very privileged to kind of back my way into a design job. I mean you know I didn’t go to design school. I’m an international development professional before anything but you know there are things that in our field are required and one of them, as I said, is having that field experience, having some time in the field face to face with folks.

There are jobs in this field, I mean it’s not to say that there aren’t and particularly if you’re an expert designer and you have a tonne of experience doing really good work, you’re probably a way better designer than I am or most people in our field mainly because we are sort of a hybrid of an international development professional with an understanding of poverty and an understanding of social drivers and political systems and economics and with a design overlay and that’s kind of more how I see myself.

You know I’m not the world’s best designer. I’m a human centred designer, right. I mean I get out there, I talk to people and I try to make decisions based on that experience. And I guess for folks in this industry who want to do this kind of work, our field really isn’t the only way to do that. I mean our field has quite high barriers to entry, particularly one of them being having experience overseas. And you know I think being in Washington DC for better or for worse is one of the key requirements for sort of getting that foot in the door. But there are hundreds and thousands of ways for people to get into interesting design work overseas. I think it’s just a question of are you there? And do you have the ability to sort of get to know people, understand what their problems are and start to suggest some solutions.
Getting funding is another question but there are lots of organisations out there who will fund your concept if you have a cool concept. USAID has an online global innovation exchange that we’ll put in the notes which is a great way to see or find all kinds of opportunities for funding for smaller scale design projects, particularly around technologies. So that might be one way to get a foot in the door.

CHIRRYL-LEE RYAN: What I picked up from what you said earlier was that getting in there any way that you can is really important and I think that you might not get the opportunity to work on things that are international immediately but you can start with your own backyard. There’s always initiatives going on in the local community where they may have never even thought about taking a human centred approach to what they’re doing. Recently I was lucky enough to do some work with some not-for-profits and it was really fantastic because it was local, it was in Australia and it was helping them to understand a little bit about human centred design and taking a different approach to what they were doing. So I think there’s opportunities for designers anywhere that you are to be able to at least get some experience in that design for social good space before you might transition to something that is a career move per se.

ADAM FIVENSON: Absolutely, absolutely and frankly while I’m on the topic our field actually tends to be a second career for many people. They’ll do something else for many, many years, they become really good at it and then they get hired into our field or they just decide that they don’t want to do whatever they’ve been doing and they want to sort of make that transition. You know, as I said, first step is for us at least to sort of that international experience but if you can find somewhere at home to contribute. If you can find non-profits in the place that you live to have an impact then I think now more than ever that’s an important thing to do and certainly a good opportunity to get some good designing experience too.

CHIRRYL-LEE RYAN: Do you want to tell us a little bit about what you’re doing on your project now and when that’s going to wrap up and then what’s going to happen next?

ADAM FIVENSON: Sure yeah so particularly this Guatemala project, you know as I said it’s sort of my main activity over the last couple of years. So at the moment we are in phase 2 of development of the actual tool. So back in February, as I mentioned, I was down there doing the design thinking sessions with the original community and with two new communities. So at the moment we are just finishing up collecting all the content from the new communities and the new developer is on board. They’re activity updating some of the components that we wanted to make changes to.
One of the primary components is a budget transparency module that essentially is a simple visualisation of the local municipality’s budget. It’s live data, every week it updates and it’s linked directly back to the municipality’s budgeting system so there’s no possibility for anyone to kind of make some changes there, shall we say. So it’s live, transparent data. So we’re taking that component of it and we learned through our process that even though that’s the most important thing, I would say for us overall is to bring this transparent budget information, we found that citizens had a little bit of a hard time understanding the way that it was presented. They just didn’t have a lot of background in understanding budgets and I can’t blame them. I mean I live in Washington DC and frankly I don’t really have much of an idea of how DC executes its budget.

So part of it is making that rationale is not just training but giving people a reason to want to care, beyond just telling them ‘oh it’s important so your money doesn’t get wasted.’ But saying ‘listen this is something that matters to your community and if you want to have better water provision, if you want to have better roads, if you want to have better festivals and events and schools and all the things that a local government is supposed to provide then this is something that can help you along that way’. So I think that we’re trying to pitch it a little bit less as a tool of the municipality for round two and a little bit more of a tool for the community. And we’ll be focusing a little bit more this time on the local institutions that are run by citizens, citizens’ groups, youth groups, women’s groups, business groups; getting them into this process so that they’re able to understand how it works, give us their feedback but then also long term be the ones that are going into the app and saying ‘man, look at this’, you know ‘how much we’re spending on this. Let me ask a question about that at the next sitting council meeting’. I’m trying to create some of that communications. So that’s been a little bit more of the focus for us during the second round is getting the local institutions more engaged and shifting a little bit away from the municipalities themselves in terms of control and decision making around the tool itself. And hopefully it’ll be a little bit easier to use, a little easier to understand. We’re going to launch this new version in September in the original community and the two new communities. I’m really excited about the two new communities. The people that we’re working with there have been very, very hard working and there’s a lot of enthusiasm around bringing this to the community.

I never pitched technology as a solution but it is a great incentive and it’s a great motivator, particularly in low resource environments where folks maybe haven’t been parts of these initiatives before. So for us it’s been great to see the community response and these two new communities that have heard about the original community and are eager to sort of have the same tool, have the same capability and have that same communication; an open door attitude that the app that we’re developing really allows and hopefully will continue to create.

As you say, I’m sure five years from now someone else is going to come back and redesign this and decide that it was total garbage and we didn’t know what we were doing. But actually I’m pretty proud of it and I think it’s come out really well. We have a pretty good user base, in the municipality we have like 1,000 users so that to me is fantastic. We’re never going to beat Facebook, people are on Facebook and WhatsApp all day every day just like in a lot of places in this particular community but we are eager to at least provide that channel for communication.

For me success means that citizens know that this is available, they know how to use it and they are using it. And so we’re somewhere on the continuum now. We’ve got users, there’s a general sense of how it works and a number of key community influencers are power users and we’re trying to empower them to sort of work with the rest of the community on using the tools. So beyond that I’m working on a couple of different projects, similar design initiatives in Honduras right now. One of them is part of a broader justice sector initiative that is basically designed as a broad initiative to bring the justice sector to your average citizen so that it’s harder for criminals and violence to be continually perpetrated in some of these small communities. We’re actually focusing on the disabled community and trying to find ways the disabled community using technology can have easier or more access to the justice system.

And another project that works in schools where there’s quite a lot of violence and trying to reduce that and find ways to give young people the tools they need to be successful in an educational environment.

CHIRRYL-LEE RYAN: You were talking a lot about diversity and accessibility when designing. How can we design more inclusively and break down walls instead of putting them up with what we create?

ADAM FIVENSON: That’s an incredibly important question and I think every designer is or should be asking themselves this question. For us it’s doubly important because we’re designing tools for government and government should be the government for everybody, right? And so if we have a tool to some degree it should be accessible by anybody. That’s something that I’ve really struggled with this time because we made the decision to build a smart phone app knowing that not everyone in this particular community has access to smart phones.

So one of the things I’m hoping that we can do in future rounds of development is build in some SMS tools, for example to reach folks. I mean you have probably up to 85% of the people in this municipality in particular that have some kind of phone if not necessarily a smart phone. So I’m hoping we can build on that accessibility to a greater degree.
In terms of approaches or methodologies, you know we worked very hard from early on to understand not just people who live in the urban centre but also spend time out in the periphery and in some of the more rural areas of the municipality. Just to get a sense of what is there, not just what is their access to technology, what does that look like? But also what’s their attitude towards the municipality? What’s their attitude toward participation? Toward being part of decision making? I mean across the board people want their voices to be heard and so that was a difficult decision that we had to make early on. We were very, very limited budget-wise and time-wise. The initiative, the whole transparency app initiative was not part of the original budget or project plan for this project and our budgets tend to be extremely, extremely tight. So we were able to eke out enough to do this initial component and we’ve been building ever since based on the success that we’ve had.

But as far as methodologies, I really think it’s very, very important A. just to be aware, I mean understand who you’re excluding and understand why. And that’s kind of like telling someone to know what you don’t know. But to me the rationale is that during your design process, you know go places you wouldn’t expect to go. For us it’s easy because we have a physical, not easy but it’s conceptually it’s easier because okay my target population is local non-profits in Cambodia. So that’s who I’m going to go and interview; you know we have our target audience kind of laid out. But within that we still have to ask a lot of very important questions about who are these people, not just the ones who are easiest for us to access but how do we go and talk to the folks that aren’t easy to access? So, for example, we did an evaluation of this particular Guatemala project, the application, back in September with the same non-profit. And instead of doing 100 we had a little more money this time so we had 500 and we said you’re going to do you know the first 100 or so in the urban centre, the next 200 in the broad periphery and the final 200 are going to be way out in the really, really rural areas. And man you know they sent back pictures of them and these countryside areas talking to women with their babies and men in their shops and just really, really tried hard to get a broad, broad section of the population and then tried to take that into account. I mean like I said we had to make hard decisions. I think every designer does. That’s what strategy is is saying we are going to do it and implicitly what we’re not going to do and of course we’re limited in our resources but for us yeah it was difficult decisions. We’re aware of who we left out, at least conceptually, and moving forward I’m looking for ways actively, particularly with the original municipality, that we can expand this particular tool to be more inclusive.

CHIRRYL-LEE RYAN: Yeah wow. I think that there’s something from that that everyone who is involved in the design process can take away because that’s the thing about design, there’s always going to be parameters and rules around what it is that you can and can’t do and if you can figure out the opportunity within those, that’s when you get something really great in the end.

Okay great. Well it’s been fantastic talking to you but before we go I might just ask you a couple of other questions.

CHIRRYL-LEE RYAN: What’s one professional or design skill that you wish you were better at?

ADAM FIVENSON: The whole process. I feel like I have a general grasp of this process and what I’m doing. But particularly I would say maybe the face to face interactions and having a really strong set of tools that I feel confident when I’m face to face with somebody. You know working in development I’ve done a lot of work in these communities face to face with populations but having a specific set of design tools that are going to lead me toward the answers I need, I would say is something that I don’t really have yet.
You know we have a general process that we use and I’ve seen the ideal design kit and I’ve pulled some components of that but obviously every context is different and every environment that you work you need to be able to adapt and adjust to that local context and so I’d say having a better sense of sort of what design tools are going to make the most sense for what I’m doing and that I hope is just going to come with more experience and sort of more opportunities to put this to practice.

CHIRRYL-LEE RYAN: Excellent. I think we could all do that.

ADAM FIVENSON: I hope so. I hope so yeah.

CHIRRYL-LEE RYAN: We’re always looking for more design tools. And what’s one thing in the design industry that you wish you’d be able to get rid of?

ADAM FIVENSON: Admittedly not knowing the design industry itself as an industry particularly well I wish that I didn’t have to sit down and explain to people why participatory design is good for the final product and particularly in our industry people are resistant to human centred design as a process. They’re worried that A. they’ll expose themselves to requirements or needs or desires that aren’t necessarily something they want to deal with or pay for dealing with really but beyond that I wish it was more known and more understood and that’s part of our challenge and part of what we are doing as an organisation and as a unit within a broader company and within an industry trying to sort of make this rationale and make this case of why it’s important to talk to your users, why it’s important to design iteratively, why it’s important to bring them into the process so they feel ownership and that they’re influences who know how to use the tool, if you design a tool, once it’s launched.

CHIRRYL-LEE RYAN: I think that retrospectively design and creative things have a reputation for being risky. The irony is that human centred design is all about risk mitigation and if you can get people to understand that suddenly the shift happens.

ADAM FIVENSON: Yeah absolutely and the way I pitch to people is I just say listen the risk that we’re dealing with here is the risk that we’re going to build something and nobody’s going to care. And I guess that probably universal across design, you know that as the designer you have that worry, that am I really making the right decisions? But human centred design is, as you suggest, an opportunity to sort of ground those assumptions and make our decisions based on that empirical face to face experience and for us in the work that we do it is the best methodology to make sure that when we finish you know these design values, so we’ve made our investments, we’ve invested you know US taxpayer dollars and all the accountability and processes that surround that, that what comes out of that is actually going to have some impact. So absolutely it’s a risk mitigation strategy. I’m moving in the direction of being able to pitch it better that way to the big decision makers so point taken, absolutely.

CHIRRYL-LEE RYAN: One final question, if there was a message that you could give to emerging designers of the future what would it be?

ADAM FIVENSON: Get out to the field. Go talk to the people that you want to work with. Just as much as it’s important to network and meet other designers, it’s equally important to have that experience face to face with the folks that you’re hoping to design for. Maybe that’s more important for me in the context of international development because you know the folks we’re designing for are people that we probably have no idea about or how they live or what’s important to them. But even if it’s something locally, even if it’s in your neighbourhood or your community, just go and talk to people. That’ll give you design ideas. If you have you know a general sense of how technology works and are participating in some of these conversations around design then you are in the perfect position to go out to a community near where you live and go start talking to folks and put a project together. I mean that is within everyone’s reach. So that would be my recommendation or piece of advice.

CHIRRYL-LEE RYAN: So putting design within reach. I think that’s good advice for everyone. Thank you so much for being here today Adam. It’s been a joy to listen to you and to hear your story and I can’t wait to hear about what happens with your project and what you do down the line.

ADAM FIVENSON: I really appreciate the invitation and thanks so much for having me on and I’m looking forward to hearing future episodes as well. I’ve found that the podcast has been an amazing teaching tool for me too. So eager to hear where this podcast goes in the future. Thanks so much.

CHIRRYL-LEE RYAN: I hope you found Adam’s conversation as stimulating as I did. We’d love to get your feedback or thoughts on this topic. To join the conversation go to and register to join our slack channel where you can get in touch. We use our slack channel to shape future episodes of the podcast as well as share interesting design related content every day.

We’re also starting a book review section and are actively looking for people to review design books. So if you’ve read a book recently, join up and tell us all about it. We’d love to potentially include the review in a future podcast. We are actively looking for sponsorship for the podcast with a 100% of the money raised going directly to Cara Care, an incredible NGO who help support children who have suffered abuse. You can also donate by clicking on the dollar sign inside the media player on the thisishcd website.

I’m Chirryl-Lee Ryan thanks for listening to This is HCD. See you again soon.


John Carter
Tech Vlogger & YouTuber

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Ipsum blandit at sed a, vulputate eget. Integer in egestas rutrum risus tortor. Augue sed ac magna semper vitae, orci morbi auctor. Diam dui ut ut purus aenean volutpat.