Monthly Archives: April 2013

Chiefs in Training

Post by Tate Rider, Mohamed Yassine, Federica Carugati, and Lindsay Gorman

Little more than a week ago, the challenges involved in selecting a user situated right at the center of the mining-concessions ‘system’ had barely crossed our minds.  As we moved quickly from defining a PoV to the brainstorming process that through HMW statements led us to a solution within just one week, the system surrounding our selected user came into focus in all its multifarious complexity. The Paramount Chief, our selected user, stands at the confluence of governmental, industrial, and community interests, an intersection vital to the concessions process.

We soon realized this challenge as an opportunity, both to empower rural communities through their traditional authorities, as well as to experiment with the interplay between systems-level and user-centered design process for a user caught squarely in the middle of this system. We unearthed our first insight from a wealth of post-it notes produced while unpacking the interviews from our fieldwork: according to custom, any actor interested in Sierra Leone’s provincial resources—be it government officials or company representatives—must go through the Paramount Chief of that chiefdom. And despite allegations of corrupt Paramount Chiefs and the intense feeling of disempowerment in this position, actors in the system abide by this rule.

At the heart of this insight was a fundamental idiosyncrasy: despite such a primary de jure role as chiefdom gatekeeper, our Paramount Chief was a de facto colander through whom information ran without ensuing action.

The second critical insight we identified through our empathy work was that despite the Paramount Chief’s stable political position, his impotence vis-à-vis mining companies and government, paired with the reality of his community’s hardships, had exacted a heavy emotional toll – he felt literally small and overwhelmingly powerless.  This palpable sense of disempowerment visibly permeated the community at every level.  More subtly though, we realized through unpacking the Paramount Chief’s outbursts of expression, that this ‘disempowerment’ was tied to a failure to provide justice for his people, the resulting reputational cost, and a profound sense of shame. 

Thus given these two levers of insight – the shame of the Paramount Chief over his disempowerment and declining reputation for justice on the one hand, and the centrality of his role in the concessions process on the other – we asked the following questions: How can reputational concern be leveraged to become an incentive for action? And how can we help the Paramount Chief strengthen his bargaining position, sense of empowerment, and ultimate ability to provide justice for his people in the negotiation of mining concessions?

Our solution involves a new approach through an old institution.  We seek to leverage the PC’s concern for a just reputation through effective peer pressure –information sharing and relative benchmarks –by introducing contract negotiation workshops and legal assistance into the long-standing District Councils of Paramount Chiefs.  We learned through our fieldwork that mining companies currently confront Paramount Chiefs individually to push through contracts compensating displaced villagers – often inadequately and at times illegally. We hope that providing these ~25-Chief bodies the tools necessary to negotiate mining contracts more effectively will empower individual Chiefs, while simultaneously consolidating their overall power in the concessions process against this divide-and-conquer approach.

Why peer-pressure? The empathy work in SL and the additional information extracted from our conversations with our client, Simeon Koroma—whose insights have been vital to this process—revealed an intricate net of power relations whereby community dissatisfaction, though present, did little to steer the Paramount Chief from feeling sorry to taking action. At the same time, the relational subordination of the Paramount Chief to the government and mining companies—witnessed firsthand in the field as well as evident from a simple look at the Mines and Minerals Act 2009—left little room, and even fewer incentives, for independent action.

With powerless communities providing only complaints, mining companies providing only notice of occupation, and government ‘superiors’ providing only instructions, the Paramount Chief seemed fresh out of allies we could harness for his empowerment. In the absence of suitable actors within this complex system we identified the one group with political power that the Paramount Chief can turn to: his peers.

The difficulties of each Paramount Chief may vary by chiefdom, but the potential for cooperation is inherent in the traditional organizational structures in place.  While we were initially interested in the national Council of Paramount Chiefs, in order to being our initiative closer to the community level, to a smaller scale, and among Chiefs with greater familiarity and commonality, we alighted on the District Councils of Paramount Chiefs. These Councils, one in each of Sierra Leone’s 12 districts, meet approximately monthly to discuss issues common to the district. They have near perfect attendance. Mining issues, however, have yet to be raised formally.  One reason for this lack of collaboration may be that mining concessions are coveted as potentially lucrative for the Paramount Chief who needs no public discussion of these details. Another, more basic reason is that lacking the relevant knowledge and expertise to evaluate and improve mining contracts, such a discussion has no motivation.

Our solution tackles this issue head on.  We propose a Contract Negotiation Program for Paramount Chiefs featuring:

  1. Substantive training in the law relevant to mining concessions (SL law, international and national best practices) and associated negotiation strategies;
  2. Practical group exercises that involve sharing and scoring existing contracts based on the standards introduced during the training period and comparison to local case studies; and
  3. Legal assistance, from Freetown lawyers whose families and roots are in the provinces, to renegotiate contracts that do not meet legal requirements and to negotiate future contracts from a stronger and more informed bargaining position.  At present, legal assistance is provided by the mining companies themselves.

Admittedly, leveraging reputation-consciousness through peer pressure and solidarity is easier said than done and implementing our solution will require creating the right incentive structure whereby cooperation may trump competition and hostility yield to mutual aid. Yet we have hope in this idea, which, through the design process, has brought something new to the table in identifying a set of interpersonal relationships (among Paramount Chiefs) whose potential has long remained untapped. Moreover, in taking advantage of an existing institutional structure and one with close ties to Timap for Justice, our solution is easily implementable. We can only hope that our client (and perhaps other readers) will be as energized by the final product as we have been throughout the process that led us to formulate it.


The Prototyping Phase: Trying to Understand What Success Looks Like

Post by Tate Rider, Manal Dia, Aaswath Raman, and Kara Downey

As we moved into the next phase of ideation and prototyping, we finally got to take all the knowledge accumulated over the last few weeks and move to more practical discussions of what might actually work for our user.

In the ideation phase, our first challenge was to juggle between choosing ideas with the potential for wider applicability, while not moving too quickly to too broad of a systems level solutions. Keeping our user in mind and the specific need/insight we had identified up front were essential for this process. Rather than meeting a need for a faceless villager in Sierra Leone, we had to keep reminding ourselves to focus on a need for our chosen user: an activist landowner ready to fight for change that lacked the tools to receive a meaningful response to complaints. There was a real temptation to come up great sounding ideas, only to realize that it ignored the nuances and insights we had come up with regarding our specific user and need.

We also struggled with what constraints we needed to place on ourselves at this stage. Questions that might be readily answerable in a community we were more familiar with became real stumbling blocks in our ideation phase. Our group struggled with questions like “how much do SMS cost?” to “is the media going to actually report on this?” to “how is the traditional hierarchy likely to react?” We found ourselves regularly going back to our Sierra Leone expert to try to get a better sense of how “realistic” our ideas were.

Finally, we struggled with how “game-changing” of an idea we needed to come up with. The design process at Stanford is famed for creating incredibly innovative solutions, whether it’s portable sleeping bags made from low cost materials that keep infants warm or new designs of refugee camps to improve health and sanitation. Our solutions often felt less revolutionary than those, and we struggled with balancing our desire for innovation and breakthrough ideas with the more practical realities of life on the ground.

Ultimately, the breakthrough on all these challenges came through both using various tools that helped us better map our need (like a mind map) as well as a realization that the design process is not meant to create a perfect model right off the bat. In fact, it’s designed for exactly the opposite. The goal was not innovation (in an of itself) or a 100% success rate for every prototype, but rather engaging in a process that ultimately helps meet a need in the community that will actually be used by the community. To do that, we had to create a lot of prototypes to know if the final prototype would ever actually be used. We were just in the initial phases still.

Whether it’s because of our previous training in more systems level thinking learned from our time in government or development, or just a general fear of failure, many of our default impulses were to think our idea was too simple, or too impossible, or too out of touch. But the beauty of the design process is that it allows those fears to be tossed aside because of the multiple iterations allowed before unveiling a final idea.

It’s exciting to see this process come together, and our group has renewed confident that our ideas will help add to the innovation already underway in Sierra Leone to help give a voice to these communities.

Ideating for Landowner Needs

Post by Chi Hung Chong, Michael Lindenberger, Guy Mordecai, Ramya Parthasarathy


We presented five Point of View statements to the class, and found that both our peers and the teaching team responded to the same central insights: Landowners’ unique position in the communities make them ideal targets for intervention. We believed this because they possess latent power that can be leveraged against the companies seeking to sign concession agreements, and because we believe there is strong, if imperfect, alignment between their interests and those of the community as a whole.

We filtered our POVs and focused on landowners. The fact that they had leverage, albeit minimal, compared to the other community members hinted at the possible impact of the solution.

Next, we developed a series of ‘How might we’ statements, looking at ways to tap into this power from different angles. We brainstormed as a group, plodding through several issues and unearthing key insights that might help in this process.

Once we had selected the statements, we tried out different brainstorming approaches for the ideation of solutions. We started with brainstorming together as a group and throwing out ideas on the spot before transitioning to a different approach – an initial quiet period of five minutes for team members to write down their individual ideas and coming together later as a group for review and discussion. The motivation was simple – while trying out the first approach, we realized that we constantly had interesting ideas that were not related to the current discussed idea, but had to put them off in fear of digressing. It felt like the holding back was limiting our creativity.

For the selection of the different solutions, we practiced a democratic approach. Before delving more into about that, we would like to emphasize on how helpful it was to put up our ideas/ thoughts/ solutions on post-its on the board. It lent immediate clarity to our problem at hand, and made it easy for references by other team members. We did just that for our selection of solutions. We put everything on the board – colourful post-its populating the short boards, and had two rounds of voting. For each of the round, we had three votes to give across the panoply of solutions. During this voting period, it was crucial that our action would not influence the team members (we learned that in the later period). One of the best ways is to number the solutions, and have the members write down their picks on secret small pieces of papers. Think of this as a ballot – it is fun!

Once these two rounds were completed, we each selected a particular solution and became its spokesperson – to pitch it to our in-country partner, lawyer Simeon Koroma of Timap for Justice, as if this was the final solution. We then discussed each solution extensively, focusing on its pros, cons and possible impact. It was easy at this point to veer off and think of a one-size-fits-all solution, but it was helpful that we constantly reminded ourselves of the Sierra Leonean landscape – anecdotes and stories are always important grounding points. The 2 solutions that stood out to us were solutions from 2 different spaces – technical vs human platform for facilitation of information sharing to later increase the bargaining power of the stakeholders.

The technical platform came with its own sets of pros – robust, sustainable, allows opportunities for other NGOs to piggyback off database, but seemed hard to pull through technically considering Sierra Leone’s current landscape. The other human platform was on the other end of the spectrum. We then voted!

The human platform was ultimately the winner. While the final decision was not unanimous, we came to appreciate the final solution as we had taken the time to go in-depth to talk about the solution. It was important for us to agree in advance that whatever solution won out in the voting would have the full buy-in from all members of the team — something that we achieved. We also built in ideas and testing methods that would address some of the assumptions and shortcomings of the human platforms. The most basic assumptions were: would landowners actually want to share information, and are their interests aligned with those of community members.

In terms of process, this process went much faster and smoother – perhaps we have gotten more familiar with the topic/ process? However, the painful awareness of the limited time constraints constantly sprung at us, and it was hard to rush through the process considering how much discussion was needed at every stage to unearth the stories and infer the emotions behind.

Another limitation was that we had many questions that we were not able to validate by conducting further empathy work with users on the ground. One of the key questions was – why aren’t they already doing the solution we proposed? It was definitely helpful during this period to take this into account, take a step back, lay out the assumptions that we were making and think of ways on how to test out these assumptions. Not being able to carry out prototyping allowed us to not be overly attached to our ideas, and to think of ways to successfully test the underlying hypotheses.

We probably all agree that five weeks was too short a time to fully evaluate the alternatives we had, but we believe as an experiment in using human-centered design the experience has been helpful, even with the time constraints. We also feel pretty good about the solution we came up with.

Speaking of that, we are currently working to finalize our presentation slidedeck, and will share more in the next post!

Re-visiting our POV: Female Hitchhikers in Sierra Leone

Post by Aparna Surendra


Our team spent most of last week tweaking (and re-tweaking!) our POV. We collected a lot of helpful feedback during the POV share-session, and Simeon’s local knowledge was especially insightful. In one of his comments, Simeon outlined several distinctions between Sierra Leoneon youth– for instance, youth from landowning families occupy a higher social status than do most others. The share-session was also helpful in that we learned of other teams’ approaches– we were particularly struck by the idea of leverage, and identifying potential touch-points for a chosen user to maneuver within the system.

With these ideas in mind, our team re-visited our POVs. We decided to focus on one user, a Sierra Leoneon youth from a land-owning family, and we fleshed out our user descriptions with Mustafa in mind. The Sierra Leoneon team met Mustafa at a community meeting, where he shared his family’s experiences with an exploitative surface-rent agreement. The local chief quickly dismissed Mustafa’s comments, “You are not the head, consult your father. He is the authority.”

As Chelsea, Jonny, Kevin and I thought through Mustafa’s frustrations, we began to explore the relationship between Sierra Leonean youth and their communities. Traditional hierarchy has little place for the youth, but their repression is compounded by an overarching fear of “lawlessness”.  Memories of the civil war are still fresh in many minds, and communities police any outspoken or disruptive behaviour, fearing it will spiral into violence. Much of this anxiety revolves around the youth, who have inherited a reputation of violence from the RUF youth of the 1990s.

As we stewed over this insight, I was reminded of Vanessa Veselka’s recent reflections on female hitchhiking.

“As a fifteen-year-old hitchhiker, my survival depended upon other people’s ability to envision a possible future for me. Without a Melvillean or Kerouacian framework, or at least some kind of narrative to spell out a potential beyond death, none of my resourcefulness or curiosity was recognizable, and therefore I was unrecognizable.”

Veselka’s words resonated with our analysis of Sierra Leoneon youth — as a consequence of the civil war, they are trapped in a narrative where their energy and eagerness to act can only be interpreted as the precursor to violence.

From this discussion emerged a refined POV:

  • Frustrated youth from landowning families
  • Need to take action that will protect their family interests and build community trust
  • Because traditional hierarchy and post-war community narratives (which define youth as violent and non-constructive) only allow these youth a negligible role [in land leasing decisions, in which they have high stakes].

The amount of time and thought invested in our POV manifested in a generative ideation session. We quickly agreed that our primary objective wasn’t to change the youth narrative; rather, we wanted youth actions to indirectly create a more positive narrative. This helped us filter out the solutions that didn’t actively engage the community (for instance, making youth fact-finders for Freetown-based NGOs or the international media).  Our final solution-set involves tying youth inclusion to the terms of community agreements with NGOs and grant-making bodies…more details in the next post!


The define/POV phase was easily the most challenging part of the design process (but perhaps I shouldn’t speak so soon?). As Chelsea wrote in an earlier blog post, the two of us (having not visited Sierra Leone) found Jonny and Kevin’s field notes simultaneously “concrete and abstract”. Despite having read through the debrief notes and poured over the Yoni interviews, I only felt the ‘a-ha’ of a visceral connection when I slid Mustafa’s description over Veselka’s essay. While I’m neither a rural Sierra Leoneon youth nor a 16 year-old hitchhiker, I am an English Literature major who appreciates the value of narratives and their real-world implications. The design process asks that you bring all aspects of yourself — professional, personal, academic — to the table, and break off pieces as is appropriate. (The very existence of a stage called ‘Empathy’ reinforces the importance of these personal connections). At the same time, I’m curious about the limitations of this approach, especially when the user, like Mustafa, is remotely-located. How can we check the validity of assumptions and our visceral connections from afar?

Understanding Sierra Leone

Post by Federica Carugati, Tate Rider, Lindsay Gorman, and Mohamed Yassine


As the class moves forward on the stimulating and surprising path of design thinking (DT), we find ourselves reflecting on the fuzzy contours of objectivity and on the tension between individual users and scale.

As we unpacked the interviews we were told to a) focus on our user and b) dig deep into the motivations behind his or her assertions. For example, we unpacked an interview with a paramount chief who had been drinking, and within his seemingly incoherent ramblings we seemed to be able to unearth some seemingly profound nuggets of insight about his needs (e.g. a tension that exists between his position of relative helplessness vis-à-vis the mining companies versus his perception as a powerful figure within his community). From here, we could use the needs of this “extreme” user to develop insights about the issues that other paramount chiefs faced in Sierra Leone.

Still, as we went through the exercise, these guidelines struck us as profoundly contradictory. How are we to focus on what the user did and said during the interview, and then extrapolate his or her thoughts and feelings without necessarily forcing ourselves—our preconceived notions, our logics but also our fundamental ignorance—upon him or her? We are not suggesting we should strive toward complete objectivity and give up on DT because it fails to achieve an idealized goal. We are suggesting, however, that we need to think hard about the potential pitfalls of a method that aims at putting humans at the center of the design process, but that, in order to do so, places other humans in charge of representing the former’s needs.

Moreover, the focus on individual users brings up another problem—that of scale. If the user’s deep-seated needs are our Golden Fleece, then how do we know that we are not designing for an utterly unrepresentative component of the system we are trying to understand? Post-its may be cheap, but prototypes, even at their early stages, are likely to entail costs—if only in terms of time and effort. If the guy who famously designed the wheeled suitcase was lucky enough to reach a mainstream audience while designing for extreme users, he remains one of the few who could say to have gained something by ‘reinventing the wheel.’ Others may not be as lucky.

The Challenges of Secondhand Empathy

Post by Michael Lindenberg and Guy Mordecai

blog2Part One by Michael Lindenberg

It turned out that going to Africa for nine days is only the start of developing the insights we feel we need to move forward in designing something helpful for Simeon.  Another problem confronted us on our return: How could Ramya and Michael share what they learned and felt and saw with Guy and Chi, who spent the week assessing analogous situations — from home.

It’s been a challenge, despite some very good conditions: Michael and Ramya, like the rest of the Sierra Leone team, had spent every night unpacking interviews, key moments and impressions to make them more easily relayed to the folks back home. Raw notes were kept and shared, and key insights were organized into documents that could also be shared.

And on their side, Guy and Chi came at it with fresh eyes and commitment to understand.

Two weeks in, and we’re all roughly on the same page. But trying to relay the experiences overseas in a way that both inspired and informed the other half of the team wasn’t as easy as it had seemed it would be. That’s an area we could use some advice and practice on in the future, and which other teams could profit from considering as they begin their design journeys.

Another related challenge — at least in Michael’s view  — has been the overwhelming amount of information the team brought back, and the limited amount of time to consider each piece. That kind of winnowing is always necessary, of course, but it might be that we’ve short-circuited some of our better potential users out of the plain fact that we had to make quick decisions and move on.

Going forward that will be something we’ll keep in mind as we develop our prototypes and get feedback. If we get stuck, we may want to go back and consider other potential users and make use of additional insights.

Part Two by Guy Mordecai

Just a day before our first session I watched “Blood Diamond” all over again. About 7 years ago I saw it for the first time and became inspired to visit Africa. I imagine how hard it must be to land in Sierra Leone and jump right into the hustle and bustle of Africa, and start figuring out who’s against who.

Doing the analogous work during the Spring Break certainly helped Chi Hung and I to understand the complexity and breadth of the challenge, and the multiple interests involved. The unpacking process wasn’t easy.  Ramya and Michael did an amazing job in Sierra Leone, and provided us with great documentation and thorough descriptions of the interviewees and interview settings and context.  However, I found it challenging to place ourselves in the village, trying to picture the Paramount Chief sitting in front of me, surrounded by a group of young, passionate Sierra Leoneans who are so excited to share their problems with us.  Each nuance matters, the intonation, body language, voice, behavior and content obviously. Empathy is created between people, in direct interactions.  It was easy to see the importance of being present in the field during our full-day workshop on 4/14.

Ramya and Michael identified the difficulty it posed Chi Hung and me, and were really patient in trying to be descriptive and willing to recover more details to help present a full picture.

The Value of Post-Its and Asking Why

Post by Chi Hung

photo (17)

The empathy map provided good resources that we could use for creating the POV.  By running through the colorful post-its populating the 4 quadrants, we brainstormed on all the possible needs of the particular user segment.  Having one person at the board writing down all the brainstormed solutions has it perks – it was fast and efficient.  We then elaborated more on the brainstormed needs through interview notes and conversation transcripts, before proceeding to synthesize the important needs into different categories.

Trying to delve into the ‘insights’ relating to the ‘needs’ was a slightly trickier affair.  We deployed the ‘why’ method.  By constantly probing deeper into the ‘need’ by asking ‘why-s’ repeatedly, we were able to unravel the different layers and nuances of the stories.  For example, one of the needs of a particular user segment was to gain a meaningful place in society.  While this statement holds truth, it felt light and too seemingly obvious.  We then asked the ‘why’ – e.g. Why do they want a purposeful position in society, i.e. a job?  Because they want to feel valued.  Why do they need to feel valued? etc.  Through iterations, we were able to land on the insight that this particular user segment was motivated by shame and embarrassment cast upon by societal members.

Once this part was completed, we rephrased the wording to describe our user segment. Having descriptive adjective words describing the users proved to important as it allows for the audience to immediately form a mental image of the user in their minds, and to further evoke empathy from the users.

Throughout this process, we believe that using writing our thoughts out on colorful post-its and pasting them on the board helped us tremendously with our thought process.  Apart from lending some form of structure and clarity, the post-its allowed us to organize our notes accordingly by moving the post-its around the board as needed.