Insight & Empathy

This is Part 2 of Things that make you go "Hmmmm...", A SERIES OF REFLECTIONS BY MANYA DOTSON, PROJECT DIRECTOR, ADOLESCENTS 360.

In 2016, A360’s public health professionals, professional designers, young people, an anthropologist, and a developmental scientist had deep conversations with girls all over Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Tanzania.

It was formative research, but in line with the human-centered design (HCD) methodology we are using to ground our process, A360 framed the research as a quest for insights and inspiration. We asked questions, played games, talked in groups, laughed, observed, and explored the world of married and unmarried girls. Our goal was to empathetically understand what drives girls' decisions around contraception and relationships and to glean inspiration to design new solutions. (Read about the details of our HCD-inspired, IRB-approved methodology.) It was essentially a qualitative research exercise using novel methodologies, but our data collection and synthesis was different than traditional focus groups.

In the A360 process, we didn’t rely on researchers to interact with girls and then bring the data back to our design team as if we were playing telephone. Instead of researchers doing the interviews, crunching the data, and presenting it to programmers, the A360 research was conducted by teams of programmers, designers, and young people who were supported by professional researchers. Instead of being run through Visio, the data—including observations, quotes, intuitive interpretations, emotional reactions, and inspirations—was “downloaded” each evening onto piles and piles of sticky-notes, which were grouped into themes and further explored in the next rounds of discussion. It was an immersive, engaging (and sometimes very challenging) process and many of our field team members said they had never experienced anything quite like it.

Our research confirmed a lot of what we already knew: girls crave anonymous services from a trusted, smiling provider who won’t judge them and will keep their secrets. They fear stigma and social sanction. They crave information about sex, relationships, health, and growing up, but don't know where to get it. “Alternative facts” about contraceptives causing infertility are rampant and held as truth, and because of them, providers feel conflicted about offering contraceptives to unmarried girls and girls who have never had a child.

But the immersion that happened through the research—the process of getting the people who would be designing solutions into the field—has led to something that designers know is essential to breakthrough solutions: EMPATHY. People may be fascinated by the findings of an anthropologist, but they won’t FEEL the same way as the people who immersed themselves in a culture. What I’m seeing in A360 is that feeling matters. Knowledge + empathy ignites urgency, awakens curiosity, and catalyzes creativity. There’s something about positioning the serious work of data-gathering as playful and solution-oriented, and getting programmers and designers immersed in an experience with adolescent girls and involved in data synthesis, that is changing the tenor of our program design.

I have been working on this issue for 20 years, but truly getting inside the shoes of the girls has helped me to see their issues differently. I don’t just know it here [touches head], I now also know them here [touches heart]. It’s a very exciting process and it makes me see the things I know in a new way. It makes me need to do something to really help my young sisters.” -A360’s program lead in Nigeria, Fatima Muhammed

Insights are emerging from this empathy-building process, and some of them have profoundly shifted my understanding what seemed like well-worn facts. They are inspiring our team as we move into the design phase—the problem-solving phase of our work.

The next posts will share some of these groundbreaking insights. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, we would love your thoughts on the role of empathy in great program design. When and how do you cultivate empathy in your programs? How has it made a difference? Share your comments below or on social media: @adolescents360 and #adolescents360 on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.