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Using Design Thinking when building Apps for Refugees

The present refugee crisis is the first time in history that smartphones have enabled such great opportunity to help refugees directly and at scale. But, in order to fully capitalize on this opportunity we need to first change our mindset and learn to see the world through a refugee’s eyes.

The lessons I share below are hard-learned, and I share them in hopes that other tech entrepreneurs will save themselves vital time and resources in order to create the speedy solutions we need to tackle this incredible crisis.

First, a few technical considerations…

1. Not all smartphones have data. This may seem obvious, but a refugee’s SIM card is not quite the same as yours. Middle Eastern SIM cards do not roam in Europe, some countries disable unregistered numbers, and data roaming is expensive. This leaves refugees in a continual (and expensive) process of buying new SIM cards, and this means they have gaps in data access. As a result, transit centers and makeshift camps have recognized the need to provide wifi for refugees. But, that means that refugees have to navigate across borders to find one of these centers. And on that note…
2. A refugee’s phone battery is the same as yours. Yes, makeshift camps have made efforts to provide cell phone charging stations. But there are hundreds of thousands of people on the move across Europe and there is far more demand than supply. In many ways, these simple phone charging stations are among the most impactful tech solutions in a refugee’s life. Want to help but you’re no good at app design? Not to worry, do you happen to have a car battery?
3. And, just like you, a refugee’s phone is more than just a phone. A refugee’s phone is often their only remaining connection to the life they once had. These phones are not only carrying photographs of important documents but — more importantly — carry the last photos of their cherished family and home that they have left behind. They are absolutely not going to delete these photos to install a bunch of refugee apps.

Up for the challenge? Now, what to build…

First of all, why would a refugee trust you? Trust is vital for any product to become a success, and failure to think beyond our traditional mindset can cause great projects to ultimately fail.

Refugees have been through hell. They have seen friends and loved ones pulled out of their homes and taken away to undisclosed locations by plainclothes police. They have been interrogated by terrorists as they tried to escape. If they are coming from Syria it is almost guaranteed that they have lost a family member or close friend, and worse, often at the hands of a neighbor.

It is only natural for someone living under such conditions to give their trust sparingly. After all, how do they really know that your app isn’t reporting their position to the government? How do they know they won’t be arrested for using it? How did they find out about this app, and do they trust the source?
And on the note of finding information…

4. A refugee does not search like you. As it turns out, the worldwide web isn’t all that worldwide. In many countries the internet is monitored and firewalled. Publicly available information is either heavily censored or blatantly false. Even with a good VPN, people live in fear of government raids and punishment for seeking or spreading non-sanctioned information. As a result, most refugees don’t “just Google it” when they need information.

Furthermore, a refugee’s search results are nowhere near the same as yours. Native Arabic (or Pashto…) content on the internet is limited, and even with translation algorithms the returns of an Arabic language search query are not nearly as useful as those in well-phrased English.

As a result, it is important to recognize that refugees are not likely to search for refugee apps and websites in the same way we would. Instead, information is spread through word-of-mouth and existing social media groups and can be false or outdated.
Fact-checking is a need for refugees, but its delivery is an unmet challenge.

5. Finally, not all refugees have smartphones. More specifically, not all categories of refugees have smartphones. There is frequently only one smartphone within a refugee traveling group, and it is generally held by the father, oldest son, or (in the absence of a family) another male group leader.
Information is incredibly valuable and the unequal distribution of smartphones creates an environment of information ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. Within this environment, ‘have-nots’ are dependent on smartphone holders and cannot survive without them. This extreme dependence (particularly among women and children) easily sets the stage for abuse.

As a result, it is important that refugee responses do not overly-focus on technical and smartphone-enabled “scalable” solutions. Face-to-face aid is still a vital component of the refugee response.
That said, the tech community has quite a lot of opportunity to help by enabling these volunteers!
What does this all mean?

While smartphones are an incredibly valuable tool in the lives of today’s refugees, it is important to understand their limitations and the variance in patterns of use around the world.

As our tech community works to respond to the crisis, it is important that we do not lose sight of the offline solutions that enable our online solutions. By working with refugees’ existing cultural and information seeking norms, we will be best able to help these amazing and resilient people as they begin their new lives in Europe.

From a purely technical perspective, good smartphone-enabled refugee assistance is far from easy. Tech solutions need to cache all necessary information offline yet need to be aware that a refugee’s phone memory is extremely limited. These solutions also need to save as much battery life as possible while recognizing that battery-hungry features such as GPS are important inclusions. And these solutions need to provide up-to-date and easy-to-follow information to people whose phones are regularly offline or simply… off.

So, should you build your refugee app?
I’m not going to say no, because there really is a need for trustworthy, accurate, and accessible information. But refugees are already active users of many apps that they need (google maps, whatsapp, facebook) and refugees have done a pretty impressive job of figuring out their own ways of getting vital information.

Let’s not forget that tech is more than apps.

At the lower-tech end, anyone who can wire up a car battery to recharge cell phones is an absolute hero to those refugees who regain access to the precious data these phones hold. At the higher-tech end, with the ubiquity of smartphones in daily life, solutions that overcome market-wide user challenges such as data roaming, memory usage, and battery life are valuable not only for refugees but for consumers across all demographics.
In conclusion, there are a number of ways that the tech community can help refugees. By applying good design thinking principles, each of us can lend our unique talents to developing solutions for this crisis.

Adrienne Yandell

Founder and CEO, Work4Good

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