How we used lean design to help refugees in Berlin

This weekend I took a trip to Germany’s vibrant capital to take part in a 2-day workshop and hack weekend for social good, at the Impact Hub in the popular Kreuzberg district.

The overall goal of the event was to identify social problems in the city of Berlin and tackle them in the most efficient way using the lean design approach. We were free to choose between various topics such as education, transport and healthcare.

It didn’t take long to nail down our topic for the weekend. After describing the orientation issues I had at Tegel airport the day before, the others nodded their heads in agreement, and we realised that many people who arrive in Berlin must be struggling to find their way around.

Identifying our target group using personas

After locking down the topic in record time, we were in a great position to do some basic user research and quickly come up with a few personas who might be part of our target group: business travellers, solo travellers, guided tourist groups, disabled people, exchange students and immigrants, amongst others…

Identifying who our users are, by plotting different user types on a diagram

We soon reached a few confident assumptions:

  • Most of these user personas would probably be either tech-savvy enough to get around (like business travellers and young people)
  • Or they would have someone to guide them (disabled people and tourist groups).

We decided that we’d leave it to the city council to tap the full potential of improving the user experience at airports, train stations and other places of arrival, and look a little harder to figure out which of these users would really benefit from our help.

We came to the conclusion that the group of people who are likely to be struggling the most with the city’s imperfect “onboarding” experience, was probably the one with a completely different set of problems: immigrants.

The next step: understanding your users

Now we’d identified a user group to focus on, the challenge was to find some of the real people behind our persona. According to media reports, the city should be full of them, with the central station being their first place of contact. But where do they relocate afterwards? Refugee camps, dedicated shelters, hotels, parks? Previously, this would have been much easier, but due to protests by Germans, Google had to take down a map that was listing refugee shelters all over the country, in order to protect them from extremist attacks.

After digging through some online resources we found 2 promising leads:

  1. That a shelter would soon be opened soon at Tempelhof airport (the major airport during the Nazi era)
  2. That during the week, many immigrants are usually to be found standing in line at Berlin’s Office for Health & Social Affairs.

Unfortunately though, we couldn’t wait until Monday, so we headed to the former airport. But to our surprise and contrary to media coverage, we struggled to spot a single refugee in Berlin!

Thankfully, our next stop was more positive. We found many refugees camping in front of the state office in Berlin’s social hotspot and working-class district, Moabit. And it didn’t take too long until we found our first willing interviewee: a guy from Somalia who had spent a month waiting for his legal documents in order to start looking for work. In very fluent English, he explained to us the sort of problems you’re facing when you arrive as a refugee in another country and what the major roadblocks are in order to get yourself legally recognised and find some sort of accommodation.

Interviewing refugees to understand what their problems are when they arrive

Mohammed from Syria was another person we were able to speak to: his hometown had been razed to the ground and he’d been sleeping in the park for 2 weeks while waiting to “get a number assigned”. His voice was calm but in his gestures and words you could hear that he’s gone through rough times.

Most of the other people we interviewed were facing the same problem: how to bridge the gap between their arrival, and the point at which the state would officially approve them as refugees and offer shelter, food and the legal documents they needed in order to seek work and feed their families. Luckily plenty of helpers were taking care of them in the meantime, and on our first day on-site we observed three vans stopping by to deliver clothes, drinks and fresh food. One anecdote said that once a van from a turkish delivery had allegedly delivered 800 kebabs!

We wrapped up the day with these hugely revealing (but also very troubling) insights and decided to let these impressions settle overnight. In the morning, we’d start to think about what we could do to help solve some of these problems, using our experience with lean design and the possibilities of digital tools.

Testing and validating our ideas

With well-rested and even more motivated minds, we kicked off the second day of our weekend. Today would be all about ideating, putting our ideas into practice and figuring out if they could actually play a part in solving a very real problem for our users.

One major learning from day one was that our new friends were really enthusiastic about social media, taking group photos and hanging out together. Ironically, they were the ones to offer us food as well! And while some of their basic needs were covered by the generous local helpers, we realised that they were definitely struggling with another often neglected issue: appreciation.

A photo of Arab immigrants that revealed an interesting refugee need: appreciation.

Due to their social status and being visibly poor, they felt excluded from society and were afraid of being rejected or treated negatively by other citizens. Part of that issue was that security at the local offices seems to be unnecessarily rough, and physical aggressions are not uncommon.

Our brainstorming session at breakfast already led to some cool ideas, such as bringing helpers and refugees closer together via Facebook, providing a digital map with reference points for food and shelter and sharing their personal stories on social media.

What inspired us a lot was that at the Impact Hub, they have a wall full of coworker profiles with each person’s personal story, what each of them is doing and what their passions are. During our breaks, we inevitably ended up spending some time reading through the profiles to find out more about the people working at this great co-working space.

The profile wall at the Impact Hub, showcasing every person’s skills and interests

Coincidentally we realised that this tool could be used as part of our own solution as well. Perhaps we could raise awareness for refugees by listening to and sharing their personal stories. Sites like Humans of New York have successfully shown how much traction these kinds of stories can receive: this might help our users to feel more appreciated and to connect with locals.

Prototyping our idea

Since we had only about an hour left to create our initial prototype, we had to move super fast. This is something I’ve had a lot of experience with at Hanno too, with our rapid prototyping sprints for digital products. Our prototype had to be as low-fidelity as possible so that we could test it with our users and pivot in the right direction based on their feedback.

We came to the conclusion that an app like Instagram might have the most impact: photos would help us convey emotions in the most effective way and when combined with stories and a popping hashtag, this could be a catalyst for getting people to take action. By sharing the refugees’ stories alongside a friendly photo we could encourage others to do the same, and at the same time communicate a more positive image of immigrants and help people understand their real needs and problems.

Accompanying that campaign we were planning to have a website showing all the Instagram photos that used our hashtag (we were aiming for the hashtag #refugeesmile). Due to our time constraints we weren’t able to build the website itself, but we were able to build a quick prototype made of cardboard. We took a couple of the member profiles from the wall, drew a rough layout of our page on a flipchart and headed off to Moabit to do some real-life user testing.

Testing our low-fidelity cardboard prototype with some immigrants

We faced a couple of challenges that we didn’t expect at all, and that showed us once again how crucial it is to talk to real users and understand how they see and perceive your product.

  • One major issue was definitely language. The day before we were able to get stuff translated quickly with the help of an Arab-German translator who stops by occasionally to keep them company. Our mistake here was to rely on her being there: she wasn’t.
  • As a result, it was hard to get our idea across because our prototype wasn’t self-explanatory enough to make sense without any further description. We didn’t design for the case that our users would only understand pictures and symbols
  • Even though our users were quite tech-savvy it was hard to convey what the goal of our campaign was. While they were aware that we wanted to help and use social media to boost awareness, they didn’t understand what the tangible results would be
  • Some refugees were concerned about their safety, and said that uploading pictures with their faces could be dangerous if someone from their home country would be able to identify them from these.

The experiment was really useful regardless, because it allowed us to quickly readjust our approach, and move this project into the right direction. With these learnings in our head, we went back to the office for the final part of our journey.

Results, learnings and pitching our idea to the world

Since we had only a couple of hours left before we had to wrap up, we needed to quickly document what we had learned and draw some conclusions from our workshop experience. We prepared a pitch presentation to promote our idea to a fictitious audience at the Impact Hub, which helped us summarise what the concept was all about. You can see my final video here:

Personally, I’ve learned many things this weekend. First and foremost, I’ve been reminded of the importance of user testing. In this extreme case, I’ve realised that there is absolutely nothing that can replace it. Especially if you’re unfamiliar with your target users; if you’re trying to tackle a new kind of problem; or if you haven’t fully understood your user’s needs. It’s absolutely crucial to talk to some real users and to test your ideas and solutions with them.

Thanks to the lean design process we followed, we reached the point where we have a basic understanding of our users, have tested an idea with them, and have figured out that this idea might not be the best fit. A photo campaign might work for a few, but it does have a few downsides and we haven’t yet factored in the needs of the other user group (the helpers) who would actually need to take plenty of photos and upload them to the cloud.

But that’s still progress! These are valuable lessons which give us a better appreciation of the needs of these users, and give us a starting point for exploring and experimenting further. Our next step is to keep going: to continue iterating upon our idea and to see if there is an easy way to use digital tools and the experience we have gained during this weekend to make a little difference in the world.

For me, it’s always incredible to see how quickly an idea or product can be tested and validated in the real world. A weekend is usually plenty of time to figure out if your idea actually has potential and by figuring that out, you can save yourself not only from a lot of headaches but most importantly, a lot of time and money on something that doesn’t really add any value to the world.

So why not get out there? There are plenty of problems just waiting to be solved!