Ensuring affected communities have access to appropriate sanitation facilities is critical in a humanitarian emergency. If not dealt with properly, this can further endanger lives already at risk.

Can user-centred design (UCD) principles and tools help ensure facilities match the sanitation needs and practices of affected communities?

As part of our collaboration with the Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF), we designed a challenge giving humanitarian practitioners an opportunity to explore the potential of UCD tools to build suitable sanitation facilities in an emergency.

Engaging with vulnerable communities in the aftermath of a crisis

There is a clear process for deciding in an emergency what toilets need to be built, how many, and where. This is to minimise casualties and any additional risks to people’s health and wellbeing. The problem is that the outcome of this process is increasingly at odds with the diverse needs, preferences, and practices of those affected. The location of a toilet, whether it’s accessible and safe, whether it’s suitable for children, women of different cultures, or those with a disability, even the direction it is facing, will have an impact on whether people will use it or not. Failure to consider such aspects in the design of sanitation solutions often means that provided toilets or latrines end up being misused, destroyed for parts, or abandoned.

The Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF) wanted to explore whether user-centred design principles and processes like community engagement could help address some of these issues. But community engagement in the early stages of an emergency is a contentious matter.


Firstly, there is a lack of evidence around the impact of community engagement in the early stages of an emergency. This raises a lot of uncertainties around how to carry it out, how to use the resulting insights, how to translate them into suitable facilities – or why to do it in the first place. Uncertainty and risk are exactly what humanitarian practitioners are trained to reduce in crisis situations. So the lack of appetite for community engagement was understandable.

While guidelines for carrying out community engagement exist, there is little to no information about their suitability or applicability on the ground. This is perpetuated by the little time humanitarian practitioners have in an emergency to make detailed notes about the success or failure of a particular intervention. The lack of formal monitoring and evaluation processes adds to this complexity.

Also, the underlying assumption is that involving those affected in the decision-making and process of designing suitable sanitation facilities would be inclusive, even empowering. But how realistic is this in the first days of an emergency? How likely is it that people who have undergone immense emotional and physical stress would be interested in talking about their sanitation preferences? How can you engage with them in a sensitive, yet meaningful way? How can you make sure all voices are heard and that no one is placed at risk?

These were the kinds of questions the HIF were looking to answer. We helped them define and articulate the problem in the form of an innovation challenge.

Challenge: User-Centred Sanitation Design Through Rapid Community Engagement

We started by reviewing materials the HIF had commissioned around the limitations of sanitation provision in rapid-onset emergencies. Two limitations kept coming up – the lack of examples of best practice around community engagement to inform rapid sanitation design, and the lack of evidence to assess the impact of such initiatives.

How could we design a challenge that addressed both of these limitations? While driving community engagement projects was a priority, we also wanted to be able to compare their impact across different settings. We were increasingly aware that without an effective way to monitor and evaluate the projects, the opportunity to disseminate practice and improve the adoption of community engagement approaches was slim.

So we designed a challenge with two calls. The first was for up to five innovative Community Engagement Projects that could be used in the early stages of a rapid-onset emergency to inform sanitation decisions. The aim of this call was to generate a variety of innovative approaches and contexts of use.

The second call was for a Research and Evaluation Partner. Their role would include reviewing existing best practices, sharing lessons, co-developing with the selected community engagement projects a suitable framework for monitoring and evaluating the impact of their approaches, and carrying out the evaluation.


Handbooks for the Research and Evaluation Partner and Rapid Community Engagement Projects.

We created Handbooks for each call to detail the problem, the context, what is expected of selected partners, and criteria to consider when developing proposals.

For the community engagement projects the criteria included: ensuring an equal representation of all voices in the engagement, and integration within existing humanitarian processes.

We also made it explicit that the challenge was not about blindly pushing for community engagement, but about building an evidence base of its impact on sanitation provision and use.

Once launched, we helped the HIF run the challenge by co-designing the application process and materials, and shortlisting applications.

Innovation Workshop

Because of the novelty of both the challenge topic and structure, we co-designed an Innovation Workshop with the HIF to allow shortlisted community engagement projects to ask any questions and strengthen their proposals. The 2-day workshop was an opportunity for humanitarian practitioners to explore different user-centred design principles and tools and see if/how these might be of use in a rapid-onset emergency. For community engagement practitioners, the workshop was a chance to understand more about the humanitarian setting and how they can adapt their tools to it.

We worked as part of a diverse team to design the workshop. This included the humanitarian organisation Oxfam GB, who were the selected Research & Evaluation Partner (read their Landscape Review here); and Pivotal Labs, a software company that uses lean methodologies and user-centred design to create new digital products. Pivotal ran a session on UCD tools for humanitarian innovation (you can find the Toolkit they created for the workshop here).

We were really excited to hear that after the workshop most of the shortlisted projects updated their proposals to include a number of user-centred design tools discussed in the workshop, such as user journeys and empathy maps.

Those who took part in the workshop also found it very useful to share their ideas with fellow applicants, and get feedback from the WASH humanitarian experts and the UCD experts present.

Overview of the HIF User-Centred Sanitation Design Workshop from Elrha on Vimeo.

User-centred design practices in humanitarian WASH

This project gave us the opportunity to see how to best create a context for two very different communities of practitioners to learn from each other and co-create solutions. Our key takeaways:

  • Define problems in a clear and accessible way to attract diverse solvers. Having a clear problem will make it easier for new people to understand it. It can also make it easier to figure out how they can contribute to developing solutions.

  • Give people space to learn from each other, understand what they can bring to a project and how they can collaborate on solving problems. The Innovation Workshop was valuable in enabling humanitarian practitioners and community engagement practitioners to share tools and explore how these could be adapted to a crisis situation.

  • Explore and evaluate the impact of different practices, don’t enforce them before you know they work. User-centred design principles and processes like community engagement may offer a way of building more suitable facilities. But there is little evidence to back it up. The focus of the innovation challenge was on encouraging humanitarian practitioners and community engagement practitioners to work together on developing suitable engagement tools and then testing them to see if they make a difference.

The selected community engagement projects are currently ongoing. We look forward to following their progress as they unfold over the next year.

This year I celebrated Ada Lovelace Day by speaking at Ada’s List Conference 2017. It was a privilege to share the stage with such open, honest and ambitious women, and to meet some inspirational fellow Ada’s. I spoke about the value of cognitive diversity in solving problems and approaches for making the most of people’s different skills and perspectives.

What is cognitive diversity and why is it important?

Cognitive diversity

Two heads will only be better than one if their contents differ.” Scott E. Page

When we talk about diversity, we often talk about the one we can see – diversity of gender, race, ethnicity, age. This is referred to as identity diversity.

But groups of people who look differently are not necessarily better at solving problems; groups of people who think differently are more likely to be.

Cognitive diversity refers to people’s different ways of thinking, their different heuristics, and perspectives.

When we try to work together and solve complex problems, cognitive diversity becomes incredibly useful. It gives a group access to different ways of working, different ways of asking questions, and different ways of thinking about how to develop solutions.

While identity diversity correlates with cognitive diversity, it doesn’t predict it.

That doesn’t mean that cognitive diversity should become an excuse to ignore identity diversity altogether; it should be a way of enhancing it.

Identity diversity becomes powerful when we understand the different skills and perspectives that come with collaborating with people of different beliefs, gender or race.

The challenge with cognitive diversity is that you can’t see it. To discover cognitive diversity, you have to create opportunities for people to share their ways of thinking and see how they can collaborate and contribute to solving a problem.

How to create more cognitively diverse communities of solvers?

My talk suggested three approaches for increasing the diversity of solvers.

1. Making problems accessible

To encourage diverse people to collaborate on solving problems, they need to understand what the problems are. Problems should to be framed so people who are not familiar with the topic can understand their scope and how they can contribute to developing solutions.

This ‘framing’ refers to both the language used to communicate a problem, but also clarity in the way it’s defined. The problem itself needs to be real and ambitious, while remaining solvable.

2. Diversifying support & incentives

People might have the right kind of skills or approach to solve a problem, but limited access to the resources to help them develop their ideas.

To create inclusive opportunities for people to become solvers, we need to think about the kind of additional support different solvers might need and how to offer it.

Support can come in many different forms, from funding or access to lab space and equipment, to mentoring and training to help refine ideas. In some cases, it can even be something like giving solvers with children access to daycare services so they can attend workshops and pitch their ideas. (👍 to the Ada’s List Team for providing crèche services at the Conference!)

The type of incentives you present to people to tackle a problem also influence who decides to become a solver.

Some people respond well to problems framed as ambitious competitions. Others prefer to engage with a community they care about or want to help.

A problem might need to be pitched in different ways to different communities to get their interest.

3. Creating genuine opportunities for collaboration

Collaboration is not easy and can get messy. Especially when those expected to collaborate have different ways of approaching problems and thinking about solutions. This makes it even more important to create spaces where people from different backgrounds have an opportunity to share their tools, knowledge and experience, and understand how they can work together.

Sometimes this can work best via face-to-face facilitated workshops. In other situations, online platforms like Slack are more suitable. Key to each problem solving scenario is acknowledging that collaboration is hard and needs support and encouragement to succeed.

Achieving a diverse and functional team of problem-solvers is a challenging yet worthwhile aim. To quote Katherine W. Phillips“Diversity jolts us into cognitive action”. It’s up to us to build the right kind of context and support to ensure this cognitive action is a constructive and creative one.

Inspiration for the talk:

We’re excited to announce the launch of The Frontier – the world’s first venture-focused challenge prize! The prize is aimed at bringing together scientists, engineers and industry experts from all over the world to solve specific technical challenges.

The Frontier is launched by Hello Tomorrow, a global non-profit supporting science driven innovation, and developed by Deep Science Ventures (DSV), a VC backing scientists. DSV have allocated up to £500k in available prize & investment funding to successful applicants.

The Good Problems team at Science Practice will be working together with DSV over the next month to define specific technical challenges within three of the six high level challenge areas – optimising edible protein production, re-engineering soil, and better baby nutrition.

The Frontier Challenges

All six of the Frontier Challenges.

Scientists, engineers and other technical background individuals from all over the world are encouraged to apply and work together on solving specific technical challenges in the 6 highlighted areas. Applicants will have 30 days to form teams online and work on developing solutions. 30 successful teams will receive online support and mentorship from DSV and 10 will get to pitch at the Hello Tomorrow Global Summit in Paris, 26-27 October 2017, in front of a top lineup of VCs and over 3,000 science influencers.

We’re really excited to be collaborating with DSV on the design of the Frontier challenges and we look forward to seeing the emerging ventures!

If you want to start your own business, have a STEM background and are intrigued by one (or more) of the Frontier challenges, make sure you sign up by the 30th June!

In September last year a new issue of the 2+3D Design Magazine came out and inside it — we had written an article introducing the three Science Practice teams. 2+3D is the biggest design magazine in Poland. The article was titled ‘Wieloboje w projektowaniu’ which in English translates to ‘Combined Track and Field Events in Design’ — a reference to the very interdisciplinary nature of our work at Science Practice, where it is not uncommon to see designers and researchers working together with geneticists, developers, science writers, illustrators, agriculture experts, aeronautics engineers, filmmakers, policymakers, data scientists… In fact — each project we work on at Science Practice requires a unique blend of expertise.

The word spread fast and not long after the publication of the article I received an invitation from the organisers of World Usability Day WUD Silesia to talk about our work at Science Practice at their conference in December 2016 in Katowice, Poland. I always enjoy such invitations, as they are usually a nice opportunity to look back at projects from a different perspective and see how they resonate with people. And because the team of the WUD Silesia conference was ‘Sustainable Development’, I immediately thought about our Good Problems team.

In 2016 most of our work in the Good Problems team was focused on problems in the humanitarian emergency sector (namely, the WASH and GBV projects). Humanitarian aid is often defined in contrast to development work. Humanitarian actions are usually seen as short-term interventions (days, weeks or months) focused on the needs of people directly affected by a crisis. While the need to integrate sustainable principles in humanitarian aid is part of a growing trend in the sector, I realised that we had another project in our portfolio that was strongly rooted in the sustainable development context – this was the Longitude Prize 2014.

Sustainability and the Longitude Prize

The Our Common Future report completed by the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987 defines sustainable development as:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Central to sustainable development are two concepts:

  • the concept of needs;

  • the concept of limitations.

As we developed prototype challenges for each of the six candidate topics for the Longitude Prize 2014 (Antibiotics, Dementia, Flight, Food, Paralysis, and Water), it became increasingly apparent that most of these problems stem from our inability to sustain a technology or a service that we already enjoy into the longer future. Simply speaking — our current situation is unsustainable and unless we come up with something really good, we won’t be able to enjoy those technologies and services for much longer.

The Antibiotics candidate provides an illustrative example. Here, the problem we are facing in terms of sustainable development can be phrased in this way:

How do we keep the benefits of using antibiotics today, and not risk future generations’ right to benefit from using antibiotics in the future as well?

With this phrasing the concepts of needs and limitations can now be clearly defined:

  • our need is to be able to use antibiotics effectively;

  • future generations’ need is to be able to use antibiotics effectively in the future;

  • one limitation is that the more liberally we use antibiotics, the less effective they become (due to evolving microbial resistance);

  • another limitation is that the development of new antibiotics becomes ever more difficult and expensive, as it takes ever less time for bacteria to develop resistance to a new drug.

Longitude Prize 2014: Antibiotics - infographic

Longitude Prize 2014: Antibiotics infographic. Key things you need to know about the importance of the problem of rising antimicrobial resistance. Presented data put the needs and the limitations into a quantifiable perspective.

In June 2014 BBC announced that Antibiotics had been selected by the British public to be the final topic of the Longitude Prize 2014. In conclusion of over 6 months of our research and design work for the Longitude Prize, we proposed that the Antibiotics prize should focus on improving antibiotic conservation through better stewardship of the existing antibiotic treatments. This in practice could be enabled by a new point-of-care diagnostic that should help clinicians target antibiotic treatments more effectively. The challenge statement in the Longitude Prize rule book reads:

The Longitude Prize will reward a competitor that can develop a transformative point–of–care diagnostic test that will conserve antibiotics for future generations and revolutionise the delivery of global healthcare. The test must be accurate, rapid, affordable, easy–to–use and available to anyone, anywhere in the world. It will identify when antibiotics are needed and, if they are, which ones to use.

The competition is still running.

Interestingly, other candidates that did not become the topic of the main Longitude Prize 2014 competition were also rooted in long-term sustainability context. The goal of the Dementia challenge was to address the challenge of caring for a growing ageing population while relying on finite human and financial resources. The Food challenge was focusing on the need to produce more food to feed a growing population on one hand, and on the limitations of agriculture’s growing environmental impact on the other. The Flight challenge was looking for a breakthrough that would balance our need for a rapid and convenient means of global transportation with the limitations posed by environmental impact of aviation’s CO2 emissions.

Sea Objects

Working with the UK Government Office for Science to research and visualise UK Sea Governance.

Connecting scientific evidence to policy-making is a non-trivial process. Evidence can be conflicting, incomplete, or inconclusive, obscuring the ability of policy-makers to apply this information. Likewise, policy-makers may not be receptive to information, or can be constrained in the choices that they are able to make. More than this, scientific evidence almost never compels any particular policy direction, rather providing insights into potential benefits, costs and risks of action. This difficult but important relationship is well recognised by UK Government, with many organisations in place to help facilitate conversation between researchers and policymakers.

One of these organisations is the Government Office for Science (GO-Science), who make sure that UK government departments have access to scientific advice and evidence to inform their policy-making. An important part of this is the Foresight programme, which looks forwards to identify opportunities and challenges that might affect the UK in the near future. Every year GO-Science chooses 2 or 3 different topics to investigate, producing a report and raising awareness of how government could use evidence to positively influence the UK.

One of Foresight’s most recent projects is ‘The Future of the Sea’, which is due to be published this year. The project is looking to understand the ways in which the UK interacts with the sea, how that might change in the future and how Government can act to sustainably support the people, organisations and industries involved.

Early in the project GO-Science approached us to understand if we could work with them to organise and rationalise their initial research, and to design a stimulus that visualises the responsibilities of different UK Government departments and agencies in relation to the Sea. The idea being that by synthesising and presenting research in an engaging and accessible way, interactions between foresight researchers and policy-makers would be more focused and fruitful, easing the relationship between policy and evidence.

How does UK Government interact with the sea?

Our starting point for this work was the initial research that GO-Science had done into the different interests that the UK has in the sea. This includes a diversity of concepts such as maintaining biodiversity and supporting coastal tourism, marine industries, port infrastructure, shipping, and the development of new technologies for ocean mapping. All of these related but distinct interests needed to be represented, with meaningful links being highlighted wherever possible. As important was finding a way to represent the responsibilities of different government departments and organisations.

Our goal was to produce something that would simplify the complexity of the interactions between people government, and marine, maritime and coastal activities without dumbing down or removing important detail. The aim was that this would facilitate conversations about how government is currently organised and how it could change, but also stand alone as a picture of UK sea governance.

Looking for an organising structure

Draft illustrations showing ideas for visualising links between concepts

We began by organising the interests into those that were more similar to one another or more different based upon different guiding principles. For example we experimented with grouping by the geographical location of the interests - in, across or by the sea. Another principle was the intended purpose of the interest such as extracting resources, or protecting biodiversity. We then drew and defined connections between groups, such as dependencies or beneficial relationships.

After a few iterations trialling out different organising principles, we decided with GO-Science to use a simple structure based around a flow of interests grouped into understanding, planning and working. Each group is dependent on the activities of the previous one.

  • Understanding — Interests with a purpose of monitoring and research on the sea, coastal and marine environments, climate or human activities related to the sea. These activities also include efforts to analyse this data.

  • Planning — Interests related to planning and regulating economic, environmental or security activities based upon the information gathered in ‘Understanding’.

  • Working — Diverse marine, maritime and coastal interests to sustainably benefit from the sea, and to protect the UK’s ability to continue to do this. The flow begins once more as there are efforts to monitor and understand the impacts of these activities.

This structure allowed the UK’s interests to be described as collectively working towards one of 3 high level goals: Marine and Coastal Environments and Mitigating Climate Change; Providing Marine, Maritime and Coastal Security to the UK; and Sustainable Marine and Maritime Economic Growth. For each of these goals we produced a visualisation showing the major industries, regulations, departments and people involved.

We then tested out the diagrams with representatives from different government departments. Based upon their feedback we iterated and improved the designs. Most significantly we made sure that it was possible to use the three diagrams together to show a whole picture of UK sea governance.

Managing complexity

Cover and overarching structure from our Future of the Sea report

As our first experience designing a tool to facilitate science policy discussions, this project proved to be a really useful learning experience for us.

Government is an enormous and complex organisation, with numerous ways of dealing with cross departmental topics such as the sea. To have a full understanding of this requires significant effort. We found that attempting to communicate this visually can serve a useful purpose in helping people to access the topic, and to discuss ways in which governance can be proactive to future challenges and opportunities.

One of the biggest challenges was in pitching the level of detail correctly. Different departments have different levels of interaction with the sea, as well as different understandings of whose responsibility certain activities are. It is likely near impossible for a representation to be perfect from all perspectives.

We found that it is precisely this difference of opinion that this type of work can help to bring out in the open. The process of presenting people with a picture of what we thought they and others do resulted interesting discussions around governments role in the sea. The diagrams give people a chance to react to something, focusing discussion and highlighting opportunities for relationships between departments.

Looking for a good problem?

We are a close team of designers and researchers who are passionate about tackling ambitious and important problems. If you’re looking to grow your impact, we’d love to hear from you!