UX for Good: Can We Harness Emotions to End Genocide?

Automatticians, the people who build WordPress.com, participate in events and projects around the world every day. Periodically, they report back on the exciting things they do when not in front of a computer.

London-based Davide Casali is a speaker and mentor, but above all he designs experiences for our users. This year, for the second time, he returned as a team lead at UX for Good, a project that calls on designers to tackle complex social challenges. Here’s a brief journey through the events of these six days.

One hundred days to kill a million people. This is the magnitude of the genocide that began on April 7, 1994, in Rwanda. A genocide that the Western world tried to ignore, but that today has a valuable lesson to teach us.

This terrible event has been the central topic of the 2014 challenge of UX for Good, a project founded in 2011 by Jason Ulaszek and Jeff Leitner. This year the project brought together ten designers to support Aegis Trust, the nonprofit organization that manages the Kigali Genocide Memorial, as well as educational activities across Rwanda, the UK, and the US.

The challenge? How to bridge “the gap between the way we remember the genocides of the past and how we act to prevent the genocides of the future.” Surely an ambitious goal.

Harnessing the power of design

This was the second year for me, but the experience I had didn’t make me feel any less irrelevant facing such an enormous challenge. How can ten designers begin to make a step forward in such a huge undertaking? This question kept appearing not just in my mind, but also in the mind of all my fellow designers.

But this is exactly the kind of bet that UX for Good makes year after year, and it repeatedly manages to give back value to the charities involved in the project. UX for Good was founded with designers’ core skills in mind: their ability to connect human needs with solutions that have lots of moving parts across different disciplines. Extracting simplicity from complexity. This is where design can — and does — give back to society as a whole, even if in more normal scenarios the benefits are hidden inside commercial products or services.

On the ground in Rwanda

I flew to Kigali on the 30th of May, and the following evening I met all the other designers for the first time. This started three full days of field research, dawn to dusk. The intensity of this part was breathtaking, not just for the amount of activities conducted in a completely foreign place, but also for the emotional investment of this challenge.

The first day we went through the Kigali Genocide Memorial itself. It was an incredibly draining morning, emotionally. In the words of Matt Franks, one of the designers:

As hard as it is to summarize the feelings you have while standing there — it’s even harder to capture them in a manner that can be conveyed to others. You feel sick — yet emotionally detached. You know what you are hearing is awful… Yet you are unable truly to understand it.

We barely had time to recover before proceeding to other activities. During these three days of field research we visited different places and interviewed experts, officials, and survivors. Their stories, like the testimony of Grace and Vanessa, were terrible to hear (you can watch their interview here):

As we walked along a path, I heard a woman agonizing. She has been hacked and her baby is still breastfeeding. She had been cut with a machete on the forehead, at the back of the head, and on one arm and leg. Once I reached the woman, she said ‘please do me a favor and take my baby, with God’s help you both might survive’. So I took her. If I have to die for this baby I will.

Over and over, we began to notice how these tragedies all showed another side, one of of rebirth and reconciliation. Heroes emerged. Hope appeared. From another woman we heard a testimony so terrible I’m unable to repeat it here, and it made us wonder how it was even possible to still trust and talk to other people after so much madness. She greeted us thanking us for taking the time to hear her memories, and she went away thanking us again for sharing a moment with her.

These two aspects, pain and hope, emerged as key elements in Rwanda’s healing.

Finding inspiration in tragedy

When we moved to London for the synthesis and design phase, the energy of the team was vibrant. We were eager to start making sense of all the insights collected in the field and do something ourselves.
Roberta Tassi, designer and UX for Good participant

In the following three days we worked at the Red Bull offices in London and distilled our findings. We wanted to provide Aegis Trust with a model they could reuse to build activities and educational programs, as well as with a set of different ideas mapping and showing the power of that model.

Inzovu Curve Model

All of this is a consolidation of the successful activities Aegis and Rwandans are already engaged in to support healing and drive action. The model defines a sequence of painful memories, reflective moments, stories of hope, and inspiration to act — and shows how people can convert individual experiences to understanding and action.

This model echoes the one suggested by the mindfulness studies conducted by neuroscientist Tania Singer, where people train and learn to switch from empathy to compassion. It’s a necessary shift to avoid burnout and promote a healthier confrontation with difficult topics.

These two dimensions — the experiential and the personal — are intertwined in the model we called the Inzovu Curve. “Inzovu” means “elephant” in Kinyarwanda; we chose that name because the curve resembles the shape of a rising elephant trunk.

Inzovu Curve Logo

We finally consolidated all our findings in a presentation that we gave at the Aegis Trust the following week, with an excellent reception from their side.

A challenge to remember

For me, this has been for the second time a transformative experience. Understanding different cultures is something that surely makes me a richer person, but it also informs my everyday design with a better perception of different people and behaviors. It gives me an incredible sense of hope to see how, in just a few years, a country managed to heal and build a renewed unity, and how countless everyday heroes worked and are still working toward that goal.

It’s also incredibly empowering to see us, designers, starting as ten strangers, able to put our egos on the side and work effortlessly together on a common cause.

We concluded UX for Good 2014, but these efforts are ongoing and require additional resources. Aegis is already doing a great job, but more people need to get involved. Maybe you could consider a visit to Rwanda to see more than just the gorillas, or at least take a peek at Aegis’ work.

Either way, I hope this story gave you something to think about.

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