Phase 2: Conducting Research
  • Intermediate Level
  • Individual quiz activity and group discussion
Phase 2: Conducting Research
Chapter 7

Ideation & Validating Research Findings


In previous chapters we’ve mapped out the problem area, conducted threat modeling, dove into the different kinds of research methods, learned about inclusive designs, and went over how to use a persona. At this point we have clearly outlined the issues to be addressed by your solution and are well versed in the needs, desires, and problems of the community. We now bring everything together by discussing the steps after research: developing the idea and validating the work. This chapter includes three different exercises that help take your research and turn it into a campaign that encourages action around the issue, a product or service that solves the problem, or a report that outlines the issues and recommendations stakeholders can take.

Identifying Gaps

Before we jump into creation, it’s important to make sure you have everything you need to solve the problems of the community. When starting ideation and validating the research, ask yourself:

  • Does it feel like anything is missing?
  • Does anything need to be reconsidered, looked at again or seen from a new angle?
  • Does there need to be more research or threat modeling?
  • Are there additional stakeholders who need to be included?

It’s common to continuously stop to identify gaps during the project or process. Fixing those gaps will ensure there aren’t blindspots in the future or areas that will impact your desired outcomes.

Prioritize Your Goals

Before getting started, review your research and write out the top five things you aim to focus on. The list can have less than five topics, but we recommend not doing more than five topics to keep it manageable. Make sure it includes key insights and constraints gleaned from your research while keeping in mind the types of safety measures that need to be prioritized to protect those you are building for. Knowing what you aim to focus on and the relevant constraints are helpful at many points in the building process, so this is a key step.

Let’s put this into practice using some examples.

Example #1

Imagine in your ideation sessions, you realize that you and your community could develop a tool or app that focuses on creating reports for harassment victims. In this scenario what would you need to think about or focus on? What would your constraints be? Constraints can be technical. What platform(s) and hardware does this need to work on? Is it for Twitter and is it a mobile app? Does it work for Android and iOS? Constraints can be related to the topic of harassment. What does it feel like to be experiencing harassment? What are the experiences of the victim? What does it feel like when facing harassment to find or surface that content? Constraints can be the geographical location. What are the laws or regulations in their country, and do victims feel like they can trust the platform, software, or their own government? How does all of this affect your product? For example, what if someone is a queer activist facing harassment on Facebook in a country where being queer results in jailtime? An app that has a pathway or suggestion of contacting the police or sends the harassment report to the police places this user in very real danger.

Example #2

Remember Neema Iyer’s example from Chapter 2. Neema was working with pregnant women and conducting user interviews via Whatsapp. Neema mentioned how her users’ husbands would often wonder who their wives were texting and in some cases, the husbands would become upset or agitated. In this case, Neema was dealing with very real trade offs: that the most reliable way to contact her users was via mobile phone, but too many texts could result in her users facing pushback and questioning from their spouses.

In this scenario, we would outline these constraints as top priorities:

  • “phone access”
  • “husbands questioning or monitoring their phones”
  • “easy ways to track via text and update”
  • “mobile friendly”


Exercise 1: Mapping Your Research To The Problem

Materials needed for this section:

  • Post-it notes (or any kind of paper with a sticky adhesive, or digital post it notes)
  • A timer (your phone or a kitchen timer or a timekeeper)

Step 1: At the top, lay out your priorities and constraints on individual pieces of paper, or post-it notes.

Step 2: Write out your problem statement on a single piece of paper. Also write out any pertinent and unchangeable information about your users (such as: use mobile devices, languages spoken, have low bandwidth, etc.), who your users are that you’re focusing on (is there a specific sub-group in your community or specific user group you’re designing for?), and any accessibility concerns.

Step 3: Build specific points related to your problem statement using the research you’ve previously collected. Spend a few minutes writing out all of the research points you’ve surfaced from user interviews, desk research, etc. As a group, discuss: what’s missing, what you see, what needs to be added and what do we think are the most important points to prioritize. If things are missing, start to add them. Run this exercise again and again until you are out of ideas to add.

Exercise 2: Dot Voting and Prioritizing Ideas

Once you’ve identified and laid out all your main research points, it’s time to organize, categorize, and prioritize.

Start by taking a step back and looking at all the post-it notes collectively. Give yourself some distance and ask yourself: Are there common themes? Perhaps, you see research points that are related, or requests from users for products that could be built together.

After giving yourself a bit of distance, group the post-it notes by their common themes. This will allow you to identify the larger focal points within your work. Drawing circles around the grouped post-it notes or color coding each group will help you visualize the different categories. Once you have categorized all the post-it notes, make sure to name the different sections you and your team have identified. To organize these sections and their post-it notes in terms of priority, we suggest using the ‘dot voting’ method.

‘Dot voting’ is where the group uses a pen or marker to vote on the most important points. In dot voting, each person gets two dots (two votes) to indicate the points (or sticky notes) that they think are the most important. Once everyone has added their dots, you can count which points have the most votes and are thus the most important to focus on. It’s important to emphasize: you don’t need to build the most ‘popular’ point, but you should discuss: what do we think is the most important thing to focus on, and why? Threat model those points: do they help serve your community; how can those points be built securely? Remember to ask yourself, and then explain: how do you know?

Exercise 3: Using Design Thinking to Ideate

Complete this exercise if you are comfortable with design thinking. This exercise focuses on brainstorming and it should be done with your community, your researchers, and relevant stakeholders. Using the points you’ve decided to focus on in Exercise 1, start to brainstorm how you would build or create these points. There’s many ways to do this exercise! You can start from scratch, or maybe your user interviews elicited design suggestions giving you a place to start. Try to be as specific and context focused as possible-how would this idea be used and by which community members? Think about what could go wrong and the different harms that could arise. Fold that into your ideation session.

If design and design thinking is new to you or maybe you’ve just built out research and you’re feeling stuck or confused, feel free to skip this section and try out idea speed dating.

Exercise 4: Idea Speed Dating

Materials needed for this section:

  • Writing materials and paper
  • Table
  • Music/playlist
  • A timer (your phone or a kitchen timer or a timekeeper)

Idea speed dating is a fun and quick exercise to help you and your team collectively think through a selected topic. During a series of two-minute intervals, each team member goes round the table writing their own ideas and building off their teammate’s ideas. This is a collaborative brainstorming exercise, so encourage your team to be open and constructive. Try to stick to problems that can be relatively solved, but also remember that out of the box ideas are more than welcome.

Setting Up: Before starting the ideation process, select the topic you and your team are going to work through. Elect one member of the group to act as the exercise facilitator. Instruct the elected member to lay a large piece of paper over the table—it should be big enough to cover the entire table. If you are working with smaller sized materials, then have the facilitator place a large sheet of paper in front of each participating group member. Next, ask the facilitator to make sure that everyone participating has something to write with—pen, marker, pencil etc. Lastly, have the facilitator clearly label the topic you are ideating through at the center of the table. Make sure that everyone can visibly see the topic you are about to ideate.

Once all the materials are laid out, the topic is clearly labeled, and everyone has something to write with, it is time to start speed dating…idea speed dating!

Facilitator Guide: Begin the exercise by explaining to everyone that they will have two minutes to write about the topic at hand. As the facilitator, you should keep track of the time and indicate when people should start and stop writing. To help establish a more relaxed and creative environment, we suggest putting some music on during these two minutes. In this case, starting the music will indicate when people can begin to write and stopping it will indicate when they should stop. After the two minutes are up, instruct your teammates to move one position to the right.

Each member should be standing in front of the idea their teammate just wrote down. Instruct the participants to now write about the topic in relation to the idea that was written before them. Tell them that they can start writing once the music starts. Play the music for another two minutes. At the end of these two minutes, have the participants move to their right and then repeat the process. End the exercise once everyone has gone around the entire table once.

Whether design is new to you or a common practice, we recommend going through the ‘how might we’s’ and digging into them more. Or ‘blow it out’ more, meaning really start to imagine and write out what the idea is, and what it would entail in much greater detail. For example, perhaps one of your users has mentioned wishing a certain feature had muting or blocking and wished they could share groups they’ve blocked. Your ‘ideating’ exercise may involve coming up with an idea of placing a mute or block function somewhere in a pre-existing product or creating a way to share block lists and have better blocking on specific platforms as a standalone product. Then really think about: what would this product need, what would it look like, how would your users use it, and do they need it? This can be particularly helpful if you are ideating and designing with your users who can answer these questions in real time.

Exercise 5: Prototyping and Building

With the initial research results, you now have a direction to build the prototype of your tool, tech, or platform. During this process you may have several checkpoints to refer back to or continue your initial research. Building a product or service that balances security and usability brings up questions of practicality. Answer the following to gauge how you are doing.

Contextual Concerns

  • Features of my tools are usable across a wide spectrum of connectivity environments. (e.g. Networks at refugee camps, places with frequent internet shutdowns.)
  • My font settings are suitable for the language(s) of my user groups.
  • My design considers the local digital literacy level. (I have thought about what tasks my audience are able to do, e.g. if they can download tools on their own or if they need help.)
  • My design incorporates universal styles. (e.g. The connotations of icons, interpretations of signs and colors across cultures, etc.)
  • My design is culturally sensitive. (e.g. It considers cultural taboos of the user group.)

Contextual Concern Tips:

  • Local connectivity and internet environment varies dramatically from place to place, country to country. If you cannot test it in the field, ensure you have trusted representatives in your network to gather local test results.

Practicality Concerns

  • I have reviewed the types of technologies local people are using.
  • I have a device — similar to that of the intended users — that I can test with.
  • I understand the security limitations of the tested devices.
  • My tool / tech / platform is easy for people to acquire / setup.
  • I have considered the repercussions of whether my tool / tech / platform costs data, collects personal information, or requires other things on the user’s end.
  • My tool / tech / platform does not use a lot of storage space.
  • My interface is accessible to people with disabilities, following commonly accepted content accessibility guidelines.
  • I have considered whether my system collects sensitive data.
  • My system’s design uses end-to-end encryption and takes other measures to prevent third-party access (e.g., access to my server).
  • I have considered whether my tool / tech / platform should allow cloud settings.
  • I have considered the physical security needs of using my tool / tech / platform.
  • I have thought about whether internal documentation should store sensitive data.
  • My internal documentation takes measures to prevent third-party access, such as using full-disk encryption and end-to-end encryption (e.g. I have thought about people trying to access our servers remotely and in person).

Practicality Concern Tips:

  • While it is unrealistic to accommodate the whole spectrum of stakeholders, we recommend strategically prioritizing the needs of stakeholders based on capacity and limitations.
  • Consider the stakeholders’ physical security needs — how much you know about the risks for local activism, including government surveillance, censorship, the power of law enforcement, etc.

Case Study: Nancy Schwartzman

The following is an excerpt of a conversation with Nancy Schwartzman, a documentary filmmaker, producer, and media strategist. Nancy is also the creator of Circle of 6, an iPhone app that is used by college-aged students and their friends to stay close, stay safe, and prevent violence before it happens. Warning, the content contains discussion around sexual harassment.

About Nancy and the Background of Circle of 6 I've always been passionate about righting wrongs and the space that I've been working in for 20 years is in the gender based violence space and anti-violence space, born from my own personal experience as a rape survivor. But even before my own experience, when I was 25, I'm just a good listener. People just feel like they can tell me things. So friends, since my teen years and middle school were telling me stories of their own abuse or their family abuse.

I was just a keeper of secrets for a lot of people. So in college I studied Art, History, and Photography and stuff, but I also volunteered at the Rape Crisis Center. It was during the early '90s, because I wanted better tools to support people in my life when they disclosed to me. So my first film that I made did explore my personal experience…I also interviewed my rapist in it with a hidden camera and then created a conversation about consent before people were talking about consent. It was an early time though to be exploring the nuance of power and pleasure and those dynamics. We launched a campaign called, “Where is Your Line?” And it really inspired a lot of people to come forward and share their experiences in a way that was volumes I'd never dealt with before.

And, from there, we created a cool empowering campaign to get people to speak about their boundaries in your face and claiming their pleasure and claiming their boundaries. But the incidental result of that was that I had all this data. I didn't know it was data at the time, but I had all this data about the lived experiences of young people, mainly women between the ages of 18 and 24, mainly [in the] college demographic. I was hearing the situations they had been in, the assault or bad experiences they had had really at a volume I hadn't experienced before, which is the power of film, the power of touring with a film, taking a story and blasting it out there. At the time, Vice President Biden, now president,...and the chief technology officer, Aneesh Chopra launched the campaign asking “can we stem the tide of violence on campus for this very particular demographic using a mobile app?”

At the time for me, I was like, "Well, whatever. That's not my thing." I had done another project about mapping on trying to harness intuition in urban space. This wasn't the first time that I had combined newish technology and gender and a human centered gender lens to the tech tools that we use. But I was not a mobile app designer. I didn't want to be in that space per se, but suddenly it made sense. It was like, wait, well, I do notice this demographic and I know these concrete scenarios people are finding themselves in. And I know from personal experience what I could have used the night I was raped and the days following and why not put it all on a mobile device. So it's like I fell into just taking the knowledge phase I'd gotten from touring with a film to transpose it onto this mobile app. Yeah, that makes sense?

On the Design Process and Why Technology

I think the first time I really felt like technology could help this issue was with my mapping projects. And it was a little early because people didn't have smartphones just yet, but that was very clear to me in terms of how come Yahoo! Maps or MapQuest is brand new and they'll tell me the shortest way to get from A to B in New York City on foot with zero regard for my safety, sending me on that route. I already had my spidey senses up. I like to use these tools, I like to get information, how come nobody gives a shit that they just directed me down a dark alley with no lighting for three long terrifying blocks.

So I think it was sexual assault. I remember acutely, I was living abroad in a country that had adopted cell phones a lot quicker than the US did. And I remember having my cell phone, but not having a clue how to get home or how to get out of the situation, not knowing who to call. Just I remember the acute lack because I just didn't prepare for this horrible situation to happen. So I think it was really other people, other friends saying, "Hey, there's this challenge. I think you'd be great for it." It was really generous of them to say, "You can do this." And part of me was like, "Well, I don't..." It wasn't my initial thought like, "Oh, I need an app." I looked at it. I was like, Oh, this makes a lot of sense, and here's the shade I would put into a phone app, so that no one has to go through this situation.

Initially, the design process was I called up this organization that had done sex track in the past through really linking new technology and mobile technology with sexual health. A lot of their focus was on pregnancy prevention and HIV, but it wasn't focused on the nuances of sexual violence; that's what I was bringing to the table. That organization found our engineer who agreed to build our code. I brought my designer, because I felt it was really important that our app not look like a skull and crossbones and not look like an emergency button. A lot of people felt like the Biden challenge was an app to help with sexual assault. Most people built an emergency button for the police. And I was like, yeah, no, our app is never going to link you to the police.

Understanding Nuance of This Problem: Who Is Harmed and How to Help Via Design This isn't about stranger danger. I think most people's ethos was just so off. Because they had no idea why this was happening and how. I brought in the designer, who's really brilliant and brought this queer sensitive lens, not hyper feminine with like high heels and a rape whistle. It was really just a beautiful look so that it's something you want to look at on your phone, it doesn't freak you out. It also doesn't flag to someone who might be looking over your shoulder that you feel uncomfortable. We really felt like the aesthetic was just a huge part of it. The code base is pretty simple and we adapted it throughout, but it was my first time working with the developer and that was quite a learning experience and the designer and I worked on my film campaigns together. So he and I were just like an organic team.

Deciding and Prioritizing Features

[What] felt important was the idea of having [your friend group be the group of people that are accountable for you]. Like if you go out to a party or with a group, usually these are the people who are like, "Okay, I'll let you know when I'm leaving, we're going to check in with each other." They don't let you disappear at 3:00 in the morning and not know where you are. It's your circle. So that was the intrinsic first thing that had to be set up. We're trying to build and really strengthen existing relationships and strengthen peer-to-peer networks. And that's where I think technology is so important. Circle of 6 was made in pre-social media or right around the beginning of socials, but it was about strengthening already existing relationships, knowing that young people, from what I heard from users,...the first person they talk to after an assault [were their] friends. So how can we make sure your friends have good information? Because that was the other thing that happened during my screening. People would come up to me and say, "my friend, my this, my that, I don't know how to help them." And I would say, "Make sure you have resources." There are some links we love, listen to, and then gently provide them with options.

I wanted to make sure that people understanding that the information could be helpful, not vigilantes, not rape deniers. Then you could reach out to your people and get help with the geolocation, which wasn't the most popular feature. It was the feature that all the media got really excited about because they still have the narrative that someone's going to swoop in and rescue you. Because to them, it's always stranger danger, which is not really the case. But the second one is ‘call and interrupt me’ and that is really useful in terms of harassment or just needing to get out of a situation and not quite having the language or the reason for the phone call interruptions. That feature also really translated globally in the street harassment context in India and other places.

And the third one is the one that was the most used. When we surveyed students at a few colleges that one was the most used because it would say, I need to talk. And then everyone in your group would know it was a shorthand for something. So it's also a way to say it without saying it, which I think was really important. It was really groundbreaking. It's like, I'm going to acknowledge that. Something uncomfortable or potentially really bad happened. I don't want to name it. I don't know if I can name it, but it relates to this subject because it's coming through this app. So that was really powerful. I did not predict that.

Those are the features… I wanted it to be sex positive, sex positive is not the right word, but just not this bullshit stranger danger around every corner lurks a terrible experience. All of these safety apps really take away people's urgency in my mind and also have a tendency to have victim blaming marketing. So the other thing I was really clear about is like, whatever little thoughts we make or language we use, no one's ever going to ask the question, "Why was this girl at a party till 4:00 AM?" It's because that's how everyone parties when they're in college and beyond.

So that's a given you're out having a good time, that is a given. You're out doing whatever you want. It's absolutely your right. And you should just be connected to your friends. So I was just trying to use a harm reduction model to meet people where they are. That’s really the ethos. I mean, the code base is not extraordinary, sleek, or complicated. It's just like adding the layer, gender and safety with empowerment and going out and being safe and being connected is your right. We just want you to have fun and do it as simply as you want or need.

On Understanding When Your App Can’t Work For All Related User groups I think we were trying to do too much in a way, because intimate partner violence and coercion and solutions to that are just different than other incidents like sexual violence. So it was like, I don't think we can marry these two very upsetting phenomena because they're actually quite different. I talked to people in the DV (domestic violence) community about building our safety planning tools for safety planning and getting out of violent relationships. And the base is similar. You have your people that you check in with, but the tools are different. So we learn we can't really marry those two things. You can just strengthen existing relationships and provide useful resources, so that was that.

Additionally, we spent a lot of time talking to the sex worker community, we sketched out a bad date app idea with another group in San Francisco, which could have been cool then, it didn't happen ultimately.

Nancy’s Advice For Building Social Good Technology for Communities Designing will definitely be in conversation. I guess really what's always helpful is your limitations like, who are you designing for? Are you part of this community or people that are part of the community on your team? Are you in dialogue? We had an advisory board and you don't want to get steered in like 1,000 directions either. Your tool can only do what it can do. You're going to get a lot of feedback, and then at some point you just have to pull back and be like, okay, really this tool can only do one thing. It can't do everything for everyone. So if you do have to eventually make decisions about what you're trying to impact and just make sure that before you begin to solve someone else's problem, really think about why you're trying to do this. And if you are not officially part of the community you're designing for, make sure you have community buy-in, make sure it's useful. Don't assume people need something unless you have proof that they do.