Design and Development in the Humanitarian Sector: Everything You Need to Know

You don’t have to be a great artist to be a great designer that will have a positive impact on the world. As a designer you get forced to sketch, externalize and visualize your ideas and it proves that anybody can be a visual thinker. If you’re creating an app for the humanitarian sector, then you have to listen to users and public organizations who will help you make it better. You have to talk with people and learn about their needs.

Developers on the other hand have to work with designers and listen to their insights. Often apps for the humanitarian sector have a real impact on people and their situation. It’s a completely different environment than commercial products that are there to “disrupt the industry”, those projects are not very visible but they have a bigger influence on individual lives.

How it looks like

It’s an extremely rewarding area to work in, you can have a direct positive impact on people that live in worse conditions. However, it’s also an area that design is less often applied in. Software projects in general are expensive, take time and resources, but they bring a good ROI. The humanitarian sector is a bit different, it’s not easy to find investors, such projects don’t become unicorns but maybe they are a better way to leave a legacy behind.

Sometimes the founders have to spend months just to find the right person to talk to. Organizations that were created to help people are often the best way to get funding, but you have to prove and convince them that there’s a better way to help others. Even if an app won’t fully replace face to face contact it can surely supplement it and facilitate the communication. Still there is always one thing to keep in mind, you have a bigger chance to get funded if you prove that it’s a good way to reduce operating costs.

Challenges with design and development in the humanitarian sector

Design in the humanitarian sector depends in a huge part on the target country, the political and economical situation. It’s also more difficult to test an app with the users, you can be sitting in Europe working on an app for Iraq or Zambia. There are many challenges that teams have to deal with, from simple user research to optimizing apps for slow networks.

Usability Testing and User Research

One of the biggest challenges in the humanitarian sector, as opposed to in the traditional private sector, is doing usability testing and user research. Commercial apps are way easier to test, you can pay people to participate or you can launch a promotion to receive feedback. Applications that are there for people to report something traumatic that has happened to them are completely different. The person that you want to ask might be quite vulnerable, so it’s not really appropriate to use the traditional user research methods to go out with the clipboard and ask some questions and give them a prototype.

Providing value for the users

It’s important to ensure that tests will provide value for the participants. For example when working on a complaint mechanism, make sure that the complaint is somehow transferred to the authority that it should be. It can mean that you will have to physically print out things that people have said and put it on the desk of different organizations. It could mean that we have to share anonymized feedback, that’s coming through prototypes with organizations that are working in different areas. But the biggest challenge is to ensure that it’s done in an ethical way and that we’re not just extracting feedback from people to enrich or to improve our platform. It has to be about the users and provide value for them.

Finding the right partners

It’s tricky to find the right people who will help you, not only the users but also researchers. Sometimes you have to travel a few times per year and work with local designers to learn about the culture, the right approach and many many other things. You can also work with teams that are based in the target location, this improves the design process but you can forget about a 9-5 job. Time zone differences and communication problems become a part of every day. Also not many teams have the right experience, it’s best to ask for help or find a partner who already worked on similar projects.

Low resource environment

Design and technology can be great, but a cool app with great animations and fancy things won’t be cool in an environment where people are using old phones, and have limited internet access. Some apps have to be optimized for 2G networks, it’s something that we forgot about in Europe but it’s a reality for many people in other countries. During the design process you have to make sure that things are highly accessible and implemented in a way that makes them load quickly.

Most of the time we want to make apps work well on faster networks, new devices, and try to hook people into using them. But in a low resource environment, where humanitarian organizations operate you have to make those apps as good as possible with limited resources. It’s a challenge that not many teams know how to deal with, you have to adapt and change your mindset a bit.

Design and development in different places

In all software projects designers and developers have to work together, the same goes for applications created for the humanitarian sector. Often design happens in a different country than the development, if you want to get the best and most experienced people on board it can be hard to find them under one roof. Such teams collaborate across countries, across cultures and time zones. Look for people who work together no matter where they are.

Communication in the team

The biggest challenge for designers and development teams is without a doubt communication between all the people involved. Even the most simple things like a location picker or entering your email address, or your phone number can become super challenging. When you want to make an app with great performance, easy for somebody of low literacy to understand, easy for somebody with an unstable internet connection to use, you have to communicate well with your whole team. The only way to create something that meets those needs is by designing and prototyping at a high fidelity and then communicating with that prototype to the developers who are eventually going to turn it from pixels into code.

Team alignment

Both teams have to be aligned, they have to feel the purpose and adapt to the needs of the users. Most importantly, they have to work together, clear and open communication is the only way to make products great. Developers can share insights that the designers can use during prototyping, the same goes for designers who can explain the situation thoroughly and help the developers better understand the requirements.

Following the best practices

There’s a lot that we can learn and borrow from organizations that have perfected design, but it’s about knowing if it’s the right context to use that pattern. When designing an app for someone who is using a computer or a tablet for the first time or somebody who uses for the first time an electronic medical record system, we have to think if the things that we take for granted, will be understood.

Build fast and fail fast doesn’t work

The philosophy of failing fast is good in some environments but it doesn’t work when it comes to design and development in the humanitarian sector. It’s a great approach if you are working on the next app that should disrupt something. However, if you want to build a system that will be responsible for someone’s health and safety, you can’t fail. When a doctor prescribes medication, there’s no room for mistakes, you want to build a system that will correct the doctor if he makes a life threatening mistake. When somebody wants to file a complaint on violence that they’re experiencing, you mustn’t get it wrong. People are relying on such systems and those systems have to be perfected before they reach the end user, both designers and developers take even more responsibility in such projects.


Design and development in the humanitarian sector is way different from the traditional commercial sectors, but the challenges are similar. All teams have to deal with their own challenges and adapt, but those are the projects with a real purpose. It’s important to look for the right partners who will get involved early on in the design and development process to provide value for the users. A different thing to keep in mind is that the designers’ mindset and the design process is not one size fits all process. It’s a mindset of building, testing and repeating that process until you have a version that’s good enough to implement.

Article written by Felicjan.

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