Bibliothèques Sans Frontières (Libraries without Borders) is a French humanitarian NGO/social entreprise founded in 2007 that is dedicated to bringing access to knowledge and information to over 50 countries around the world. Through interventions in humanitarian crisis situations and the development of innovative tools and methodologies, Bibliothèques Sans Frontières (BSF) is reinventing the library and its perception and adoption by the most vulnerable populations.
I joined the NGO in September 2017 for a 5-month social innovation mission as part of my specialized master’s program in Design Innovation at Ensci-Les Ateliers (French design school).
The Business Challenge
The IdeasBox, one of BSF’s most notable innovations, is a “pop up” multimedia center that can be easily unpacked to create a dedicated library space of 1000m². BSF works with local partners in France, Greece, the Middle East, Africa and Colombia to adapt the physical and digital content and equipment to the needs and the expectations of the target populations. Dedicated facilitators run regular activities to drive positive educational, informational and psychosocial outcomes amongst users of the library.
As service designer and innovation coach on the project, I was enlisted by the general director, the director of Education & Content, and the direct of Operations in France to tackle two key challenges:
- Re-imagining the services that BSF could provide for a highly-funded and highly-resourced project for migrant populations in two emergency shelters in the greater Paris region
- Testing new methods to enable the NGO to better understand the target population and more effectively adapt the IdeasBox’s content and activity offering
I focused my first few weeks on primary and secondary research of the organization and of the refugee and asylum-seeking ecosystem in France. After careful consideration of this material, I proposed to embed user-centricity and a service-oriented approach at the heart of the project by promoting a shift in the organization’s perception of the IdeasBox, with the "tool" becoming a "global system and set of services" and the "content and activities" becoming an "experience."
The experimental pilot project for migrant populations was the perfect sandbox to test various initiatives that could help the organization move toward user-centricity, greater inclusivity in their projects and a vision of a "service" offering.
I developed an experimentation strategy where I could rapidly drive the French operational team (consisting of a project manager, content specialist and 4 volunteer activity facilitators) through iterative cycles of exploration, design, prototyping and evaluation of new services, tools and processes. We’d focus primarily on the phases of content selection, project implementation, activity implementation and measurement and evaluation.
I first tackled a revamp of the needs assessment phase of the IdeasBox project. The existing questionnaire and focus group approaches used by BSF and its local partners lacked methodological rigor. They enabled little to no exploration or validation of deeper user needs and behaviors beyond interests in library activities and content.
To move toward greater user-centricity, I proposed that we test a two-part user research strategy :
- Field immersion with participative observation, contextual inquiry and full documentation
- Focus groups coupled with individual interviews with a suite of customized tools and methods
To enable appropriation of the methods by the operational teams, I encouraged the project manager and content expert to work with me to plan, execute and document the field research that took place in the two emergency shelters where the IdeasBox would be deployed.
I developed a series of visual tools (maps, neutral iconography) and methods (card prioritization exercises, customer journey mapping, etc) that would facilitate transcultural exchange with a migrant population that spoke different languages and came from various cultural and educational backgrounds. The tools were improved upon after every session with the residents to promote a culture of ongoing iteration within the project.
All observations, interviews and focus groups were rigorously documented in digital and paper formats.
To make sense of the complex data, I analyzed and synthesized all the material into a detailed written guide and a series of visuals that illustrated the routines, habits, needs and pain points of the residents in the emergency shelters. This material served as the foundation for the future experimentation that would take place around the IdeasBox experience and service offering.
System Design Experiments
Due to delays in the official deployment of the IdeasBox in the emergency shelters, the first experiments were focused on two aspects of the IdeasBox experience: communication and evaluation. Based on our field research outcomes, I ran several design workshops and interactive meetings with the team to develop early concepts around how residents would be oriented to the IdeasBox and how they could rate and give feedback on their IdeasBox experience.
I then leveraged 2 days of immersion in one of the shelters to test these concepts with the residents and to receive critical feedback.
Organizational Resistance leads to Refocus on Culture
The introduction of new design-oriented methods and processes was surprisingly challenging in an NGO that had a very open culture and young workforce. The NGO had operated for years as an agile start-up due to its technology focus with the IdeasBox. However, at the time of my mission, it had entered a transitional stage toward automation and standardization of internal processes.
Near the end of my time on this project, I found myself struggling to complete and realize the full value of the design process due to three key factors:
- The team’s insistence on following “standard procedures”
- My positioning as a member of the team rather than as an authoritative external expert
- Operational barriers in recruitment, onboarding and upskilling of team members
In response, I shifted my vision to partially closing the gap between the leadership’s top-down innovation vision and the operational realities on the ground. I proposed to run custom workshops that would made design practices and methods more tangible and concrete: a user experience and design thinking training for the operational team and a broader creative problem-solving workshop for the rest of the organization.
The NGO was able to derive significant value from the key deliverables of my design and innovation interventions :
- Reinvented user research tools (interview, focus group and observation guides)
- Synthesized research findings for migrant populations (text and visual library)
- A fully documented experimental strategy for replication on other IdeasBox projects (organizational guide)
What was most impactful, however, was the strides that the operational team made in regards to mindset. In interviews in the months following the mission, I witnessed greater curiosity and growing appreciation of the design process and the notion of user experience and inclusive practices from even the most skeptical and process-oriented members of the team. This is a momentous first step in driving wider organizational change.
Select feedback from the team
My perception of design has truly evolved, I didn't really understand it at first...I thought that design was a bonus and not really necessary. I found it useful to pursue this line of thinking: to give ourselves a margin for adjustments and to constrain ourselves more to the user than to ourselves, although I thought we were doing this already.
- Project Manager
Your external perspective helped us to take a step back and evaluate our work. We now are able to identify problems related to user experience. We can look at things from the perspective of users, such as how to welcome users into the IdeasBox, which isn't something we originally had in mind when designing an activity.
- Volunteer Facilitator
Bright, focused and creative, Sandra managed to use her experience as a designer, as well as her skills as a metrics specialist and a training engineer in every task that she performed. She was able to convey original ideas in a powerful manner and to accompany less experienced colleagues in the implementation of these ideas.
She was new to the humanitarian and social fields when she joined BSF, but she quickly built her expertise and was able to deal with complex subjects with great ease. She has impressed us all with her creativity, her insight and her acute ability to identify the key elements of a situation.
- Education & Content Director