Key principles to consider when designing digital products for displaced people

Imagine sitting in the comfort of your home surrounded by your family members, only moments later to be grabbing at your most prized possessions and fleeing your house with your loved ones. You don't yet know where you're going, and the journey to get there may be challenging. Now imagine you're a child.

For the more than 32 million forcibly displaced children in the world, they don't have to imagine. This is their reality, and it can be extremely traumatic. Norwegian Refugee Council's Better Learning (BLP) program works to address the extreme trauma these children face by helping parents and teachers to better support them. The programme focuses on providing a clearer understanding of how trauma and stress can affect children on a day-to-day basis, with a particular focus on how this impacts their learning in and out of the classroom. con

We partnered with NRC to transform this incredible programme into a digital initiative that could both compliment the existing face-to-face programme and work as a stand alone initiative, reaching and supporting those unable to attend a programme in person. The BLP app has piloted and so far feedback is positive.

When designing digital products for displaced users, here are some key principles to consider to ensure the output is accessible, understandable, and most importantly, useful to them and their lives:

Design for your users emotional needs and limitations.

Displaced people are likely to be suffering from the extreme stress or trauma they’ve experienced, which can affect their ability to focus and retain information. Breaking information down into small, simple, bite-sized pieces and using the power of repetition can help your users to learn better. Your goal should be to create the simplest possible user experience.

Ensure your product is accessible and performant, no matter the device, user, and environment.

Displaced people are likely to have a low cost phone with an older OS and potentially lower levels of digital literacy. They may not have money for data credit, access to free WiFi, or a place to charge their phone.

To ensure your product is accessible and performant no matter the device without draining the valuable commodities of battery life, data or storage, you can create lightweight native Android applications, or use the power of the web and bring some of those native features to a website with a Progressive Web App. If the product houses videos, make sure they are available in different resolutions to support all levels of network connectivity.

A screenshot of app screens in multiple languages

Don't replicate confusing or irrelevant higher-income country norms.

Take the log-in process for example. A typical log-in approach requires an email address, which some displaced users may not have, and a complicated 12-digit password that may be hard to remember for our users experiencing PTSD. Instead, opt for the simplest possible path. For NRC, we selected a simpler approach and used a combination of username (i.e. their first name) and phone number. We combined this with unique identifiers generated for each account. This approach is a low barrier method for sign up that keeps user's accounts personalised but crucially, safe. This further helped in common occurrences where a single device is shared between multiple family members or friends.

Today, two thirds of displaced people have access to a mobile phone, creating brand new opportunities to provide better support, access to information, and connection to services and people, but to achieve this, it’s imperative we take the time to fully understand the the unique needs and limitations surrounding them, and place these at the heart of the design process.

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