HerStory — 10 Lessons Learned

by Virginia Dooley and Han Pham

Photo Credit: Will Edgecombe

We learned that projects evolve if you believe in them enough to let go of what they were.

Technology design by default is iterative and imaginative — and ideally open not only in its output but also its development process. 
In supporting humanitarian causes through inclusive technology, EmpowerHack creates a safe space for its partners to explore different avenues as both the problem, and the community supporting addressing it, evolves its approach — including the freedom to openly acknowledge challenges along the way.

Initiated at the first EmpowerHack by its partner Chayn, a leading voice in the use of technology to address gender-based violence is an example of this type of project: HerStory, a concept conceived as an anonymous peer-led space for women and girl refugees to share their stories, became, in hindsight, a series of ideas that evolved across teams and organisations into an entirely new project. Today, it has lent its inspiration and aims to a very different project which continues to preserve its value of community-building and crowdsourced knowledge, Soul Medicine.

We’re aware that design is often iterative and experimental — the fact that HerStory was able to explore and stretch our ethos of “hacks building on hacks” across several design teams was an unexpected and surprising process — one that resulted in the choice to wrap up the project to better focus our resources into Soul Medicine. We invited Virginia Dooley, one of HerStory’s project managers, and other team members to share some of what we learned together.

Experience is a starting point
  1. Partner Earlier to Understand Each Other’s Strengths.

To help bring insight on hand to design events like hackathons, Empowerhack develops partners early by working with key practitioners in each topic area to curate design challenges for the teams. The benefit of this approach is to filter information and focus, with the ability to develop a relationship with a potential pilot partner earlier.

Chayn, the main sponsor behind HerStory, brought a wealth of experience as an open source community empowering women against violence and oppression with ongoing projects in several countries including India, Pakistan and Italy. They were an enthusiastic partner both in organising the event as well as driving the concept for HerStory. Their ability to quickly and effectively rally a virtual network of volunteers, including refugees, to lend their passion and perspectives to the project meant we could easily go through a daunting amount of research, connect with various voices including experts in area to advise us, and have a very large built-in volunteer base for the project through their network. This focus on partnership also led to interest from other refugee support organisations who recognised the increasing population of refugee women and were interested in supporting more services toward mental health, including Intaliqi in Lebanon and MOAS, a rescue operation in the Mediterranean.

2. An Experienced Organisation Doesn’t Always Have All the Answers… But Can Start with the Right Questions.

HerStory’s subject-expert volunteers had a lot of personal, cultural and professional experience in understanding the larger institutionalised issues that women in crisis face — and the barrier to sharing those issues — including barriers to safe refuge, gender stereotyping, forced marriages, and economic exclusion.

Dr Manal Tahtamouni, Director of the Institute for Family Health on the Zaatari refugee camp, shared: “This is a conservative area. If you have been raped, you wouldn’t talk openly about it because you would be stigmatised for your entire life. The phenomenon is massively under-reported.”

This was a complex set of issues, as team members Zohra Ahmed and Charlotte Seeley-Musgrave shared in their blog “Empower Hack: Inspiration behind HerStory — an online discussion group for refugee women and girls who’ve experienced violence.”

In considering how to address the lack of mental health treatment for refugees in the Syrian crisis, HerStory was intended to be storytelling and discussion for refugee women and girls who’ve experienced gender-based violence and related dangers.”

Applying elements from Chayn’s own success as a peer-led network to surface issues in a secure community environment, HerStory was conceived as collaborative digital storytelling group aimed to:

“…enable women to listen to, share, and post their experiences, and for others to respond and join in [by] connecting women and girls in refugee situations to one another… creat[ing] a unique family of women in different parts of the world, all linked by the struggle to overcome the different barriers in their determination to create a new, loving, stable and safe home.
Be open, and intentional, about team makeup (and be honest about design skills) earlier

3. Recruit intentionally with an eye to what you will need three months ahead. 
For volunteer organisations, there is always an ebb and flow of human resources — however, it is possible to recruit intentionally about what you may need down the line. Most of our projects are team-led, but this is a key support and resource intervention that can be provided by the leaders of any organisation. Your volunteers are capable and confident about self-organising around what they’re familiar with, but the ability to see across the project for gaps is where organisational leadership can be crucial to create a better experience over the long term. While it’s easy to start with who’s most engaged, it may not always be the most effective for long-term sustainability — particularly of tech projects.

For example, HerStory had a series of teams, each talented in their own way — we learned from three of them. (Thank you, Empowerhackers.) Inclusive technology is important to us — and we believe in encouraging people who are new to technology to be a part of creating technology. However, we found it’s important to critically assess team capacity earlier — something we’ve changed to more consistently support as part of our process today: a team that’s good at social media and research can create engagement and insight, but may lack critical skills to align ideas with a design approach.

Organic leadership is great, but given inevitable turnover cycles, a recruiting and support plan can provide traction more effectively: 1) be ready to provide a practical design process about technology design earlier, especially where team members may be new to the domain and 2) make sure to recruit include design/technology professionals in each team to shorten the learning process.

4. Fewer is better; then outsource as needed.

In working with different partner organisations, we try to learn from each other and adapt leadership and project management styles — but partner early to figure out what works (and don’t be afraid to be flexible) — and be aware that what works for one organisation may not always work for another. It can save time to be honest about this earlier.

Empowerhack is intentionally very lateral in its organisational management and encourages ownership of ‘executive’ decisions to allow this learning to occur. This can be uncomfortable for anyone not used to such a liberal leadership structure and often rotating project manager roles. Once the HerStory team concentrated to four people, each with technical expertise, it was easier to push forward the hurdles often associated with developing open source projects (highly collaborative but with lots of stop/starts). When the core team needed an additional skill set, we could find new team members on an ‘as needed’ basis.

Don’t plan for speed, but do plan for shorter cycles (and tools) that can overcome competing schedules and can link engagement across milestones

5. Is there a magic number of days for volunteer-driven design sprints? Yes. The 40 day sprint.

Intensely competing schedules made meeting and working concurrently nearly impossible. While the sprints run anywhere from 10–30 days, our magic number was 40 days, which took work and holiday schedules into account (read: no added stress! Fewer drop outs!) and allowed us to deliver a prototype and presentation at the April 2016 London Hack.

6. Whatsapp + IFTTT make nice for development.

While WhatsApp has yet to offer developers an API, there are a few workarounds using a combination of IFTTT recipes using dropbox through android systems. It’s not perfect, but it’s good for prototyping. Our early feedback convinced us not to create a new platform, but to employ existing tools that can be accessible and familiar. For example, working with the understanding that the majority of potential users had access to android phones and were actively communicating through WhatsApp (which now includes end-to-end encryption), it became critical to figure out a way to offer it as an option for submitting stories to the HerStory platform.

7. Plan for Human Interaction — 100% anonymous and safe technology is complicated.

Despite crafting a user safety policy, there would always be some level of risk, whether through trade-offs in the choice of technical infrastructure vs accessibility or human interference. Part of this meant thinking more creatively about how to use service design to craft a more central role for human moderators able to make decisions that can better drive and support community health, including the design of discussion guides that can eventually be used as future information architecture as the project matures.

8. Vision vs User Experience — The Role of UX in the field can help define the difference between research and demand.

HerStory had a big vision which reflected the important and successful vision of its lead partner, Chayn — but we learned that while a big vision for an organisation may be inspiring, it can be overwhelming when a team needs to make focused decisions for a technology product based on priorities you can measure, not just communicate.

Later teams with direct experience in User Experience and technology development had very focused questions that were able to drive practical approaches to design: Women refugees’ experiences are highly diverse: Is HerStory for refugees residing in cities? Is it for those residing in camps? Is it exclusively for those on a migration trail?

The honest takeaway? Women and girls are struggling to acknowledge violence let alone sharing it with strangers, and our partners, while enthusiastic about the mission of the project, weren’t ready yet to implement it. While the later teams were able to develop a technical infrastructure for the project to be as frictionless as possible even with these limitations in mind, prioritising design resources also means the decision to stop. While HerStory had great connections to representatives at organisations working at several center points of the European refugee crisis, the project somehow still lacked an authentic, informed voice. Because these questions and challenges were not answered from the start, we had to take a hard look at the demand for such a product, regardless of our own investment in the issue.

9. Collaborative Technology is also Collaborative Learning.

The benefit of being an open source humanitarian collective with an emphasis on collaborative technology development also means that our volunteer professionals can learn across projects as well to seek out adjacent insights and solutions. This works well since projects will often be at different stages where team members can pick up tasks that fit their skills, scope and interests while connecting more deeply. Elizabeth Chesters, a User Experience Designer with Empowerhack, found it useful to contribute and learn across several projects in this respect, including independently volunteering in the field for more fundamental experience.

As she wrote on another Empowerhack project, “This project is volunteering based, and it’s one which desperately needs to be done properly. Of course, as UX-ers, we know that comes from speaking to users. My fear is that our users have much bigger things to worry about than speaking to ‘privileged’ people about an app they “promise” will help them. We’re dealing with a whole new level of empathy, trust building and emotional needs. […] The right balance is definitely a working progress. We need to build more than enough empathy with refugees and develop a thick enough skin to be able to carry on the project.”

10. Development in a dynamic crisis means adapting (or failing) fast.

Despite an extensive tech review, throughout the 40-day sprint, we were routinely notified about very similar products that were popping up on a regular basis. While this did validate the HerStory concept, other similar products were stronger where HerStory was weak: for example, catering to hyper local contexts or offering native Arabic moderation. Given the competing demands on the team’s time, this competition was somewhat demotivating for volunteer teams with limited time. Staying ahead of the game with competitor monitoring would have been an additional task on top of competitor analysis which would have increased the pressure on the team.

Everything changes quickly, so your organisational end game needs to be more than any one product.

Our community believes that the culture we create is as important as what we create. Thus, as part of our commitment to transparency, partnership and sustainability, all of our projects include an open source license. We also encourage projects building on projects (or as we say, hacks building on hacks) — in this case, many of the elements of HerStory (including its crowdsourced content culture and peer support model) were carried over into a new micro-education and mental health project with Chayn, Soul Medicine, which is currently being field tested.

We understand these challenges are not just ours, but that together we can create a stronger ecosystem by sharing the lessons were learned from one of our earliest projects to support that the evolution of other open source, volunteer-driven humanitarian technology.

Key points to remember:

About the Authors
Virginia Dooley
works at the cross-section of social business and tech, and is a co-founder of Rising Tide Fair Trade. She served as Empowerhack project manager at HerStory and Breaking Barriers. Find her at @vcdooley on twitter. 
Han Pham is an Experience and Innovation Strategist, and one of the co-founders of Empowerhack. You can connect with her @designswinger on twitter.

Many thanks to other contributors to this post, including Elizabeth Chesters, Kimi Lawrie, and Dama Sathianathan, as well as the design teams and partners including Chayn, Intaliqi and MOAS who helped us explore the concept for HerStory. Also thanks to Avett and Crosby, who kindly shared their mother Virginia with us for Empowerhack and supporting inclusive, friendly and diverse team environments. #BuildTogether

Courtesy of Virginia Dooley
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