Case Study: Collective Action Toolkit—Enabling Groups to Collaborate Effectively
In 2011 and 2012, frog collaborated on a research project exploring the nature and value of connections for adolescent girls living in extreme poverty in the developing world. Over the course of the project, we needed to translate the design process into something these female participants would really care about—something meaningful and useful that provided immediate value to their daily lives, with the design goals of the program playing a secondary role.
Two key questions emerged from the project:
- How might we translate the design process into something centered on skill development and knowledge-sharing for communities instead of concept generation for designers?
- How might we make it a process in which the development and communication of ideas becomes a vehicle to teach inquiry, leadership and problem solving to anyone, from any culture?
The Collective Action Toolkit (CAT) was developed as a response to these questions. Drawing on frog’s social innovation work and expertise in collaborating on grassroots innovation within start-ups and large-scale organizations, the toolkit repurposes design as an essential set of skills to help community members solve problems.
The Collective Action Toolkit was an internal initiative from frog inspired by previous project work with Girl Effect, an organization focused on unleashing the untapped potential of adolescent girls living in poverty. The resources to create the toolkit were provided from within our organization.
The Collective Action Toolkit is the result of a six-month iterative process of envisioning, crafting and piloting a toolkit that would create a more accessible model for sharing the power of design.
Early activity ideas from the toolkit were tested and evolved with the active participation from 50 adolescent and teenage girls in Kenya, Ethiopia and Bangladesh, as well as input from community leaders and outside experts in gender development issues.
We realized early on that we needed to find a new vocabulary for this toolkit. Early drafts of the activities were localized into multiple languages, allowing us to hone in on the types of activities that would be most effective in the toolkit. For example, when teaching activities to girls in Bangladesh, the girls could not understand words such as “brainstorming” or “design.” This led to a hard and fast rule that the word “design” could not appear in the toolkit.
We spent months piloting dozens of activities, then organized those activities in different ways and provided them to groups for feedback and refinement. At the same time, we made multiple physical prototypes of the toolkit and considered how it could be reproduced in other languages and most easily distributed. This led us to a simplified vocabulary and accessible materials that would help people create situations where diverse, unique perspectives could be shared safely through constructive conversation and making.
Once we had a beta edition of the toolkit, we released it to 450 prospective users at “The Feast Conference” in New York and to 200 people at “Gain: AIGA Design for Social Value Conference” in San Francisco. The feedback from these early users of the toolkit was then incorporated into the first formal release.
Our goal at the outset was to encourage problem solving as a form of skill development, with activities that would draw on each participant's strengths and perspectives in pursuit of a common goal. The toolkit's emphasis on action challenges its users to align, describe and evolve solutions that fit their community needs. Regardless of the size of the challenge, the activities in the CAT needed to help groups investigate and generate solutions, pool knowledge and connect to resources-without relying on a trained "designer" to guide the process.
So our strategy was to avoid providing any sort of prescriptive design process for users of the toolkit, with just enough structure for groups to explore community issues and play with solutions in a flexible manner. Our design team realized early in the process that in order to create a toolkit that was accessible across cultures, we had to focus on designing activities and processes that could accommodate and plan for shifting dynamics in group interactions. We envisioned our target audience as a local community leader (anyone with the initiative to solve a problem) who wanted to work with a group (at least three other people) to make the solution real. While this may seem like too general an audience, our approach was to determine what group situations would be universal to any problem-solving situation—from the initial agreement on a goal to planning how to act on a solution.
We had to steer clear of two traps that designers fall into when working with community groups:
- In many situations, we saw leaders advocating and acting on solutions without community involvement or support, causing their solution not to be adopted. In our research, this lack of involvement was where potential solutions most often fail. The CAT’s processes and activities require everyone in the group to share new opinions and ideas before coming to consensus, rather than a leader trying to create consensus solely around their own ideas.
- In conducting design research in communities around the world, we often had a chance to observe unmet needs and collaborate with people to design potential solutions. However, when we left the field and focused our efforts on making those solutions real from outside the community, they would lose our involvement as facilitators and accelerators of community action. And these groups often lacked the capacity to adjust our solutions due to unforeseen circumstances. The CAT provides community leaders—people interested in working on community issues from within—with tools to persist in solving local problems and adapt their approaches based on these shifting constraints.
A major challenge was that groups generally operate through conversation, without enough “making” to expose group members to hypothetical solutions. “Making things,” whether capturing the discussion in a visual format or translating the group’s ideas into stories to evaluate, forces groups to better align, describe and evolve solutions for their community. However, we couldn’t require users of the CAT to go out and purchase expensive materials, such as sticky notes, to capture their ideas. As a result, we had to go through multiple rounds of refinement for each activity so that each would work with only a pencil and a few pieces of paper.
Another major challenge was stress-testing the activities, as we couldn’t forecast all the possible goals a community group might pursue when using the toolkit. So, to stress test the first draft of the CAT activities, the project team selected the following collective goal: How could a group work together to create a community garden?
This seemingly small problem touched upon a wide set of issues. Questions that emerged were: What is the best way to encourage healthier eating in a community? How can we best provide clean water for community farming? What approaches should a community take to run a shared garden?
As we worked through the early activity ideas for the kit, we discovered additional activities needed to be created. These activities would help group participants discuss open questions, build consensus around potential solutions, and lead to action plans.
As we finalized the toolkit activities, we settled on a flexible structure for how they could be used as part of a problem-solving process. This structure was an action map, which was keyed to six categories of activities. Final revisions to the activities included the integration of rules that reinforced effective patterns of group behavior, as well as the inclusion of facilitation tips at the start of each activity area to encourage healthy collaboration habits for individual participants.
There were additional challenges around designing for accessibility.The physical form factor of the Collective Action Toolkit is a short book that a user can print on a standard-size sheet of paper or fold down to 8.5 x 5.5 inches and use in a smaller, card-like format. The colors used are associated with groups of activities and are keyed to an “action map” that is shown at the front of the book. While in its highest fidelity, the book was designed for four-color. Extensive testing was done with black-and-white printers and photocopiers to ensure that all content would remain legible in grayscale. The font used is Benton Sans, which was created by Tobias Frere-Jones. The black-and-white sketches in the toolkit were drawn by Kyle Hoyt in Adobe Illustrator, and were crafted to be culture-agnostic across all localized editions.
Over 10,000 people have downloaded the toolkit to date, distributing it to family, friends, nonprofits and NGOs, for-profit organizations and even governments. Official translations have been released in Chinese and are forthcoming in Spanish. We have open-sourced this toolkit for adaptation and use by anyone, in any country, via a Creative Commons license. Under this license, unofficial translations are in progress in Italian, German, Pashto, Portuguese, Sinhalese and Tamil.
Community leaders have contacted us to let us know that they plan to use the CAT to address community issues in the manner originally intended by our team—from potential use in UNICEF’s innovation labs in Uganda, Kosovo and Zimbabwe to its use in a nonprofit artists colony in Maine that wants to use toolkit activities to foster better remote collaboration. New use cases are also emerging—from using the toolkit as a model for how organizations can work more like start-ups (done at Startup Weekend Shanghai) to its use as a tool for encouraging better collaboration and communication for leaders within organizations (done at a local NGO in Nairobi).
In the realm of education, the CAT is being used for community engagement between students, teachers and community groups. Graduate students in SCAD’s Design for Sustainability program are working with classes in three Savannah high schools, showing them how to use the CAT and letting those classes identify problems they are passionate about solving. These high-school students then lead the problem-solving process through toolkit activities. The graduate students have been documenting this project at Design Ethos.
The Collective Action Toolkit is available for download at: http://www.frogdesign.com/collective-action-toolkit
This case study is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.