Ux for Good: Hidden Patterns In Rwanda's Reconciliation
This post is my fourth post in a series on the UX for Good design challenge. Check out the first post: UX for Good Introduction to get a better understanding of what the UX for Good design challenge is about.
Writing throughout the challenge posed to be a bigger challenge than I thought; given the time spent traveling and doing actual work. But I plan on continuing these posts as this project progresses.
“Simplicity is reached on the other side of complexity.”
My former manager Frank Lyman often uses this metaphor to describe a pattern he’s observed when people work through complex problems. After reciting the pull quote, he often states something to the effect of:
“Imagine a bell curve. At the left side of the curve is a blissful state of unaware. As you move from left to right, the level of complexity (and often anxiety) goes up and up and up. Just before the pinnacle of this curve, we often find ourselves in the most chaotic state. Everything is conflicted, none of the parts make any sense, and it’s really unclear as to where everything is going. Then you realize what needs to be done and you arrive at a state of simplicity; a state that could only have been achieved by going through the complexity.”
I’d like to think that the point at the top of the curve is a moment of ephiphany. Sometimes it’s your own doing, but more often than not it comes from a rigorous process or a casual observer; who simply notices the right thread to start pulling on. Not to say that our team in Rwanda wouldn’t have discovered the “right path” if left to work through it – but we would have lost a significant amount of time (needed to do good research) if left to our own devices. Three days on the ground in a place that takes 12 hours to access leaves little time for error.
The three days of research conducted in Rwanda fell into this pattern, but with the steepest logical and emotional upswing toward complexity I’ve ever experienced. Our entry into the curve started with the Kigali Genocide Memorial.
The Kigali Genocide Memorial (KGM), crafted in partnership by local Rwandans and Aegis Trust, was built to commemorate victims of the 1994 genocide; giving Rwandans a place to bury and remember their loved ones and document their history. The center itself is a museum that sits next to a series of mass graves, where over 250,000 are buried.
Walking past the graves, it’s extremely hard to comprehend the number of people that lie within arms reach. Each one, a person, with a family, a story. Each person with hopes and aspriations just like any one of us. But no longer. One of the Aegis employees tried to give us a sense of scale.
He said, “picture a stadium. A large one – say the Dallas Cowboys stadium – holds 50,000 at best? Now multiply that amount of people until you get to around 250,000. That is how many rest here.”
So I stood there thinking about the sheer mass of 250,000 people – and how they managed to fit all of them into a space that really isn’t much larger than a 1 acre backyard. “How big are these graves if they hold that many people?”, I asked.
“Most of the bodies aren’t completely whole.. We know they are different people because of the size, shapes and placement of the bones, but each coffin is filled by the bones of multiple different people. We don’t have most of the names either, because there are no written records – and anyone who would have been alive to note a missing person was also wiped out.”
As hard as it is to summarize the feelings you have while standing there – it’s even harder to capture them in a manner that can be conveyed to others. You feel sick – yet emotionally detached. You know what you are hearing is awful… Yet you are unable to truly understand it. It wasn’t until our first Contextual Inquiry that the feeling really sank in, and the team moved up the curve of complexity.
Prior to going into the museum, I had the chance to do an interview with a survivor. He must have noticed my “absence of self” expression that lingered for about an hour as I sat on a bench just outside the main entrance. A face I noticed on almost every one of my fellow designers during the first day of research. The man sat down and began to talk to me about the memorial gardens and the city of Kigali. After some brief back and fourth, he gave me an entirely different perspective on what this place meant to him.
“This place is home to me. It has the bones of my mother and my father… I’m still looking for the bones of my brothers, my sisters, my cousins, aunts and uncles… Someone out there knows where they are, but they just aren’t saying anything… But my parents rest here. Here, they are no longer in the bush.”
As a design researcher, you are rarely caught off guard during an interview. Your job as a facilitator is to feel out potential avenues of exploration in real time – responding to the participant’s statements, actions, and reactions – such that you might uncover their perspective in a particular context. The interviews that we did over the course of 3 days in Kigali were exceptionally difficult – not necessarily because of responses like the one above, but because of the way a person’s demeanor would change throughout the interview. Each person we talked to would drift away at some moment while they were telling us stories, or politely answering our questions.
Their eyes would shift in such a way that you would swear they were watching something horrible happen just over your shoulder. They didn’t frown. They didn’t smile. They just watched. Watched something you could feel but never come to understanding yourself. Watched something they have probably replayed over and over for the past 20 years since the genocide, and all the while, attempting to do their part to make us feel as comfortable as possible. This was heart wrenching.
These experiences moved the team further up the complexity curve. In addition to not having a direction to start aiming our research, we were now emotionally invested with the people who were kind enough to share their stories.
While some members of the team spoke with locals and visitors, others moved through the museum portion of the memorial. The museum itself is 4 – 5 stages of audio and visual walkthrough of the historical markers that led to the genocide, personal accounts of the 100 day event, a brief overview of the international response, subsequent actions of recovery, and finally remembrance and dedication to lost loved ones.
While the memorial seeks to serve as a point of education for the Rwandan people, the customer journey has quite the opposite effect. Many visitors, both local and foreign, described their emotional state as “broken” upon leaving the exhibit.
“What did I expect? I just totally got smacked. [crying] I just got hit…. I watched readings, I watched tapes [of the genocide] but it was so distant. They were not useful… I could not understand [until I came here]. I came for someone who lost about 34 members of their family. I couldn’t understand how 34 people can be killed.. It was people cutting and hacking.. It was your next door neighbors, people you grew up with, people you lived with…”
Our own design team even struggled to come to terms with the profound sense of loss that immediately follows a visit to the KGM. At some point during our second day of research, while gathered to plan our few remaining hours on the ground, we reached the pinnacle of complexity.
In recapping the days activites, doing a mental inventory of the research opportunities we had left, and feeling the pressure of the ticking clock, one of our team members opened up with frustration. He said, “How are we supposed to research this if we can’t get over it ourselves.” We are supposed to document as much of this experience as we can, yet we are paralyzed by the immense amount of pain and loss.
What happened next was our moment of epiphany. Jeff from insight labs connected the dots we were unable to see.
“Maybe this is the point.. If you all are so conflicted as a result of being here, that you can’t get anything done, how do we expect someone who isn’t going to be here for this many days to be able to reconcile the feelings into some form of sustainable action?”
The design brief suddenly made sense – “The problem we’re trying to solve isn’t just genocide and isn’t just museums. Rather, it’s the gap between the way we remember the genocides of the past and how we act to prevent the genocides of the future.”
We’d been so focused on the types of actions someone can do to identify and prevent future atrocities that we missed the real problem. Experiences like the KGM leave you so broken that you are unable to act in any capacity, much less one that requires empathy and some form of critical thinking.
Aegis Trust partially recognized this deficiency when they created a traveling education exhibit, based off of the original narrative in KGM. On our 3rd day of research, the team drove out into rural Rwanda to see this exhibit and speak to the community educators. The tone and narrative of the education exhibit was almost the opposite of its predecessor at KGM. While it told the same initial story, this exhibit ended with stories of people working together as a means to emulate model behavior.
“Have you seen the exhibit at KGM? Yes? Then you can see the difference. At KGM, you get to the end and just go ‘poof’; but with this one [educational exhibit] that happens very quickly. Users go through the hard part, but then also the uplifting part; realizing some of the possibilities that are there.”
– Morley Hanson, Aegis Trust
The groups of school children who arrived from nearby villages left with renewed compassion toward their fellow countrymen and a motivation to correct wrongdoing in their own lives. The traveling exhibit not only transferred the values of critical thinking and empathy, but it was able to contextualize examples of supportive behavior that rural villagers could emulate every day.
After seeing this, it became obvious to the design team that one key to generating action was to provide examples that locals and visitors could see in their daily lives. We would need actions that ranged from easily achievable to aspirational. This would provide “humanitourists” the ability to gain confidence that they can affect change and the realization that there is more that can be done.
Our final 24 hours of research in Kigali was focused on interviewing visitors of the museum and observing education workshops conducted by Aegis Trust. One of our first participants, a youth leader on his 4th return to Rwanda, gave us another clue into the recipe for creating sustained action. He described an interaction with his grandmother upon returning from his first visit to Africa.
She asked him, “Did you get that Africa out of your system?”
“No.. In fact, it’s just starting… A missionary had started a school here and they needed someone to run it. So I came, moved my family, and ended up having my son here.”
The youth leader had just described his trigger for action. A pattern we noticed in multiple people during our final day of interviews.
Upon hearing moments of “triggered action” from dissimilar participants, the design team began to wonder if it would be possible to manufacture trigger moments within the memorial? Or at the very least, be in a position to provide resources for action when “primed” individuals reach a moment of potential action after returning home.
The youth leader continued to describe another key to his continued involvement.
“I have a friend here named Erik [his name has been changed to protect his identity]. His entire family was killed in the genocide. He was called to be a witness against the guy who killed his entire family. So he went and said – this is what happened – but he forgave him. He said, ‘he’s done something horrible to me, but if I do something horrible to him, I’m no better.’”
The youth leader was describing a second pattern for sustained action. Motivation that was sustained by a connection with a real person.
“I no longer run the school here in Kigali, but I do bring groups of students to Rwanda. This is my 4th time back. We talk about this trip as being a series of contrasts – ups and downs. We are here this morning, reviewing the history, and then we are going to drive out to a school to see kids that are so full of hope and life. I think that Rwanda is a story of growing redemption and hope. If we just have one side of it, we are missing the full picture.”
The youth leader had hit upon another pattern we discovered in multiple western groups who were touring Rwanda. Each group had modeled a tour that included multiple moments of “ups and downs”. They had independently discovered that balancing turmoil with hope created opportunities for connection within each of their participants.
There seems to be an underground culture of “humanitourism” taking place in Rwanda.
While it’s fair to say that people who make it to Rwanda to visit the genocide memorial are already predisposed to some type of action. Rwanda itself isn’t a very large tourist destination. Most visitors have to go out of their way to enter the country to see the gorillas or to go to the genocide memorial. Very few happen to stop by as part of a day-trip to other sites within Rwanda or it’s bordering countries.
The design team began to wonder if we could amplify this concept of humanitourism. Is there a market for people who are looking to be inspired by the acts of kindness and reconciliation that are taking place in this small African country? If so, would we be able to model a series of experiences that activate people to participate?
These were just some of the questions we had upon finishing our research in Kigali. In my next post, I’ll talk about how we took these data points and synthesized them into design recommendations for Aegis Trust and the Kigali Genocide Memorial.