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Metaphor matters: How to make your design language more accessible

Metaphor matters: How to make your design language more accessible

There’s no denying it: design uses a lot of jargon. So much so that there are countless articles attempting to decipher it in layman’s terms, or recounting “tales of confusion, awkwardness and innuendo.” 

Not only can the technical nature of jargon create a gulf between designers and those they should be co-designing with, it’s also important to fight against any impulse to regard it as universal. While the kind of strategic design for positive impact that ThinkPlace specialises in is being applied as we speak all over the world, it’s important to separate the power and potential impact of the design approach from the tools and mindsets used to carry it out.

The language and tools of design are not universal. This becomes clear when we are working with communities that have little or no familiarity with the kind of abstract analysis or theoretical thinking that designers specialise in. It gets even more complex when language and translation issues are added to the mix. 

So what can you do to make the language of design more accessible?

We found ourselves in this situation while in Equatorial Guinea, conducting participatory research and design workshops to improve collaboration among community health actors in Dubreka and Coya. At ThinkPlace, we endeavour to work with communities in ways that understand and value their input. It’s why we employ designers with diverse backgrounds and language skills across our global team. Sometimes, even that is not enough.

In this case, we, as facilitators who had mostly been introduced to the world of design in the English language, were conducting workshops in French, the country’s official language. We also had in place asynchronous translation from French to some of the other languages spoken in Guinea, mostly Susu, Malinke, or Pular. 

It was quickly clear we had difficulty getting through. Any point we wanted to communicate needed to trickle down through several layers of interpretation.

 We had already made the decision to strip most of the design-specific jargon out of our workshop content but it wasn’t enough. We quickly realised that we needed to develop visual metaphors to communicate the steps and activities we wanted participants to understand.



Root causes and theory of change

Guinea had introduced a nationwide plan to decentralise public healthcare services and infrastructure across the nation and involve community leaders in the management and provision of those services. But local community health actors were still grappling to fit into their newfound roles and responsibilities as well as communicate and work effectively with one another.

While attempting to guide the participants in diagnosing the root causes contributing to some of the challenges that they were identifying, as well as understanding outcomes that resolving those challenges could lead to, we introduced the metaphor of a balloon. 

We explained to participants that the balloon itself had the potential to reach the desired outcomes they wanted to achieve (by flying up to the sky), but it was currently held down by a weighty sandbag (the root causes). This was helpful in understanding the broader context in which participants were operating.



Different means to the same end

Once we had a better understanding of the challenges that local community health workers in Guinea faced, it was time to brainstorm ideas to improve the current decentralised collaboration model. 

We needed a new metaphor to help illustrate the idea that there are more than one ways to achieve the same objective (in design terms, our design opportunity area). Using the above image (inspired by Sara Beckman in the movie Design & Thinking), the objective was understood as getting from one side to the other side of a river, and our goal was to encourage participants to push beyond the first obvious idea (the bridge) and think about more alternative ways (such as a boat, a plane, or even swimming).



Existing resources and potential risks

Following ideation, participants had a hard time prioritising ideas, even when asked to think about which ones were more “feasible.” 

We first specified the definition of feasibility as solutions that build off existing resources (such as the newly formed community-driven Local Committees on Health and Hygiene) and therefore minimise potential risks (such as inadvertently making healthcare less accessible). 

We successfully explained this idea to participants through the metaphor of reaching an island (their realized solution) by boat (the resources they have at hand), while avoiding sharks (potential risks in the way). As such, this metaphor (adapted from the Speed Boat activity in the book Gamestorming) allowed participants to prioritize which ideas they want to move forward with to prototype and test.



Prototype testing sessions

To guide participants in planning for the different elements needed to set up a good prototype testing session, we introduced a metaphor related to theater or movies, with the scene representing the location or environment in which the testing session needed to take place (such as the entrance of a community clinic). The actors represented the testing participants (for example nurses) and the props represented the prototypes and testing materials (such as a script for nurses to disclose the prices of services available at the community clinic). Finally, the cameras and microphones represented documentation and capture methods like note taking and photography.



In Coyah and Dubreka, we realised early that it was important to ensure abstract concepts were introduced as tangibly as possible through concrete examples or illustrations.

What we did not expect was how the participants held onto these metaphors to explain the process that we underwent in the workshop to their peers and supervisors later on. We were also excited to see how participants formed and contributed their own metaphors to the process (for instance, when invited to give a name to the concept they found most promising through testing, one of the participants called the task “baptising” the idea, as if it were a child). 

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