Though complicated and often ignored, Internet access without surveillance is a human right, and yet more than 60 governments worldwide still find ways to censor each new online medium. In a world where burning books and jailing poets was once commonplace, as digital technologies become more prevalent, Internet freedom is the new frontier to ensure the safe exchange of information and ideas globally. In support of this human right, there is an international community developing technologies to secure Internet freedom for people globally.
Technologists' efforts to support Internet freedom are often hampered by limited knowledge of community needs, which can lead to tools which don't address specific problems. The SecondMuse Needfinding Framework bridges the gap between technologists and the communities where Internet freedom tools are most needed.
The Framework was developed based on human-centered design, which uses empathy as a source of innovation and has been proven effective in industries from social services to product design. Human-centered design pushes designers to address the needs of the people the tools are meant to serve. The goal is to support creation of usable software, increase user engagement, facilitate effective training and ultimately contribute to a safer Internet. Through this Framework, designers can integrate the perspectives of people often sidelined from the conversation.
In creating the Framework, SecondMuse spoke with people working toward Internet freedom and found a broad, consistent desire for a clearer picture of real users: knowing unique characteristics about user groups and what is shared across communities. Developers wondered where to start and how to find users; many were relying on bug reports coming in from highly technical users but were lacking ways to engage with vulnerable users. Supporting designers in understanding of the the lives of intended users leads to the creation of tools that have more impact and less risk than tools developed in a vacuum. Based on the conversations with developers, SecondMuse built the Internet Freedom Needfinding Framework.
Needfinding, for SecondMuse, is the process within human-centered design that determines the needs of a community and is the foundation for developing solutions that reflect reality. The Framework is an open-source resource to complement what a designer, trainer, or policymaker is doing and where it best fits into his or her work. The Framework is comprised of the following components:
From Needfinding with Viet Tan in Washington, D.C.
From Needfinding with Viet Tan in Washington, D.C.
From Needfinding in Dharamsala, India.
From Needfinding in Tunis, Tunisia.
The Needfinding Framework was designed for tool developers supported by the Open Technology Fund (OTF), an organization that funds Internet Freedom projects “that empower world citizens to have access to modern communication channels that are free of restrictions, and allow them to communicate without fear of repressive censorship or surveillance.” When SecondMuse began building the Needfinding Framework, there was a belief in the Internet freedom community that calling a tool “user-friendly”, or designing it with users in mind, was negative and implied security that could be easily compromised. We wanted to better understand this tension and see what could be done about it. In addition, we wanted to know if people were actually using these OTF-funded tools . OTF was curious too, to know how they could respond to what was actually happening in threatened communities, and they wanted to make sure they were maximizing their impact as a funder. There was a need to diversify the conversation and community by including coders as well as users, trainers and designers.
SecondMuse submitted a proposal to receive funding to develop what would become the Internet Freedom Needfinding Framework, a framework to change the unequal dynamic in the way Internet freedom tools are developed. It was a contentious proposal among leadership at the Fund, but ended up setting a precedent as one of the first projects to be funded that was not for hardware or software. SecondMuse’s point of view in approaching the project was to address and dismantle a false dichotomy in the field of innovation: the inherent idea that the people who are making are somehow smarter, better or more innovative than the communities being served. With human-centered design as a guide, we knew that in order to achieve our end goal of creating a truly just Internet, the people using the Internet freedom tools needed to be part of the design process in addition to the policymakers, funders, designers and technologists.
Typically, hardware and software tools meant to combat or work around censorship or surveillance are created by Westerners who are not impacted by limited Internet access, creating a palpable disconnect between design and reality. We wanted to figure out how to solve that disconnect through building empathy in the designers and making the users part of the design process from the beginning, as it grew and evolved. Human-centered design is standard in many processes, but in developing technology, the people using the product can be oversimplified when they are referred to as “users.” SecondMuse practices the principle of meeting people where they are, which means also adopting the word “users” as the community has, to refer to people using Internet freedom tools. In creating tools, technologists are thinking about if something is usable, whether it has good user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) and whether navigation through an interface functions logically. But we thought that process needed to be stepped back. A tool may be usable, but is it useful? Does the tool exist because a designer or technologist wanted to make it, or because people need it? Usable and useful are not diametrically opposed terms, but we wanted to find a way to close the gap between them.
The first step in our process was to conduct a landscape analysis, which had to be broad in a community as fragmented as the Internet freedom community. We spoke with about twenty stakeholders, including technologists, funders and policymakers active in the realm of Internet Freedom. Then our research took us to Iceland for Tor Project’s Dev meeting, to interview the volunteer creators of a browser system effectively circumventing censorship and surveillance. We asked stakeholders, what information we should try to get from people to be helpful to the technologists making tools and to create a more empathetic connection between the community and the developer. We wanted to design open-ended questions and approaches that would bring us to stories of using technology, not simply to opinions of what a tool should be. In addition to working with the Tor community, we also asked experts how to conduct a co-design with people in an area of potential users. For that, we worked with three design-thinking ethnographic research specialists, with expertise in India; Asia and Africa; and corporate work, respectively. As we shared our learnings with a stakeholder or expert, and changes were made and the framework evolved, as we beta-tested the Framework in with Tibetans living in Dharmsala, India, and again with Vietnamese activists visiting Washington, D.C. The intention of this framework was to enable anyone to use what is most relevant to them and to modify each component as they saw fit, offering three approaches: limited engagement, standard engagement and extended engagement, as starting points for engaging the framework. Today, each of these approaches serves as a guide and can be adapted to fit the skills, needs, resources and context of people using the Framework.
The Internet Freedom Needfinding Framework has been instrumental in increasing understanding and dialogue around vulnerable populations around the world. For the purpose of this award, we are focusing on application of the framework to uncover patterns, habits, risks and perceptions related to communication for journalists and bloggers in Tunis, Tunisia. The research team led interviews and a two day Internet Freedom Needfinding workshop in November 2015. The purpose was to understand the communication patterns in daily life, security problems and priorities, and communication and safety needs of the group through human-centered design activities such as visual drawing exercises as well as group drama and storytelling activities. Another Needfinding engagement took place in Kampala, Uganda, in February 2016, working with the LGBT activist community in February 2016. Reports on the findings of beta-tests and engagements are all available publicly online, except for the most recent one, which will be published sometime in 2016. The reports are complete with stories from individuals we met in the region, facing censorship challenges and with succinct recommendations for the technologists who may seek them out.
SecondMuse believes the Needfinding Framework exists at the intersection of human-centered design and community organizing. Human-centered design requires community involvement and buy-in, and when done effectively, it allows the people we work with to feel ownership over the final product. Using and teaching the Needfinding Framework gives people the chance to use their specific talents to work towards a just and fair world, and apply their findings to their work, whether that is in Internet Freedom or problem-solving in general. In this work, SecondMuse does not take a typical development approach. We pair with local partners who are already embedded in local communities, so the Needfinding Framework can be used independently and beyond the scope of our engagement with the community. The Needfinding Framework has been used by organizations and companies including Security First, Viet Tan, Tibet Action Institute, CommunityRED and Tor Project to create tools and trainings around Internet freedom that are designed with people in mind. Local needfinding engagements open the door to a dialogue, and people who participate in them learn vocabulary and skills used to articulate their concerns regarding their Internet safety. In this way, the Framework has given people the personal agency, the very quality governments try so hard to extinguish with censorship and surveillance.
The impact has been strong for the SecondMuse team, for the people we’ve met in engagements, as well as for the technologists we aimed to help in the beginning. We learned from the Tibetan community about how the support of their language and culture is a motivating factor in choosing what tools to use. For example, iOS supports the Tibetan language where Android operating systems do not, so tools that only work on Android systems are not helpful for Tibetan users. This is an issue about access, and it was an unexpected learning of that engagement. In Tunisia, it was interesting to learn about how journalists are still testing the boundaries of their freedom in the post-dictatorship state they’re living in. They want to expand their physical security in addition to their digital security. When people tell stories, we understand their mindset and decision-making processes and, as a result, designers and technologists can create real products and services to help them in their communities, instead of leaving them behind. The impact of these engagements, and therefore of the framework, is to create a paradigm shift, to help people be part of the larger process of establishing a just and fair world, which is what the Internet freedom movement is really about.
This is a framework that has been developed to be able to understand the needs of specific communities which can be very different.
It's using a design approach and design methodology to approach to a very important democratic problem.