How human-centred design is surfacing the needs of young refugees in Poland
Social Behaviour Change insights creates new opportunities for engaging with and supporting young people
“We start with a map where we ask everyone to share where they’re from. It really helps to connect people,” says Tatsiana Mironenko, an outreach worker who works full-time with adolescents at Niebieskie Trampki (Blue Sneakers), a youth centre for local and Ukrainian adolescents in Gdansk. She tears up as she walks up to another board, covered with sticky notes. She explains that adolescents are encouraged to leave a sticky note with something that they need, and to take away one they think they can help with.
“At first, they wrote ‘iPhone’ and things like that. But soon we found notes like, ‘I want mom’, or, ‘I want the love of my parents’. These kids have been through a lot and are hard to read. The biggest part of my job is taking the masks off and seeing what’s behind them.”
Blue Sneakers provides a safe space for teenagers. There’s a pool table and table tennis. Bean bags line the windows. The space has been filled with activities to draw in and connect young people, most of whom have been displaced as a result of the war. Strategically situated next to a popular shopping mall, its team of psychologists and volunteers work hard to find ways to encourage adolescents to feel welcome and to hang out, make friends and take a break from the pressures of school and home.
Andriy* is 15 years old and spends a lot of time at Blue Sneakers. He is one of the hundreds of thousands of children who have arrived in Poland since the war in Ukraine escalated in February 2022. Nearly 40% of the 1.6 million registered refugees here are children.
In a conflict that has separated families inside Ukraine but especially across borders, adolescents can fall through the cracks. Surveys and needs assessments target mothers and caregivers, but understanding the unique needs of teenagers can be difficult.
Andriy is a teenager, frustrated by initiatives and tools that are supposed to be designed for him, but which often feel like they take more than they give. “Adults always ask teenagers about the questions they care about and not the real questions that teenagers care about,” he says while looking at a prototype for an information chatbot built for young refugees in Poland.
*Name changed for privacy reasons.
Real-time data, for every child
Staff at Blue Sneakers and other refugee centres, and with NGOs and municipalities throughout the Tricity region (Gdansk, Gdynia and Sopot) recently came together to take part in a rapid human-centred design process to help the UNICEF Refugee Response Office in Poland and partners learn how to best identify and respond to the needs of adolescents like Andriy.
This participatory research design process seeks to define and solve challenges in context with the people the services and products are being designed for. This helps ensure services are accessible, relevant and appealing by working with the end users to develop and prototype solutions together. The chatbot prototype Andriy is looking at is a product of this participatory process, designed using insights from interviews with adolescents, local NGOs and municipalities in the Tricity region.
The prototype is based on UNICEF’s social messaging tool U-Report, a platform for young people to have their voices heard and to influence decision-making processes that affect their lives. Rolled out in 93 countries since 2011, over 29 million people have signed up as U-Reporters, committing to sharing their views through chat-based polls and surveys.
U-Report was introduced in the summer of 2022 in Poland to capture the views of young Ukrainians like Andriy, and to gather real-time data on the effectiveness of programmes and services. In a recent poll of Ukrainians in Poland, 45 percent of those surveyed said that adjusting to their new life was their most challenging issue, with another 20 percent citing mental health challenges. Thirty-five percent said they need more help in coping with these issues. With information like this, UNICEF can engage young people and inform and adapt their response, while also bringing the real-time needs of teens to the attention of partners, media and government.
“The perfect feedback mechanism would be designed by young people for young people,” says Marta Karalus from the Office of the Mayor for Culture of the Municipal Office in Gdansk.
Today, Marta is getting her wish as a group of young people at Blue Sneakers pour over a draft chatbot script. They highlight the need to have access to useful information, as well as to share it, and how it doesn’t always need to be so serious. They’d be happy to receive the occasional funny poll, jokes, or even a link to a cool game. Telegram is their preferred chat programme and they suggest making it easier to share so that, as one young person says, “If something is interesting, I can easily let my friends know.”
New insights, new opportunities
Participatory research processes like this are providing UNICEF and partners with new insights and opportunities on how to better engage and reach out to young people in Poland. With feedback from Andriy and other participants, a new iteration of the chatbot prototype was built. A rapid card-sorting exercise helped adolescents to identify their key needs and desired features. A co-creation process helped researchers to see what would motivate young people to engage.
Now, when Andriy browses through the topics, he selects the one that matters most to him and his friends: bullying. The prototype directs him to information on whom to contact in case of emergency. Andriy’s selection is anonymized and documented, letting UNICEF and partners know that bullying may be more important to teens than their parents might think.
It’s a step towards making this tool work better for young people in Poland, and towards giving UNICEF and partners a ‘peek under the mask’ - and for the U-Reporters who participate, access to the information they need.
“The perfect feedback mechanism would be designed by young people for young people.”
Marta Karalus, Office of the Mayor for Culture of the Municipal Office in Gdansk