Listening First: How U-Report Redesigns with a Human-Centred Focus

Product design at UNICEF

Jonathan Newberry
UNICEF Innovation/ Jonathan Newberry

13 November 2019

Product design at UNICEF merges the best of human-centred principles with the sprint-based practices of technology development, all fully grounded in a listen-first approach. 

U-Report is a global platform built to listen to the voices of young people by connecting simple technologies like social media, websites, and mobile phones to create a community that gives their often under-represented perspectives a place to be heard. As our websites work as a hub connecting our community to content, results, and stories all in one easily accessible place, a redesign was needed to bring it up to the quality U-Report represents globally. Beginning in October 2018, and with the generous support of Arm, we began an almost year-long effort to redesign it. As a platform rooted in listening, we decided to follow on the successes that built a community of over 8 million young people -- by going and listening, before designing, first. 

Where We Started 

Our first listening mission was to Cote d’Ivoire (now home to over 1 million U-Reporters!), where workshops and interviews kicked off the project. Along with teams from Haiti, Congo Brazzaville and Ghana, our time in this early phase focused on hearing from U-Reporters and organizational partners to ground ourselves in where the problems were, but just as importantly, to not jump straight to solving them. A human-centred process pauses on the quick reactions for the goal of exploring deeper -- to keep listening.

Photo: Frank Dejongh
Workshop meeting with young people, partners and U-Report leaders in Cote d’Ivoire.

To complement our time in Cote d’Ivoire, consultations next brought us to France, a UNICEF national committee office with a more recently-established U-Report. Here, we could meet with young people in a new and different environment to learn their perspectives and understand their technology habits. They told us they engage with U-Report but almost always via a prompt or social media post, and they rarely visit the website directly. Later in Sao Paulo, young people would tell us the exact same thing. 

UNICEF Innovation
We met with over 20 young people from the semi-arid and Amazon regions of Brasil.

All throughout this process of listening, when meeting with partners, you could feel an excitement about the website. They were vocal in their concerns, clear in their requests, and visiting the websites regularly. What hadn’t seemed clear at first would quickly become obvious: While young people are undoubtedly at the center of U-Report, the key audience for the websites are our organizational partners. This insight would become an interesting point of creative tension: How do we build a youth-centered hub, one full of content they engage with and should feel fully built for them, while building equally for partners as the direct audience of the websites? 

Exploring these tensions and early learnings were the goal of these first missions, and also beginning in Brazil, we were able to bring a new tool into the conversations: our first working prototype. Beginning even from this early phase, we pushed every concept and new idea through a constant process of prototyping. 

Photo: Frank Dejongh
Workshops in Cote d’Ivoire including collaborating with leaders from Haiti, Congo and Ghana.

Insight > Prototype > Iterate > Repeat

Prototyping starts from a humble place -- the first version is almost always merely a collection of our best guesses, all sparked by early insights and hunches.  But even this first version is crucial because it becomes an important artifact that everyone, from our steering committee to future prototype testers, can have something to give the kinds of past-tense feedback we are looking for. When someone tells you “I felt...”, “I see...”, “I didn’t like this because...”, we are now working from a place of learning, rather than a more common place of speculation. The value in our first prototype came in the abundance of past-tense reactions we heard -- almost 200 unique points of feedback from this version alone.

And as the prototyping proceeded, we continued to listen. This would lead to new rounds of designing and testing, then iterating and repeating. This process of listening, then acting, would continue through five primary cycles over the course of the next several months.  

Next Steps

After a few rounds of prototyping and testing, we were at a critical juncture where we had three things in front of us: a collection of insights, a stack of still unanswered questions, and a need to start development. By now, we knew our audience, we knew to focus on results and response, and we knew the vital need for cleanup. What we didn’t yet know: details like how best to redesign for location and share the story of results, like how U-Reporters in one province often feel differently than those from the province next door. And maybe the key struggle at the moment was also a practical one -- we couldn’t wait any longer to start development.

Solving this problem began in April 2019, when we started a six month process with development partners Nyaruka to begin building the foundational elements in a fast-paced two-week sprint cycle. At the start of each sprint we would decide on the next best decision we could make, all while continuing work on what design concepts we still needed to uncover. Our goal was to keep design at least six weeks ahead of development, allowing us to keep designing (and listening) while still remaining responsive to what we heard. 

UNICEF innovation/Jonathan Newberry
In Ukraine we heard from young people in group sessions to co-create new features.

Our final two missions to Ukraine and Tanzania gave us the chance to take higher fidelity prototypes and put them in the hands of our users. Before, we were prototyping concepts and features, but now, we were prototyping the entirety of the product in a real way. In Ukraine, we led small groups of young people to collaborate on the final version, where their keen sense of what concepts were best for U-Report was obvious. And because we were presenting functioning prototypes, their comments were taken directly into the product design on the spot. 

UNICEF innovation/Jonathan Newberry
At the Youth 4 Change Innovation Hub at the University of Dar es Salaam we lead interactive group sessions to learn what young people expected from the new website.

In Tanzania, the focus was on exploring our questions around U-Reporter location results, and how to build a better method of response to those results. Visits to local partners like Bridge for Change and the Youth 4 Change Innovation Hub at the University of Dar es Salaam were where designing with and for young people helped us finalize these concepts. We finished the week in Zanzibar, meeting and prototype reviewing with government and NGO partners alongside U-Report leadership. In that room that day we prototyped together what would soon become a dashboard focused on engagement, built specifically with them and other partners in mind. 

The Final Product

Now that we have finalized design concepts, we can fast-forward through four months of sprint cycles, bug fixing and product development. This long process of listening to our global community led the way toward the work that so many people helped us create. In spending the needed time to invest in listening, and by only designing what we heard, the final product is a reflection of all those perspectives. Listening, then acting, brought together over 60 countries worldwide, enabling the voices of 8 million young people around the world to be heard even louder. 

For more information and to check out the project yourself, visit