Linking professional design services to low-income households



If you read this, you’ll learn about:

  • Our remote workshop with the Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter
  • How and why we designed the program the way we did.
  • What the output was and what the next steps are.

Who did we work with?

Earlier this year, we were approached by the Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter , a department within the worldwide organization, Habitat for Humanity International. Through the Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter, Habitat for Humanity is able to work within housing market systems to support local firms and expand innova­tive and client-responsive services, products and financing so that households can improve their shelter more effectively and efficiently.

The Center was looking for a company to help them design and facilitate a workshop that would, in their own words, “help their partners develop innovative market interventions and strategies using a human-centered approach”. In the last week of June, we finished the workshop with amazing feedback from the participants:

“Just wanna say thanks for guiding us through the workshop. It was quite an experience I have to say. Professionally and personally I learned a lot, definitely will take it with me forever.” - Ada Canillo

What was the project about?

There are more than 4 million families in the Philippines without liveable housing and it’s the mission of the Terwilliger Center to change that fact. Al Razon and Francis Baroidan were instrumental in setting up this project and we wouldn’t have been such a success without them. Al Razon is a Market Systems and Entrepreneurship Specialist and for the past couple of years, he has been working on unpacking the role of construction labor to influence the behaviors and practices of low-income families who are incrementally building houses in the Visayas region.

Al shared with us the “big why” behind the initiative:

“This workshop is one of the many partnerships we hope to surface working with brilliant ideas with professionals working directly with artisans. I should say that the construction labor market is vibrant in the context where we're operating, however it's not targeting the vulnerable, yet emerging market segment as we'd hope.

The idea of Human-Centered Design workshops like this is not only to get a bunch of creative ideas but to literally, go out there, start doing something with firms who are interested to take prototypes forward, learn from the process, scale if necessary, and share results to the bigger market.”

Francis Baraoidan, Construction Quality and Housing Support Services Specialist at the Terwilliger Center, also shared his vision for the project.

“We envision design professionals to look at and take an active role in providing their professional service to low-income households. More than their design specialties, we are hoping to engage their creativity and out of the box thinking to provide more and better technical market based solutions for low-income households.”

The project brief came down to us being the ones responsible for leading the participants through the Ideation and Prototyping phase to create evidence-based interventions that increase awareness of quality products and services for low-income households. We would do this in a Design Sprint-based approach. Due to the ECQ, we had to facilitate this workshop remotely. You can learn more about how we’re working remotely her.

As Design Thinking Facilitators, our job is often to bring people together to align around a problem and help them create solutions so naturally our next question was, Who will the participants be?.

The answer was an eclectic group of designers, architects, and engineers i.e. people who knew the industry very well and how to build houses. This was the ideal team for the task at hand. This would be a new problem for them to solve, however, so we had to make sure we bridged the gap and got them up to speed quickly which led us to our first question, “Who is this whole thing for? Who will benefit from this?. We needed a few more specifics rather than just ‘low-income households’.

Who was it for?

The target audience is a key consideration for our team in planning and designing workshops. Usually one of our first questions is: “What problem are we solving here? And whose problem is it?”. The more specific our partner can be in answering this, the better we are able to gauge the necessary workshop material and agenda. If they are unable to be specific then it’s often an indicator that they don’t understand the problem space well enough and it might be worth doing some more research before continuing. A deep understanding of the problem they’re trying to solve can make for a more effective ideation, prototype, and testing cycle.

In this instance, the Terwilliger Center had a very clear understanding of who they were designing for as they had up-to-date research. They understood the problem area very well and had documents to back it up their knowledge— it was a great start to our project. On our part as Facilitators, we had to bridge the gap between the research and the workshop participants who didn’t yet have an understanding of the target audience.

One way of doing this (and the Terwilliger Center already had their own version of this) is to make what we call ‘Personas’. In UX Research, a ‘Persona’ is a “fictional person created to model and describe the goals, needs, and characteristics of a specific type or group of users.” It’s a great way of synthesizing what can often be a 150-page research document compiling the results of a 3-month research study. It’s generally useful to have this type of detailed information if you need information on a granular level but it’s very difficult to use in a workshop format as it takes so long to digest.

Personas are the best way we’ve found to get it into a format that workshop participants can understand quickly and use as a guide for further research. This kind of model gives people a tangible definition of who they are designing for. What’s good about having a Persona is that throughout the course of the workshop,  any idea that a participant has can be checked back against the model to see which user goal it matches with. “Is this a good idea?” can not be objectively answered with a blanket ‘yes’ or ‘no’, as it is subjective questions.

In Design Thinking, an idea is measured against the user and depends on “Who is it for and what problem does it solve for them?”. We always like to have a Persona to constructively fish through ideas and output against. This way, the question can move from, “Is A a good idea?” to “Is A a good idea for X persona given their need Y and their behavior Z?”.

So for TCIS, we began with the following persona as the main end-user of any output—

‘Eds and Ginas’

  • Family Size: 4 - 6 members
  • Occupations: Agriculture, Self-owned business, daily labor
  • Average Monthly income: PHP20,000
  • Location: Liloan. They are “peri-urban” which mean they live just outside a major city (in this case Cebu City)
  • Education: High school graduate with some college
  • Language: They speak Cebuano, Filipino and some English
  • Their homes are often semi-permanent
  • House Improvement Practices:
  • 88% of low-income households plan to improve their house
  • They build incrementally and typical improvements are PHP20k or less
  • 85% are interested in getting loans through a micro-finance institution
  • Perceive professional design services to be expensive or not applicable
  • Owner-driven construction:
  • Friends, neighbors, or relatives often help with building improvements
  • Most are unfamiliar with safe building practices and not well versed in architectural design
  • Husband and wife typically make decisions together on house construction and repair

Having the above information helped the participants ask themselves “Is it a good idea for the Eds and Ginas?” versus “Is it a good idea?”.

Taking a Design Sprint-based Approach

The first two parts of the workshop were achieved— the problem we were solving was clear and the target audience was clearly defined. Now the question we asked ourselves was,

“How might we design a workshop to help housing experts provide micro design services for low-income households who build their house incrementally?”

We had to considering the following factors:

  • Participants would be attending on a voluntary basis i.e. we didn’t have any bosses to tell employees to be in the workshop for x number of days.
  • Participants would be meeting for the first time on Day 1.
  • Participants would not be experts in the problem area though would be industry experts.
  • Participants would not be available for whole day sessions.
  • Participants would be going through the Human-Centered Design process for the first time.

...which when re-framed using the Design Thinking framework gave us these challenges:

  • How Might We... ensure participants sign up and turn up on day 1 and stay committed especially considering their day jobs?
  • How Might We.. break the ice and build connections between strangers?
  • How Might We... ensure participants understand the problem area quickly?
  • How Might We... design an effective session given limited time commitment from participants?

We decided on a Design Sprint-based approach and split the work across 4 days: the first 3 days would be for understanding and building a prototype with Day 4 reserved for reviewing the feedback that we got from the target audience. The homework after Day 3 would be to show the prototype to the target audience and see what needed to be incorporated into the next iteration.

The final ‘workshop story’ (we’ve switched to this term instead of ‘agenda’) we designed looked like this:

  • 3 weeks out:
  • Send invites to participants with basic information about the session + sign up info.
  • 2 weeks out:
  • Informal videos of the facilitators introducing themselves and talking about what we hoped to achieve in the session.
  • Specific information about the problem area we’d be tackling.
  • 1 week out:
  • Send initial reminders for the sessions.
  • 1 day out:
  • Send final reminders for the sessions.
  • Workshop Day 1 (Thursday 9am to 12pm): Understanding
  • Introduction of the Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter.
  • Introduce the tools and play around with Miro.
  • Group ice-breakers and quick team building activities.
  • Run through the problem area in detail and ask questions about it.
  • Assign teams and get together in Zoom breakout sessions to discuss the problem area further and create ‘How Might We’ questions.
  • Workshop Day 2 (Friday 9am to 12pm): Brainstorming
  • Review the chosen ‘How Might We’ questions and decide which specific problem area to look at.
  • Look for idea inspiration online and share back with the team.
  • Individually brainstorm solutions then share back with the team.
  • Workshop Day 3 (Saturday June  9am to 12pm): Prototyping
  • Agree on the flow of the prototype that we’d show testers.
  • Create a prototype that they could use to show people their idea to get feedback.
  • Homework: show the prototype to as many of the target audience as possible + iterate prototype.
  • Workshop Day 4 (Saturday June 13th 9am to 12pm): Review
  • Regroup with the team and share feedback from testers.
  • Present ideas to other teams for feedback.
  • Identify next steps.
  • Share key takeaways and feedback etc.
  • Post-workshop:
  • 2 sessions of coaching to continue the design process.

Tools we used:

  • Zoom for the call and breakout rooms
  • Miro to have a shared collaboration space
  • Viber with one group per team to encourage tight team collaboration in between the workshops

What did the participants say?

Overall, everything went pretty smoothly especially considering that it was a remote workshop. The biggest issue was the intermittent internet connection that some of the participants were experiencing but we overcame them with a bit of patience. We even had a few people working from their construction sites and with a custom Zoom background, we’d never have known if they didn’t tell us!

The participants had some really fantastic feedback from about the session:

Jehanne Dy: Well put seminar / workshop. Hosts have a clear idea of what the output would be and were very helpful all throughout the process. Everyone stepped out of their comfort zones knowing the gravity of the output’s effects to communities and beneficiaries. This exercise made me realise how equally vulnerable and resilient humans are. Programs like these should be advertised more because this growing community should continue to grow. :)

Rachelle Timbas: This workshop is really informative and helped me guide through the process of problem-solving by taking it step by step and encouraging interaction through Zoom and Miro, which are both great online platforms for meetings!

Ada Cancillo: Feels good working with these groups, friendly, attentive to comments and focused to get things solved in a systematic manner.

Kristian Zhen: This workshop gave me a feeling of true collaboration despite only meeting online. It is very encouraging and inspiring to know there are a lot of people who have compassion for the less privileged. Thank you so much for your time & effort and for considering us. It is an honor for us to be here. Hopefully we can still collaborate and meet physically in the future. Keep safe!

Jim Kendall: Thanks, I really enjoyed going through this process. It was well organized and successful. I am glad that I could see how Miro board can be successful in doing online workshops. The online format allows the workshop to be open to anyone (no travel required) and without travel, the workshop can be broken down over multiple partial days, allowing people to do other things they need to do, and keeping the workshop from becoming too long and heavy, which usually happens with on location workshops over 3 days in length.

What did the Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Sheltersay?

After the session, Al from the Terwilliger Center summarized his experience in these words:

“This is absolutely just a start of more more ideas and prototypes and we encourage participants to bring these ideas and prototypes to their own firms and explore other “how might we support Eds and Ginas”. On-Off Group was superb to take on this virtual Design Sprint challenge and I’m looking forward to the next steps.”

What made the virtual workshop successful

If we had to list the 3 things that led to this project’s success and allowed us to work almost seamlessly, it would be:

  1. The Terwilliger Center: The support, energy, and frequent communication and alignment with Al and Francis in the build-up. These are our kind of people— they never stop asking “why?” and wondering if something can be better.
  2. Participants: The participants were fantastic: all were committed, caring, and enthusiastic. Everyone gave up their own personal or work time to join the program because they wanted to help make the world a better place in some small way. These are our kind of people too!
  3. Good research: We weren’t starting from scratch on a problem that no one knew anything about. We had detailed research, industry experts, and problem area experts to guide us along the way.
  4. Workshop Story: We had a detailed plan of who the main actors were, who the protagonists were, and what we wanted the narrative of the program to be. We knew where we were beginning and where we were going to end up and how we’d get there, chapter by chapter.

Impact + Next steps to take

Each team created a prototype: one digital, one non-digital which they tested with several ‘Eds and Ginas’ and got useful feedback to iterate their ideas.

The first team developed a product that could be delivered via an app or a kiosk. It was designed to tackle the lack of information about proper house building decisions as well as the issue of fragmented products, information, and services about shelter-related construction.

They wanted to help ‘Eds and Ginas’ to make better decisions by accessing information that would provide a variety of house building solutions so that they could have durable, safe, functional, and affordable houses.

Their 2-year goal was to bring about a paradigm shift in house building practices in the Philippines.

The top 3 features of their solution were that it would:

  1. Help people understand the pros and cons of different building methods,
  2. Visualize how they would look, and
  3. Provide links to design, finance, and labor providers.

They had useful feedback from the target market they spoke to. They heard feedback like “the process is faster and hassle free”, “this is much better because we don’t have time to go out, “the professional can focus on me alone and can give me direct advice and I will be too shy to ask questions like with traditional seminars.”, “I like that the app takes into account the user’s life context (PWD, elderly, etc)”.

The action point for this team was to incorporate the feedback from participants into a first version of the actual mobile prototype using

The second team developed a solution to tackle several problems such as overcoming the mindset that building or repairing a house is expensive, that architects and engineers are unreachable, lack of trust, accessibility of materials and services, knowledge of house building in general. Quite an ambitious set of problems to solve!

They wanted to help ‘Eds and Ginas’ learn skills to generate practical solutions based on their respective situations and even pass on knowledge to neighboring communities and future generations.

Their 2 year goal was that more ‘Eds and Ginas’ would have basic knowledge in construction and practical application of that knowledge.

They also had useful feedback from their participants which they will incorporate into their next iteration and they have several action points including more research on the daily experience of ‘Eds and Gina’ daily so they have more awareness of their specific challenges.

In the coming weeks, On-Off Group will be supporting the teams that want to continue developing their ideas and working with the Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter to make sure actions are taken and these ideas and others forward.

Architect Carl Saycon, owner of FYI Design Studio, which is partnering with the Terwilliger Center to explore and develop these ideas said, “The low-income household community is an underserved market and they demand a special Human-Centered Approach so we can understand their needs fully well prior to prescribing any design solutions.”

FYI Design Studio has now initiated an enabling plan to improve the studio’s engagement with the LIH communities and On-Off Group is excited to see the results as the program progresses.

If you’d like to learn more about The Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter and their parent organization, Habitat for Humanity, you can follow them on Facebook or visit their website.