Climate change requires cross-cultural dialogue.

User-research can be used to break down walls between communities, and to empower diverse cultures to collaborate with one another.

Case Study: Burkina Faso, West Africa

The Challenge

Create avenues for cross-cultural dialogue on climate change and similar complex problems


The Outcome

A simple and affective comparative tool to check cultural assumptions and see through other people's lives.


The main tenet of design thinking is empathy for the people you are trying to design for.

David Kelley, Founder of IDEO

Cross-cultural dialogue is one of the most exciting challenges of 21st-century design thinking. Affective design must translate across borders and between diverse people and places. The principles of participatory design that arise out of academic scholarship have a lot to offer individuals and companies who are committed to utilizing the best of design thinking for social impact. My own question continues to be around how to do this in an increasingly global world.

The Method

Lessons and Takeaways

Get out of your head.

Get into the field. 

Conduct user research.

Trust me.

I learned the hard way.

Whether software engineer or researcher, it is far too easy to fall in love with your own ideas. This is a lesson I learned the hard way relatively early in my career.

My big ideas had little to do with the lived experience of drought in West Africa.

User-centered research. Probably my biggest takeaway from the early stages of this project had to do with including participants in developing the research question. I started with many abstract ideas about climate change, and I chose to work with a community in Burkina Faso, West Africa because I had relationships with people there and because these people live on the front lines of global climate change. I came up with a complex research agenda and quickly found out that the people I would be working with had very little interest or knowledge of global climate change. They were dealing with droughts that had plagued their people for generations.

To see through their eyes I needed to stop thinking and starting listening.

I messed up!


I conflated Western ideas about ecology


Traditional Ecological Knowledge

Before spending any time in Burkina I developed a research plan to study local beliefs and actions regarding climate change and sent the plan to various stakeholders.

The plan was rejected by all interested parties. I had not done my research.

I brought my concerns about global climate change to Burkina Faso, but that was not even on their mind. They were facing an intense drought that threatened their day-to-day survival. If I was going to the world through their eyes, then I was going to have to put down my big ideas and start to listen. 


Research, Analyze, Synthesize Together


Millet Beer


Coffee Ceremony


Field Study

User Interviews are Powerful...

but So is Coffee

Create connection and trust through shared spaces. This one is so simple it is easy to overlook. Take the time to meet in person.

Established relationships and common agenda with diverse stakeholders. Local NGO's, U.S. embassy reps,  community leaders, and universities.

The real research happens over shared millet beer and coffee. I learned early on that I should not lead with my big questions. Rather we need to take time to arrive and share spaces with those we are working with. This is as true for user research interviews as it is for field research across cultures.

Create connection and trust through shared stories. While we are playing the role of the interviewer our primary goal is to listen.

I worked together with diverse stakeholders and local community members to:

  • Identify roles and responsibilities

  • Collectively design research process and tools

  • Discuss potential outcomes

  • Work together to implement research and collect data

  • Collaboratively analyse and synthesize data

  • Co-create generative design 

Empathy is learned through practice. There is simply no substitute for spending large amounts of time with a wide diversity of people while working very hard to see their world through their lives. This is as true for the ethnographer as it is for the user experience researcher. We all want to share our stories, and I have learned over the years that listening is the key.


There is no substitute

for user-centered research.​​

Complex problems require collaboration.


Participatory Design Requires Rigorous Methods

We need rigorous methods to cut through our bias and our stories. Quantitate data, scientific research, and qualitative methods are all useful in helping ground our work. But they are not enough.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) is scientific too. The reality is that our sciences got us into this climate mess and we might need methods and ideas that come from other traditions and communities if we are going to find out way out of it. Through my own work and that of countless other people it has become increasingly clear that local knowledge is often as good if not better in addressing issues of drought and climate change.

See the tree in the picture below? ​Ecologists from the outside told communities throughout West Africa to cut them down and use modern methods to better adapt to increasing drought. These communities decided to plant more trees, and it works. Farmland in this region is healthier and more adaptable to increased drought. Why is research on this important? Because it not only gives local communities a voice in the global world, but it also adds to our larger understanding of climate, ecology, and science.

Participatory Design Requires Co-Creative Methods

Our future problems are bigger than any one person or group. We need co-creative methods to cut through our bias and our stories. The complexity of our increasingly global world requires new forms of collaboration.

While this idea seems obvious at first, it is very hard to put into practice. We struggle in the U.S. just to get Republicans and Democrats to have meaningful conversations. The differences between these groups are relatively minor when compared to differences between diverse traditions and people from around the world. My research and the research of so many other seeks to bring a bit of humility to the conversation. We need to collaborate across cultures and radical differences if we are going to face our shared global future.

  • Collaborated with the local community to collect, analyze, and synthesize data

  • Created generative designs for future actions that can be taken

  • Fed research and future plans back into the community to get feedback

  • Collectively identified future points of research and potential impacts

We co-created design solutions to address and manage local relationships to the ongoing drought. The local community was empowered to put forward their own Traditional Ecological Knowledge in parallel to Western scientific perspectives. We created a collaborative atmosphere that was more agile and adaptable because it was able to listen to and implement knowledge from diverse ways of seeing the world. 

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© 2019 by Zayin Cabot, Ph.D.