A Lifeline for LGBTQI Refugees: How Good UX Design Is Helping Save The Vulnerable

by Patrick Faller

posted on 06-07-2017

Micah Bennett is deeply passionate about UX. To her, user-centered design is more than a method to create better consumer products, it is a powerful tool to help some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

Before she became a UX designer at DesignMap, Bennett was a program officer at the Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration (ORAM) in San Francisco. There, alongside a team of advocates she developed the Rainbow Bridges pilot, a web portal and program providing online information and connecting LGBTQI asylum seekers with an international network of allies to effectively rescue and resettle them. It’s regarded as a blueprint for Chicago’s Rainbow Welcome program, established by former president Barack Obama, and the Rainbow Refuge program in Canada.

LGBTQI refugees are often fleeing persecution or even death in their home countries because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Programs like Rainbow Bridges are rare and desperately needed. Bennett said, in redesigning the programs and systems that help these refugees, good UX design can become a lifeline.

“The systems of law and government are already designed, but they’re not necessarily human-centred design,” said Bennett. “The asylum application, the process, is not designed with LGBTQI refugees’ perspectives at the center. Re-shifting that focus can help get more people to safety as quickly as possible.”

Helping LGBTQI Refugees Poses Unique UX Challenges

Bennett identified some key challenges in building the pilot program both in terms of making sure the program website is covert and accessible via search.

The term LGBTQI may be familiar to many of us in the Western world, but it’s more complicated for people in countries where sexual and gender diversity are condemned or even illegal.

“Many of these refugees wouldn’t identify as LGBTQI when fleeing because that’s something that would get them killed in their home country. Many countries even block online search terms like ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian.’ The challenge became ‘how do you design something for someone to find, when there’s no universal language for search terms?’”

Bennett said putting the user first, using the terms and plain language they would use or most-directly identify with, was key for solving this challenge.

For many LGBTQI people living in countries where homosexuality is illegal, even using technology to access Bennett’s program could be dangerous.

“Many current online resources are made from a Western perspective and not designed for ‘covert situations.’ Users may be in a public computer lab, accessing the internet to find information about asylum, so obviously they’re not going to want something bright, with rainbows or it might put them in danger,” she said.

Many people also don’t have access to computers at all, relying exclusively on smartphones. This provided a unique opportunity for Bennett to go around government bans on search terms like ‘gay,’ ‘lesbian,’ or ‘trans,’ but it required some out-of-the-box thinking not-typical to refugee programs.

“We found, while some search terms are blocked, some gay dating and hookup apps were making their way through, and that became a place to put up an ad for our web resources and reach people via the underground channels they were already using to find community.”

Giving Refugees A Fighting Chance

Bennett led the pilot program before she was a formally-trained UX designer, but she applied user-centered design principles in her finished product. For her, it was about addressing a crucial problem facing the user, in this case the refugees she was helping. It was also her first step towards a big career change.

“I looked at the person at the center of this and their core needs,” said Bennett. “A lot of the refugee system is built around the concept of uniting families in big cities, but a lot queer refugees are fleeing their own families.”

By helping refugees settle in major cities, the program is giving them a shot at a happy life with access to a more open LGBTQI community.

Her experience designing Rainbow Bridges helped inspire Bennett to pursue UX design as a formal career path. Advocating for the user, these refugees, was her mission.

“Programs and systems should be built with the client’s considerations at heart. More often than not, these programs are built according to budget, or based on someone’s individual opinion about how things should look and work,” said Bennett. “The goal should be to help this person, and that should come before everything else.”

Rethinking Refugee Resettlement

Bennett says there’s a lot of work to do in revamping programs to help LGBTQI refugees. Many programs are focused on the legal or governmental aspects of the asylum process, as that is the expertise of their leadership. The role technology and design can play in serving refugee’s tactical needs and challenges is often missed entirely.

“I used to go to a lot of hackathons, where people would try to help my organization pro bono. Even with designers there, they often didn’t involve the very people they were designing for,” she said, reflecting on her previous career.

She says UX designers are in a unique position to do good.

“When you’re building something, UX designers can be the greatest advocates for users,” said Bennett. “There are so many tactical problems these refugees are facing – access to information, proving the persecutory conditions in their home countries, knowledge of their rights…To have UX designers involved gives me hope that we will provide these systems with tangible solutions.”

Read the full UX case study on the Rainbow Bridges pilot program. Micah Bennett recommends anyone looking to help reach out to Techfugees, a social enterprise mobilizing the international tech and design community to respond to the global refugee crisis.

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