UX for Good: Can We Harness Emotions to End Genocide?

Designer and Automattician Davide Casali has recently returned from Kigali, Rwanda, where he participated in the UX for Good project. Today he shares his thoughts on this unique experience.

Automatticians, the people who build WordPress.com, participate in events and projects around the world every day. Periodically, they report back on the exciting things they do when not in front of a computer.

London-based Davide Casali is a speaker and mentor, but above all he designs experiences for our users. This year, for the second time, he returned as a team lead at UX for Good, a project that calls on designers to tackle complex social challenges. Here’s a brief journey through the events of these six days.

One hundred days to kill a million people. This is the magnitude of the genocide that began on April 7, 1994, in Rwanda. A genocide that the Western world tried to ignore, but that today has a valuable lesson to teach us.

This terrible event has been the central topic of the 2014 challenge of UX for Good, a project founded in 2011 by Jason Ulaszek and Jeff Leitner. This year the project brought together ten designers to support Aegis Trust, the nonprofit organization that manages the Kigali Genocide Memorial, as well as educational activities across Rwanda, the UK, and the US.

The challenge? How to bridge “the gap between the way we remember the genocides of the past and how we act to prevent the genocides of the future.” Surely an ambitious goal.

Harnessing the power of design

This was the second year for me, but the experience I had didn’t make me feel any less irrelevant facing such an enormous challenge. How can ten designers begin to make a step forward in such a huge undertaking? This question kept appearing not just in my mind, but also in the mind of all my fellow designers.

But this is exactly the kind of bet that UX for Good makes year after year, and it repeatedly manages to give back value to the charities involved in the project. UX for Good was founded with designers’ core skills in mind: their ability to connect human needs with solutions that have lots of moving parts across different disciplines. Extracting simplicity from complexity. This is where design can — and does — give back to society as a whole, even if in more normal scenarios the benefits are hidden inside commercial products or services.

On the ground in Rwanda

I flew to Kigali on the 30th of May, and the following evening I met all the other designers for the first time. This started three full days of field research, dawn to dusk. The intensity of this part was breathtaking, not just for the amount of activities conducted in a completely foreign place, but also for the emotional investment of this challenge.

The first day we went through the Kigali Genocide Memorial itself. It was an incredibly draining morning, emotionally. In the words of Matt Franks, one of the designers:

As hard as it is to summarize the feelings you have while standing there — it’s even harder to capture them in a manner that can be conveyed to others. You feel sick — yet emotionally detached. You know what you are hearing is awful… Yet you are unable truly to understand it.

We barely had time to recover before proceeding to other activities. During these three days of field research we visited different places and interviewed experts, officials, and survivors. Their stories, like the testimony of Grace and Vanessa, were terrible to hear (you can watch their interview here):

As we walked along a path, I heard a woman agonizing. She has been hacked and her baby is still breastfeeding. She had been cut with a machete on the forehead, at the back of the head, and on one arm and leg. Once I reached the woman, she said ‘please do me a favor and take my baby, with God’s help you both might survive’. So I took her. If I have to die for this baby I will.

Over and over, we began to notice how these tragedies all showed another side, one of of rebirth and reconciliation. Heroes emerged. Hope appeared. From another woman we heard a testimony so terrible I’m unable to repeat it here, and it made us wonder how it was even possible to still trust and talk to other people after so much madness. She greeted us thanking us for taking the time to hear her memories, and she went away thanking us again for sharing a moment with her.

These two aspects, pain and hope, emerged as key elements in Rwanda’s healing.

Finding inspiration in tragedy

When we moved to London for the synthesis and design phase, the energy of the team was vibrant. We were eager to start making sense of all the insights collected in the field and do something ourselves.
Roberta Tassi, designer and UX for Good participant

In the following three days we worked at the Red Bull offices in London and distilled our findings. We wanted to provide Aegis Trust with a model they could reuse to build activities and educational programs, as well as with a set of different ideas mapping and showing the power of that model.

Inzovu Curve Model

All of this is a consolidation of the successful activities Aegis and Rwandans are already engaged in to support healing and drive action. The model defines a sequence of painful memories, reflective moments, stories of hope, and inspiration to act — and shows how people can convert individual experiences to understanding and action.

This model echoes the one suggested by the mindfulness studies conducted by neuroscientist Tania Singer, where people train and learn to switch from empathy to compassion. It’s a necessary shift to avoid burnout and promote a healthier confrontation with difficult topics.

These two dimensions — the experiential and the personal — are intertwined in the model we called the Inzovu Curve. “Inzovu” means “elephant” in Kinyarwanda; we chose that name because the curve resembles the shape of a rising elephant trunk.

Inzovu Curve Logo

We finally consolidated all our findings in a presentation that we gave at the Aegis Trust the following week, with an excellent reception from their side.

A challenge to remember

For me, this has been for the second time a transformative experience. Understanding different cultures is something that surely makes me a richer person, but it also informs my everyday design with a better perception of different people and behaviors. It gives me an incredible sense of hope to see how, in just a few years, a country managed to heal and build a renewed unity, and how countless everyday heroes worked and are still working toward that goal.

It’s also incredibly empowering to see us, designers, starting as ten strangers, able to put our egos on the side and work effortlessly together on a common cause.

We concluded UX for Good 2014, but these efforts are ongoing and require additional resources. Aegis is already doing a great job, but more people need to get involved. Maybe you could consider a visit to Rwanda to see more than just the gorillas, or at least take a peek at Aegis’ work.

Either way, I hope this story gave you something to think about.

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  1. edupedrasse

    Excelente article.
    Would you tell me what software you used to make the the “compassion/empanthy curve”?


  2. traveling crone

    I am relieved that the people at wordpress.com are committed to making the world a better place. I am keenly aware that where I spend my money and energy finances activities I am not always aware of. For example, the debacle of GoDaddy slaughtering lions for fun. Which is why I am no longer a customer of them. So thank you, for doing good work and for letting us know about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. smokersodysseycom

    It has and always be about spiritual intercourse…empathy!


  4. Leslie Stockton

    Excellent post Sir. Amazing experience i say; life altering. Only those who have suffered at hands of another human can ever understand what it is like. To starve or be beaten for no reason. To made and have things done to you that no human should have to endure. The destruction is most when they are very young. My experience and my life has leaned in the *nature* of which i have been made to grown up versus the *nurture* I lacked at primary stages. I say all this because I AM A FIRM BELIEVER ..if you get them YOUNG ..you can save them. See no matter what is done, no matter the therapy pills etc..once it has been taken it is gone forever. You go your whole life trying to find that missing piece. u can delete this comment if u wish .. WONDERFUL POST I SAY ..

    Liked by 1 person

  5. anneeuropeantravel

    Harnessing the power of emotions will end genocide? Start meditation and don’t let your fears control you. A calm mind will bring peace but easier said than done!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Deli Lanoux, Ed.D.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences. Certainly, your life will never be the same again… nor will mine after seeing the video.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Patrick Reynolds

    What a challenge!

    I working in Rwanda a couple of years ago for a period of six months and now I work in Bosnia, where i have been for last two years. The most striking feature of the two countries, apart from the obvious, is the lack coordination of empathy that appeared to follow the genocides. What was on offer to those who were traumatised was a synthetic process of economical measures, memorials and inert sympathy. These are measures that do not prevent further genocides in any way. They are just a guise for further enslavement and financial gain of those who do not empathise or were not present during the genocide. It is very much akin to an alcoholic getting counselling from a non-alcoholic. This will not provide the awakening required. AA successfully works by initial recognition and empathy from those who have experienced the same plight. The result, a spiritual awakening and a behavioural change.

    In my own experience, to harness the real power of empathy and thus to find inspiration in tragedy, I believe that it is imperative to fully understand what happened and why, i.e. to see things for what they really are and reveal the truth. There are those who say that if we dig, we will only find worms. This is of course not true. We have all observed the choreography of the dance, but until we understand the truth, we can not see that there has always been an invisible dancer, hidden in the shadow of the atrocities. Understanding this truth is the only way to reach acceptance and ignite change throughout future generations and prevent the genocides of the future.

    After I left Rwanda, I felt compelled to do something to help start this process. I made a social network for people to empathise with each other – http://www.empathisewith.me. This has not had much uptake unfortunately. I will soon change this for a more integrated (Facebook-lookalike) style and hopefully it will become more useful, and more suited to its purpose. I have also taken a look at the situation with development aid. It became blatantly obvious to me that this whole paradigm of international aid is not fully intended to reach the communities that it is intended for, i.e. another guise. I have very recently designed the website http://www.developmentaidsupport.org and a complementary social network for those around the world to air their views and report on the problems in their communities. This I believe is another form of active social empathy.

    To sum up, in my opinion, the UX requires a means of a) empathising via a social network not too dissimilar to what is used today, i.e. Facebook style, b) an ever growing knowledge for the basis of the atrocity, such as the route of rare earth mineral ores from the DRC, through Rwanda and into the world market, and even the potential future control of the Lake Kivu methane for economic development in region.

    If we cannot understand the problem then we surely will not find the solution. This process of empathy must be affordable to all of those affected. It does not require highly paid consultants (in the classical way) but does require consultation, openness, honesty and above all love. Only those who can empathise can really understand and only those who understand can effect change. Rwanda is now or will become the IT hub of the African continent. Couple that with the power of a next generation specific social media network for empathising and in this way we will start to close the gap between the way we remember the genocides of the past and how we act to prevent the genocides of the future.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. martha0stout

    You do find hope when you are in the darkest of holes and that hope is what lifts you far above the pain that you are no doubt still experiencing.

    Thank you for sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. rustacus21

    … this is so admirable – your work, plus the fact the worldpress is out in the world, making such a tremendous effort to bring understanding to places & people that ordinarily would never happen otherwise. Now, if only such an undertaking could occur here in the states! Right now would be the perfect ‘real’ time to get into psyche of American’s and help them figure out what’s going on in the hearts, spirits and emotions, that has us so at odds over our first non-White, Black male American as President? Certainly, there will be people who hate. But like in Rwanda, there are those who aid and abet in the criminally corrosive acts of suppressing the economic, social, institutional – even the spiritual recovery the nation is so desperate for and in dire need of. THAT would truly be inspiring on a global scale…


  10. Mike

    This is a rather long comment but it was such an emotional moment for me.
    I was teaching in Tanzania a year after the genocide.
    The evening was warm and a little very light rain came down but it did not seem to matter, the warmth was such that you dried about as quickly and the light rain made you wet.
    I was talking to a nun, she told me about the terrible happenings in Rwanda, she told me that she was from a mission in western Uganda and that she had gone back to where her family and relatives lived in Rwanda to find that they had all been murdered by the Hutus, much of it was done by friends in their village who were forced to do so by the soldiers.
    Most of their bodies had been thrown down a well and she was only able to bury a few.
    She then asked me if we had heard about what had happened.
    I had to say that we had.
    The warm evening, the smells, night time noises of Africa, the light rain and the music of a nearby dance were all gone with those few words.
    I felt the most utter shame of knowing that we had done nothing about it, I almost felt that I was the sole representative of the western world who had sat by while it all happened.
    I forget what I said to her, it is difficult to imagine what you could possibly say.
    She seemed to bare no grudge and was seemingly forgiving but how close she must have been to not forgiving I cannot say.


  11. Charlie

    The question is, can we use LOGIC to end genocide? After all, it is emotion—passion!—that gets us into war and death.


  12. Thomas Peace (author)

    Great and very interesting work! We need to go way deeper with understanding the human psyche and living with correct values and insights! Too many of us are insensitive… insensitive to others, the earth, and her creatures. Psychiatry and psychology of mind is merely at a primitive threshold at this point. For instance, most professionals don’t even realize fundamentals… like the fact that, psychologically, the “observer” is “the observed.” We have a long way to go and a lot of minds need to mature and become wiser!


  13. jessicasun lee

    You are universal man to show deep side detail stories to wordpress’ people. I wish I will have that kind experience. People have to solve their problems by their country knowledge and make peace in there and outside people help and protect them. Issues are all over the world. We can help one by one every day with them.
    Thank you for showing and writing this message.


  14. qhunkim

    Thank you for sharing your great experience and excellent article. The point of you about learning other cultures and what could we do with our enthusiasm and willingness were impressive. Yes, this article makes me think about as you mentioned.


  15. vera ersilia

    I commend you on this enterprise. I hope it can bring not only awareness but action on behalf of those nation cut apart by tragedies such as you witnessed. It is a tough path to pursue. Keep doing it though. V.


  16. Destination Infinity

    I don’t understand how a genocide of this scale could be even effected. This only shows the level to which humans can stop, if given an opportunity or an excuse. That makes me shudder about the biggest predators of the earth – humans.


  17. dyule2014

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful story. Very moving experience for this young lady.


  18. Brian O'Donnell

    Self delusion is written all over this article. Have you learned nothing from the 2 World Wars, or today in the Middle East? Human nature is so & will not change – but one must keep on trying. Good luck.


  19. renogalsays

    Wonderful post! Thank you. Ending genocide is truly an ambitious goal. My father-in-law is a Holocaust survivor. As a family member I have seen how that trauma affected each successive generation in their emotional and psychological behavior. The word genocide didn’t even exist until after WWII. Now, unfortunately on a global level, we are too familiar with the term. Hearing these stories, like those from survivors of the Rwandan Genocide and the Holocaust, do inspire us to act and change our moral behavior. My father-in-law’s story has thankfully been recorded in his memoir THE ALTERED I: MEMOIR OF JOSEPH KEMPLER, HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR. It is my belief that each personal narrative we read, or hear, contributes to ending future genocides.


  20. jennjenn388

    PowerFuI Post. thanK you for sharing it. the video spoke volumes! I commend all you have done and are striving to achieve. It is Saddening to know that this kind of behavior exiStS..that People ALL over this world are living at the mercy off such hatred. If raising the emotional response to such things can effect true and positive change then I pray it happens On a global level.


  21. jraeducation

    Amazing Story. Very Powerful.


  22. heidianime5

    Wow I didn’t know about this project. Great article. I was able to understand it even the the more geeky parts. It shows that good can still be done no matter what group you belong to.


  23. TwoLittlePigsDownUnder

    What a fantastic post! We’ve just been talking about the genocide in Rwanda in a post explaining the reason behind our tattoos at: http://twolittlepigsdownunder.com/2014/06/24/piggy-ink/. Hopefully one day ‘Never Again’ will be realised.


  24. scott bolen

    Great Post! Very relevant and thought provoking!


  25. TheWeekly250

    Very interesting. Thank you for this.


  26. SWL

    All efforts to end genocide are worthwhile. Some people are reached better through their emotions, some through logic.

    As horrific as the Rwandan genocide was, the country seems to have healed much better than other regions, many of which just split into separate countries and keep on hating. From what I have read, it seems to be a result of vigorous teaching on the Biblical model of forgiveness. Both Christian survivors and outside aid groups have led this effort.

    Of course, ending genocide before it starts is the goal, but reconciliation may keep it from happening again in Rwanda.

    UX and other groups provide hope for a future with less hate.


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