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The Human Rights Centered Design event at RightsCon Tunis

Published onJul 17, 2020
The Human Rights Centered Design event at RightsCon Tunis

In June 2019, a group of practitioners gathered for a pre-conference event around human rights, usability, design and security. This event built on some previous convenings, conferences and meetups, and with this, we were excited to pilot a full day convening model alongside RightsCon 2019 in Tunis. This convening brought together designers, digital security trainers, tool developers, researchers, and human rights defenders from many parts of the world, including Tanzania, Kenya, Tunisia, Chile, Taiwan, UK, and the US. With a full day of discussions and workshops, we mapped out a set of challenges shared by the community members and optimal pathways to solutions as well as immediate next steps. We are so grateful to the participants who came and helped to co-create this first event and to set the tone for future convenings.

Interested in human-centered design, and the challenges of building security and privacy tools for—and with—human rights defenders? Help us build and expand a growing community by fostering connections and collaborations around using, designing, and developing tools and platforms. We want to invite you to join the emergent Human Rights Centered Design Community. Read more about our recent convening at RightsCon in Tunis and reach out to [email protected] if you are interested in learning more.

Our discussion covered a wide spectrum of topics including funding and resources, participatory inclusion, high stress environments, metrics and measuring success, and feedback loops between users and tool teams.

Discussion Notes

  • Funding and resources

    • The current landscape of tool funding has limited the formation and capacity of teams.

    • Compensation is not adequate or proportionate for everyone involved in the design process.

    • Abruptly pausing the maintenance of a tool—that is critical to the protection of privacy and security of a certain community—can be detrimental. However, it costs a tool team a lot to continue and expand their developments as funders are less likely to fund the maintenance.

    • It is important to brew ideas and encourage the funding and supporting community. This would be to shift the current focus from funding shiny features and creation of new tools to regular maintenance, UX/UI improvements, or the prototyping and testing process.

  • Participatory inclusion

    • The easiest way for diverse communities to impact the design and development of critical tools is to involve them in every phase of the process.

    • This impact through participation can be achieved by embedding local expertise within tool teams. From designers to developers, talent should be sourced globally.

    • Co-design processes can also allow for impact through participation, though it is important to consider power dynamics and how they may influence this process.

    • In order to break from patriarchal narratives, we must address structural barriers that exist with regards to inclusion. For example, the language, icons, and graphics embedded in tools should be inclusive and accessible.

    • Designing for extremes of risk can ultimately be beneficial for all end users. When designing, it is always important to think about how design decisions for one community may be applied more widely to larger audiences.

    • Utilize existing networks and events to connect with diverse users and source new talent for tool teams.

    • Personas can be used to capture user needs and build empathy among communities that may not otherwise be connected to at-risk users (funders, developers, designers, etc.).

  • High risk environment, stress, and mitigation

    • Our general political and social environment is deteriorating with the shrinking space for civil society, growing threats targeting activists, lawyers, and journalists, sweeping disinformation and hate speech, gaps in communications, and the lack of transparency.

    • Creating tools for the most at risk communities requires a carefully and thoughtfully designed process that takes into consideration of communications, security, accessibility, fairness and equity, cultural and behavioral nuances, and so forth. Features, interface design, choose of iconography, interactivity, and dissemination of the tools are ought to depend on and meet user needs. This can be achieved through creating avenues for users to speak up, guiding them to articulate, learning from them to shape the criteria, and maintaining a channel for long term dialogues between users and tool developers.

    • There are some successful projects shared as examples for others who don’t have enough resources and support to run the whole process.

  • Metrics and measuring success

    • There is a clear need for stronger universal metrics that allow trainers, designers and tool teams to better measure their own successes.

    • Tools should use privacy-respecting analytics to capture where users drop off and identify pain points within their tools. Guardian Project’s Clean Insights initiative is one example of how this can be done in open source tools.

  • Feedback loop between users and tool teams

    • There are many complicated channels that tool teams use to collect feedback, but this requires additional work for end users and/or trainers. For instance, they may need to learn about GitHub in order to submit a bug or feature request as an issue.

    • Trainers and designers need to know exactly what type of feedback developers are looking for or interested in to make sure that they are capturing relevant and useful recommendations.

    • End users and trainers appreciate when developers or tool teams respond after receiving feedback.

Event Highlights

As an event full of creative minds, we also had the luxury to mingle with diverse experiences and spark ideas, which led to a series of hands-on work of art — feminist iconography, alternative narratives, and more.

The Secure UX Methodology project [LINK], led by Natalie Cadranel and Caroline Sinders, held their first feedback session. Over the next year, they will be engaging folks in the community to develop the check list into a curriculum.


We also received incredible support and tremendously positive feedback from our participants. Many of them called for the continuation of this event and other community gatherings with recommendations on valuable new blood to the community, opportunities of occasions, and locations. Here we would like to share some quotes:

“I loved every minute of the UX and Human Rights Day 0 event! The moderators were warm and funny that really helped me to relax. I met so many interesting people and heard about the awesome work they were doing. I felt like now here’s a group of people who care about making the end user’s interaction with technology a cool experience!”

“It’s a very interesting topic and I was glad to see that a full day was dedicated for this purpose.”

“The USABLE project by Internews is an example of how we can ensure continued support [for] usability work which would benefit users of open source tools as well as the creators of these tools.”

“It’s one of the best event[s] during RightsCon. I enjoyed [being] in the room with [like] minded people and we shared our work, exchange[d] ideas to get solutions […]. Great event!”

Moving forward

Learning from the valuable experience of our pilot event, we are committed to keeping and expanding this effort to establish and foster this community, with a shared vision and a growing working group for future organizations. In addition to in-person opportunities, we are also in the process of formalizing communications and resource sharing online with a decentralized structure. Built upon this momentum, we had a second convening with a focus on AI — Human Rights Centered Design for AI Workshop (#HRCD4AI) on Friday, October 25, 2019 at MozHouse, London.

Our hopes for the community

People fighting for human rights need trustworthy tools and platforms that support and protect them, but too often such tools or platforms are designed without their input. Design choices in technologies generated without a process that centers human rights, can be biased and result in great harm to communities that depend on such technologies for protection. Such gaps are deepened by the silos between sectors, cultures, and regions. At best, this results in minor frustrations — worse, it can exacerbate existing problematic social dynamic and lead to dangerous outcomes.

The Human Rights Centered Design Community is an emergent group of practitioners from the Internet Freedom, Digital Rights, Media Justice, Translation, Training, Design and Development communities. Our mission is to expand and support this community by creating a more inclusive space, helping broaden perspectives around needs, creating opportunities for co-designing such that we build with, not for, foster connections and collaborations, and facilitating proactive conversations in the community — whether using, designing, or developing tools and platforms. We believe that by centering human rights and deliberately co-designing with diverse voices, these technologies can be improved and be more reflective of community needs.

The Human Rights Centered Design Community Initiative is a group effort organized by a core group and a lot of friends who offered generous contributions. If you have any questions, or want to take part / contribute / support, please reach out at [email protected].

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