Empowering Refugees for a Brighter Future
Creating a professional development program to equip and inspire Burmese refugee youth
CLIENT: Ruth Education center, malaysia
ROLE: lead UX RESEARCHER AND product manager AT the collaboratory
TEAMS: DESIGN, PRODUCT MANAGEMENT, CONTENT STRATEGY
METHODS: surveys, focus groups, in-depth interviews, field visits, ethnography, literature review
Design and scale a program to help Burmese refugee youths improve their career prospects.
This project received grant awards from Mulberry Foundation and Messiah College and impacts over 300 refugee youths and children in Malaysia every year.
Dr. Dorothy Gish Women in Leadership Award (Awarded to five out of 1650 members from 73 organizations).
Opportunities for Business and Educational Development (OBED), a holistic professional development program for Burmese refugee youths to hone their business acumen and grow as societal leaders.
Imagine that you’re in the comfort of your own house right now. You may be eating dinner and winding down from a hectic workday with loved ones. Now imagine that state violence has been going on the past few years, and all of a sudden, things dramatically escalates and a civil war erupts. You’re now forced to leave your family, home, and country for a foreign place. This was the reality of the Burmese refugee youth my team and I served. Many of them have had to abruptly leave home, part with their loved ones, and travel for more than 1000 miles—often under the scorching sun by foot, boat, or bus—to get to Malaysia.
Some of them have permanently lost their families. All of them, have lost their homes.
At the time, I was an advisor for a non-profit organization that worked with the UN Refugee Agency (UNCHR) and US Embassy to empower Burmese refugees in Malaysia. Refugee youths in Malaysia are denied access to the country’s formal education system. But, I was committed to the inclusion of marginalized communities and the advancement of equal access to education. After a series of in-depth interviews with refugees and directors of refugee agencies, I initiated Opportunities for Business and Educational Development (OBED), a professional development program that improves refugees’ business acumen and career prospects.
Focusing on the users, I created understanding and empathy around user needs for my entire product team including designers, product managers, and content strategists. I conducted primary research, exploring the behaviors and motivations of our users through methods such as field visits, ethnography, surveys, focus groups, in-depth interviews, and literature reviews. By delivering compelling, written, in-person and visual presentations on my findings, my research inspired change at all stages of product development.
Concept Phase Research
To identify market opportunities and define product vision and strategy, I led my research team to conduct three expert interviews with refugee agency leaders and facilitated focus group discussions with 25 refugee youths. I chose to conduct focus group sessions instead of 1:1 interviews for two reasons:
Burma is a collectivist society: To deepen user engagement, leaning into insights around group dynamics to inform product decisions is the key to success
Many participants weren’t fluent in English: When in groups, those who were more fluent in English naturally helped with translating and moderating, thus enabling us to organically learn from all participants
In addition to the qualitative studies, I designed and conducted quantitative surveys to understand our users’ backgrounds, interests, and skill sets. I then triangulated the data to create a holistic picture of our users.
While youths were keen on honing their skills to improve employment opportunities, they were also interested in empowering their next generation.
“I think it’ll be good to learn business skills so that I can get a job. But I’m also worried about the younger refugee children here. I volunteer as a teacher now and I want to continue helping them.”—Dah, 16 years old.
As the Ruth Education Center (client) is a non-profit organization, the center needed to be able to financially sustain the professional development program.
Recommendations for Product Management and Content Strategy:
Develop a product that equips students to:
sharpen their business acumen through hands-on projects that can also financially support the program (e.g., organize fund-raising events)
empower the younger generation through organizing mentoring opportunities and educational events for them
Development Phase Research
Throughout the development phase, I led the team to evaluate our products and kept our partnering organization Ruth Education Center in the loop. First, I used role-playing with internal participants to identify the gaps and opportunities of our product’s design and content. Next, I conducted expert interviews with professors in education and obtained feedback on our curriculum. Finally, I delivered quality minimum viable products to the Ruth Education Center for further review and testing.
Insight: Instructors didn’t know how to assess whether students have achieved the lesson objectives because the lesson plans didn’t include practical measures of learning outcomes.
“These lesson objectives seem general and vague. At the end of a lesson, I can’t tell if students have actually achieved the lesson goals.”—Michelle, 25 years old, instructor.
Recommendation for Content Strategist:
Rephrase lesson objectives to contain measurable action verbs (e.g., rephrase the objective “to learn about Agile project management” as “to draw a diagram illustrating the basic tenets of Agile project management”)
Deployment Phase Research
To ensure a continuous feedback cycle, I designed lightweight surveys and evaluation forms for instructors and students to complete after each major phase of the program. I also led the team to train instructors on how to incorporate students’ feedback in subsequent lessons and activities.
The Ruth Education Center has implemented Opportunities for Business and Educational Development (OBED) among its core classes each year. This program impacts over 300 refugee youths and children in Malaysia every year. It has also received grant awards from Mulberry Foundation and Messiah College.
Focusing on impact: I inspired change at all stages of product development by delivering compelling, written, in-person and visual presentations on my findings. I also invited stakeholders to observe user sessions and leaned into user stories to illustrate findings and actionable recommendations.
Collaborating widely: I collaborated closely with cross-functional partners—designers, product managers, content strategists, and subject experts—to put users first, define product vision and strategy, and guide the product from conception to launch.
I was recognized for my leadership and quality of work through the Dr. Dorothy Gish Women in Leadership Award (awarded to five out of 1650 members from 73 organizations).