Designing a human-centred skills transfer programme in the pandemic era

Five lessons learnt from reinventing our Core Nigeria programme to run remotely in the wake of the global pandemic.
August 11, 2021

Core Nigeria is a skills transfer programme embedding human-centered design (HCD) methodology within public health institutions in Nigeria. The programme was originally launched in the capital city Abuja before the COVID-19 crisis as a workshop introducing HCD concepts to grantees of our partner the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. At that time, we planned to hold Core Nigeria as a series of health projects conducted in partnership with local organisations.

With the emergence of the global pandemic in early 2020, it became clear to us that it would not be responsible to encourage face-to-face contact with people from different communities. By the time we realised that the pandemic was not going away any time soon, we had to find new avenues for taking our programme forward.

Despite the challenging new environment, we were able to execute parts of the original plan with adaptations to allow the programme to run remotely. First, we launched Design Clinics in summer 2020 as a remote learning-by-doing course that enabled participants to apply HCD knowledge and skills to tackle existing primary healthcare challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A person looking at a laptop screen, planning the upcoming remote activities of Core Nigeria.


Design Clinics connected HCD experts from Finland and the United States with our partner Clinton Health Access Initiative and members of Nigerian state governments in Niger and Lagos, who were able to work within their locale. However, to support learning at the national level, we needed to engage members of the federal government as well as those from other states.

This was done through the Virtual Network, a four-part webinar series introducing the HCD approach to representatives from state and federal governments and non-governmental and civil society organisations working in the public health field in Nigeria. Participants were senior influencers and decision-makers who did not have time to engage in a full HCD project, but might be in a position to support others in their organisations to adopt human-centred approaches.

Rather than attempting to share human-centered design processes and methods in detail, we aimed to increase basic HCD knowledge as well as build the mindsets and attitudes required to make HCD-led efforts successful. The network sessions presented case studies from organisations that applied HCD to public health programmes, such as Made Culture and iDE Innovation Lab. Guest speakers, including futurist Dr Katindi Sivi and public health specialist Dr Modupe Taiwo, discussed how adopting the HCD approach had benefited their work.

Moving the programme online

While the Virtual Network concept allowed us to reach participants without in-person meeting, it still presented challenges. We realised that some participants would experience unreliable internet connection, limited availability of hardware, and difficulties using unfamiliar software.

In late summer 2020, we ran our first pilot across a diverse group of participants, inviting some to attend physical classrooms where the Zoom meeting could be accessed through a shared screen. Since the best skills transfer programmes are interactive, we crafted activities that enabled participants to provide input during the session.

The pilot was invaluable in teaching us what would and would not work going forward. Multiple technology challenges played out, causing interruptions that disturbed the flow of the event and made it difficult to follow even for those who had a good connection. Any online audience can lose patience – and our audience was more time-poor than average. We realised that if we wanted to keep people interested and engaged for the full course, we needed to find a way to make the sessions run smoothly technically and involve more ways for participants to interact.

Based on the Virtual Network pilot, we began to meticulously plan a new format that launched at the beginning of 2021. We deliberately reserved time for interaction within each session but otherwise made the sessions ‘broadcast only’. At other times, participants were asked to keep their microphones muted while encouraging them to contribute through the chat which we curated to avoid interruptions. 

A person looking at post-it notes on a laptop screen, planning the Virtual Network remotely.

We also asked case study contributors to pre-record their presentations to mitigate technology failures during the sessions. We even wrote a detailed script for each webinar with presentation understudies who could take over facilitation in case a presenter lost connection, though, thankfully, this was never needed.

At the end of each webinar, we ran a feedback survey and reviewed responses to see how we could continue to improve the sessions. With each iteration, we introduced a little more technical risk by increasing interactivity, for instance, by asking people to submit pictures or switch their cameras on to show what they were doing.

Finally, due to the improved COVID-19 situation, we were able to run our last session in April 2021 with the inclusion of nine physical spaces, each in a different Nigerian state, with the appropriate personal protective equipment and social distancing measures. The in-person participant groups spent an hour going through a mock design process together before the online event. This time, the activities were not dependent on remote connections, as each space was facilitated by a consultant from Clinton Health Access Initiative.

Since not all participants could be physically present, we also designed an online activity that digital-only participants could complete in their own time during the days running up to the final session. This separation of spaces ensured smooth running for each participant, equal access to content for all, and opportunities for both hands-on learning and networking.

A lady filling in papers during the hands-on in-person design activity during the fourth and final Virtual Network.

Benefits of the online approach

Although Core Nigeria’s online format was forced by the pandemic, we learnt through trial and error how to adapt, identifying several benefits over traditional in-person formats. First, the Virtual Network was more accessible compared to meeting in physical spaces. Although there are still communities and individuals who lack sufficient internet access, this does continue to improve. For the majority, being able to connect digitally is a huge benefit over dealing with the logistics of an in-person meeting, particularly for an audience that has so little time available.

Second, working online puts more control into participants’ hands. We were able to provide interactive material for them to complete in their own time as well as multimedia content with visuals and subtitles to support the audio both in real-time and for later consumption. In addition, the online format allowed us to explore supporting multiple languages. Although this was deemed unnecessary for our audience, it could be provided in a similar format that includes people from different regions.

A guest presenter from Helium Health giving a presentation on applying human-centered design to their work.

Finally, Core Nigeria’s format offered the environmental benefits of limiting international travel. Using the online format, we were able to bring in guests from other African countries as well as from Europe and Asia, who contributed their unique perspectives and experiences to the conversation.

Key takeaways from the Virtual Network

Despite early challenges, the Virtual Network series achieved its goal. In total, 169 participants attended the webinars, including representatives from national and state governments, implementing partners, funders, multilateral agencies, and civil society organisations. Through our experience of taking the Virtual Network concept online, we identified five key takeaways that were particularly important for its success.

1. Applying a limited number of mostly online touchpoints favours certain types of learning over others

When we compared participant survey results at the beginning and end of the series, we noticed that our approach was more suitable for changing mindsets supportive of design thinking than for improving human-centered design knowledge while using a limited number of mainly online touchpoints. The Virtual Network was successful in fostering mindset changes associated with adopting a positive stance towards failure or iteration and being inclusive of others’ perspectives – both indicating the adoption of HCD mindsets. However, when we compared responses measuring knowledge in HCD, only modest positive change was exhibited in the end of the series responses.

2. Inviting influencers and expert guests increases relevance and drives attendance 

Bringing in local experts to talk about how they applied HCD skills and methods to enhance their work helped us to further establish the relevance and value of HCD. In addition, involving key government decision-makers from the local context to give opening remarks helped attract a rich variety of participants, and was particularly important in drawing participants from government agencies.

3. Investing in participant interaction pays off

It became evident to us that including a component for participant interaction in the webinar series design was crucial for sustained audience engagement. Virtual Network participants appeared to especially appreciate opportunities to try out practical applications of HCD theory through activities, however small. In addition, it was important to provide opportunities for participants to interact with one another, as networking and sharing experiences turned out to be a major reason for participating in our webinars.

4. Introducing responsive feedback mechanisms has multiple benefits

We noticed that there are multiple benefits to establishing a continuous feedback loop with online participants. It enabled us to tune into their needs and wishes as well as to iterate the event format and content to better suit participants’ learning needs. Furthermore, getting real-time feedback from the participants acted as a motivating factor for the Scope team, making the results of our work more tangible.

5. Including multi-sectoral case studies enhances the learning experience

Although the Virtual Network series was designed with public health professionals in mind, many of them welcomed the opportunity to learn from case studies outside of their own sector. Thus, mixing learnings from multiple sectors can be a good strategy for better catering to the needs of participants and, at the same time, for enhancing knowledge sharing across silos and interdisciplinary collaboration.

Logo of Core Nigeria's Virtual Network depicting two persons on adjacent laptop screens with a web of light bulbs and thought bubbles connecting the screens.


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