Collaborative Design Research in Uganda: Strengthening Health & Health Services

I feel so privileged to be part of a collaboration between the Dominican University in Chicago, USA and the NGO HENU (Health Nest Uganda) in Entebbe, Uganda.

I was invited to join the planning research team by bringing my designing research expertise into the field work in Uganda.

As Kristin Bodiford my friend and colleague at the Taos Institute was preparing for the field work of her students in a course on Community Based Participatory Research, she consulted me on research strategies to collect lived experiences of health services based upon shared stories of older persons and dialogues with health services professionals. The series of conversations ended up with me joining the planning research team as well as the fieldwork in Uganda.

The research focused on strengthening health and health services from the point of older persons and health professionals. What are the best practices, the best stories, the best resources that the community can lift up and expand? In this research, we practiced what I would call “the real collaborative research” where we managed to work with students, NGO partners along with older persons, their families, health professionals, and the community, investigating together new possibilities. We were on the field not just collecting data and creating knowledge, but also mobilizing people to engage, to reflect, to understand and to go beyond the given data, building on existing strengths to improve health across the life course.

The idea here was that researchers and participants together could investigate ways of designing research and practices from the perspective of the local context, always considering what people determine is most useful for themselves.

This view on research requires the reunification of many oppositions such as description and construction, fact and value, body/heart/mind, knowledge and power, inquiry and intervention, researcher and research process and outcome. That means research embraces action and inquiry as part of the same process.  It is also about promoting relationships and engagements by inviting participants to join the research process adding their own perspective, context, and knowledge.

Our design research followed the Inspiration-Ideation-Implementation steps.  Below some description of each phase:


Understanding better the topic, framing into research questions, and preparing to work as a team. We started by supporting the research team of students, Health Nest Uganda volunteers, and leaders from the Older Persons Groups to work together over the course of the week. They developed an action plan that included their roles, how they would engage in the research, and framed the general topic into questions for the home and clinic visits. The general topic was defined by Older Persons Groups that identified four areas of health that were most important to them including – nutrition, physical exercise, sanitation, and regular health check-ups.


Data collection. The research teams visited the homes of old persons, health clinics and hospitals and engaged in Appreciative Conversations about the actions people were taking to improve their own health, the health of their families, and the health of their communities.

Stories are an attractive and persuasive way to tap into collective knowledge and present and interpret learning from the research. Such an approach to research offers an opportunity to share learning in more appealing formats and brings the “data” to life in more useful ways. The invitation for the research was to collect stories of success, how people were addressing challenges, and how people want to move forward.


Making sense of data and creating action. We had a day for data entry and the next day we came up with ten possible themes to explore.

Besides co-creating data and opportunities, there is also an ethical obligation to share the knowledge produced, communicating in an accessible language that goes beyond the academic world, engaging all in productive dialogue. With this ethical intention in mind, the last day of research we invited the community back to help us make sense of all our data (stories).  We spent the day together, divided into groups – each group having at least one student, one member of the NGO, one health professional and one elderly person – where we were diving into the themes by exploring the stories collected by translating into action.

To help with this translation: from stories into action, we had the following general question to the group: “Based on the ideas shared, what do you hope to accomplish by the time students return next year?”  And then some detailed question like: What do you need to do in order to make that happen? How can you do it? What kind of resources do you need?

Through these questions the groups analyzed the data already creating scenarios of action for the year to come.

To see more pictures, click here!