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The author showing a family their picture used as an incentive for early birth registering. © UNICEF Nicaragua/2013/Jiron

Prototyping Innovations – Flexible approaches to introduce novel ideas in development

I arrived in Bilwi, the capital of the Northern Atlantic Autonomous Region of Nicaragua, on a hot morning during the rainy season with one mission: to prototype. Prototyping is a technique commonly used by designers to quickly move from an abstract idea to action. It helps identify the strengths and weaknesses of this idea to determine if it has functional value at an early stage. We decided to introduce this concept to test an idea that emerged during our first international crowdsourcing challenge on “how to increase demand for birth registration services.”

I felt anxious. Will it work? Will people come? Will they feel motivated by the prospect of receiving a simple photo? The answers to these questions came as soon as I arrived in the jam-packed auditorium where the prototype was to take place.

“[Prototyping helps]…determine if the idea has functional value at an early stage.”

The average registration rate before was about 10 to 12 children registered a week. During the week of the prototype (24-28 July), we had at least four times that amount. Anicia, Bilwi’s vice-mayor, noted with surprise how many mothers were accompanied by their partners who waited patiently for their turn to register their children.

Granted, the space chosen for the prototype was comfortable, with nice chairs and airconditioned, so ‘waiting’ wasn’t so much of a sacrifice. But that’s what using a human centered design approach is all about. It helps you understand how people experience public services directly.

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Parents wait patiently to register their children and smile in front of their cameras. © UNICEF Nicaragua/2013/Jiron

It was a rewarding process. Most parents wanted simple guidance on how to register their children (e.g. what kind of documents they needed, if these documents had to be original, what would happen if they didn’t have the documents, etc).

I’m not an expert in birth registration. But this experience has taught me that you don’t need to be one to make public services more accessible and simple. First you need to be willing to do so. Then you have to make the process simple by paying attention to how people feel when they use those services. I was there to listen and help. As a result, my attitude and my experience created a symbiotic relationship of value creation, where we all gained.

Yet, it was also a bit frustrating. It was hard to see parents not being able to register their children because they missed one document or didn’t have a photocopy of it. They would return home and perhaps not come back.

This felt like a huge missed opportunity. I wish we had a photocopier handy to tackle this bottleneck. I wish there was a lawyer available to deal with more complex cases of children older than one year. I wish that someone from the Ministry of Health could help confirm through a well-kept database institutional births when parents failed to present the required documents. Finally, I wish I could make the process less complicated and maximize cross-sector coordination for child rights.

Day-by-day, I got used to being part of this journey, to get to know people better, to understand their different needs, aspirations and limitations. I was proud to be part of an initiative that placed more emphasis on solving bottlenecks without having to revert to lots of money and reforms.

Truth be told. While we aimed to prototype the idea of photos, we ended up more with a ‘demo.’ For instance, we shouldn’t have moved places from the regular Civil Registry office to the bigger and more comfortable auditorium. During a prototype, you want to start with the basic structure of the public service and slowly improve it.

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Fathers came in mass to accompany their partners in the registration process. © UNICEF Nicaragua/2013/Jiron

This is a new idea and we’re also learning. However, the ‘demo’ proved to be a great tool to show whether an idea had potential or not. I’m not sure if more people came because of the photograph. In fact, when asked, most people said they didn’t come for the picture.

But I saw differently. Not only the number of people quadrupled during the week of the demo, but people came in their best Sunday outfits, as families waiting patiently to have their pictures taken. Parents who came without their child would return the following day to have their pictures taken as a family. Plus, after the demo, citizens started complaining that services returned back to ‘normal.’ They wanted better services and were not afraid to say it.

It was a good approach to learn about the experiences of people who use and those who provide public services. The photographs were the perfect excuse to identify solutions – often small ones – applicable to the real world and get immediate feedback on their usefulness.

We quickly learned that simple changes could greatly help improve birth registration rates, such as extended days for registrations, more comfortable facilities that benefited both users and frontline service providers, birth certificates delivered in the same day, communication campaigns announcing the prototype, etc.

Above all, the demo allowed people to look at improving services in a different way: through trial and error. People were encouraged to experiment with small and feasible steps, creating an unprecedented commitment to continuously improving birth registration services and trying out different ideas to get there.

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A proud father shows the birth certificate of his daughter who was dressed in a beautiful outfit for the picture. © UNICEF Nicaragua/2013/Jiron

I want to continue supporting this solution-driven and highly experimental process. There have been meetings, for example, with different religious leaders on how they can help in the process. We’re also looking for ways to involve midwives.

The options are endless. In the meantime, I hold on to the memories of the shy smiles of parents as they proudly gazed at the pictures of their families. That moment made the right to a name worth a thousand words.

By María Gabriela Martinez
Social Policy Programme Assistant
UNICEF Nicaragua
mgmartinez(at)unicef.org

Read more about our innovative work in Nicaragua:

Designing for children

Pioneering entrepreneurship and design thinking for children in Nicaragua

The Sociopreneur Initiative

Design Thinking for Children

Read also about birth registration:

Making people count by counting people

Nigeria – Using RapidSMS for birth registration

Reaching the unreached: Innovations and child protection

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