Human Centered Design in Haiti: User Research with Kay Tita

David Harris
October 1, 2017

About Kay Tita

Kay Tita is a sustainable community resource organization that cultivates partnerships, raises capital, and facilitates impact investing opportunities in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The organization was created by Haitian-American, David Pierre-Louis, inspired by the 2010 devastating earthquake that hit the country. Kay Tita, which means “Tita’s House” in Haitian Creole, is named after Pierre-Louis’ mother, Tita.

In 2017, the documentary film, Kenbe Fem, was screened in over 21 cities across six different countries. The film takes viewers on a journey along with Pierre-Louis as he travels from Seattle to Port-au-Prince in search of his mother amidst recovery efforts.

Kay Tita was founded shortly after the earthquake, with a vision to rebuild Tita’s house into a community resource center. The path toward construction is underway, and when the doors are opened, Kay Tita will be the greenest commercial building in Haiti. It will produce more energy than it uses, in accordance with the Living Building Challenge. The center will also house Impact Hub Port-au-Prince, and will join Impact Hub’s global network of more than 15,000 members located in over 80 locations. Impact Hubs are described as part innovation lab, part business incubator, and part community center that offers members a unique ecosystem of resources, inspiration, and collaboration opportunities to grow their impact.

In 2016, Kay Tita helped to launch the first annual Port-au-Prince Startup Week. Techstars Startup Week happens in over 75 communities in cities all over the world. The conference brings entrepreneurs and local leaders together over five days to build momentum and opportunity around a community’s unique entrepreneurial identity. Participants choose from events led by entrepreneurs that take place in various venues across the city.

About My Research Interests

During my time as a graduate student in the University of Washington’s Human Centered Design and Engineering (HCDE) program, I have had the opportunity to learn about many topics that have helped me in my career as a Program Manager working with teachers and students for TAF (Technology Access Foundation), in my current role as the Startup Advocate for the City of Seattle’s Office of Economic Development working with new tech companies, and as a board member for Kay Tita helping to connect Haitian entrepreneurs with resources. In my experience, the user-centered design methodology is a process that has been applicable in many situations I find in my work, whether building a product or technology, or creating a new service or program. Because of its iterative flow, I am able to investigate a topic using user research methods, think divergently about new ideas, or converge on a particular prototype before evaluating its effectiveness.  

In addition to design thinking principles, I have also been introduced to relevant theoretical concepts in human computer interaction that augment my experience and provide frameworks for inquiry. Often, these frameworks challenge designers to examine the bias they inherently carry and to critically observe the context of the environment they’re entering. As a person that identifies as a heterosexual male of African descent living in the United States, I have gravitated toward both post-colonial theory and self determination theory - concepts that I find most compatible with my cognitive orientation. Both theoretical perspectives are relevant to my interest and experience in helping to empower people and organizations in resource-constrained communities.

Post-colonial Theory

Post-colonial theory is a descriptive theory that attempts to assess the impacts of imperial power on culture from periods of colonization, including the current moment. Free, escaped, and enslaved Africans fought for, and won, their freedom from France in 1804, during the Haitian Revolution which was led by Toussaint Louverture in 1791. It was the largest and most successful slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere. After defeating chattel slavery and colonization by the French, Haiti became the first black republic in the world. It is difficult to decouple the fact that in 1825, France militarily forced the new country to pay for the five hundred thousand humans, which they equated to 150 million francs, with the fact that today Haiti has one of the lowest GDP per capita in the Americas.

In 2004, Haiti became the first former colony to demand reparations from its former colonial oppressor, but the demand was rejected. The United Nations has had a $350 million annual budget for its operations in the country, but is now set to leave by the end of 2017. In 2010, the UN was found responsible for a cholera outbreak that has killed close to 10,000 and sickened almost 700,000. Reparations to the victims of this outbreak were also refused after being petitioned for in 2011.

Self Determination Theory (SDT)

Psychologist Edward L. Deci explained that self determination theory asserts that humans have three intrinsic needs in order to accomplish positive well being and growth - relatedness, competence, and autonomy. Relatedness is the desire to feel connected to others, competence is the desire to master and be effective in our environment, and autonomy is having a sense of free will and personal initiative. A ribbon that appears on the coat of arms found on Haiti’s flag says, “L'Union Fait La Force” or “Unity makes Strength.” Also, the national motto found in the Constitution of Haiti is "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity." This accurately describes the Haitian people - self determined even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

As a person of African descent living in the United States, the influential beginnings and the consistent resolve of the Haitian people inspire me. The effects of the “original sin” of slavery still impact my community today - physically, psychologically, and economically. Armed with the context of post-colonial theory and self determination theory, I was excited to work with Kay Tita and learn more about Haiti first-hand.

Action Research

The HCDE program has also allowed me to explore the field of HCI4D or Human Computer Interaction for Development. My research on the topic has revealed that the common deficit mindset of experts cannot be overcome by simply deploying participatory research and development. Instead, collaborative co-creation through long-term community engagement within the context of social, economic, and political realities is the direction that is necessary for appropriate technologies to emerge from developing regions.

With these concepts in mind, during my time working with Kay Tita, I sought to support an emancipatory process, similar to user-centered design, through the action research methodology. I’ve previously written about action research in the paper, “The Inquiry Spiral: Action Research in HCI”. The action research method aims to empower subjects and uncover sustainable solutions to local problems via an iterative and reflective process. The method accounts for the bias of the researcher, as well as recognizes the value of the subject’s context and perspective in each step of the research process. Action research brings the tension of power between subject and observer to the forefront by empowering subjects as researchers for the purpose of producing new knowledge and change.

Action research can be seen as a spiral of planning, action, and evaluation. Breaking this spiral down even further, we see problem formulation, design of an intervention, action, observation of the effects of the action, reflection, and then back to formulation of the problem using new knowledge from the previous cycle. The problem that Kay Tita sought to learn more about was the lack of sustainable systems that connect local Haitian entrepreneurs with the Haitian Diaspora community abroad. Pierre-Louis identified mentoring as one of the key resources that could have a significant positive impact, and that is where I started the focus of my work during the project.

Kay Tita, Founder, David Pierre-Louis, Microsoft Hack For Good Event

How might we connect the Haitian Diaspora community?

Microsoft Hack for Good Event

Kay Tita was selected to participate in Microsoft’s 2017, “Hack for Good” event - a one week hackathon where teams are formed to demonstrate new ways for Microsoft talent and technology to help solve the world’s greatest societal problems. Although there are wicked problems in Port-au-Prince, we believe that harnessing the collective skills, value, and creativity of the Haitian Diaspora community could be a benefit to not only local Haitian entrepreneurs, but to the world as well. With a vision to deploy this asset via a technology platform, we approached the hackathon with the following objectives:

  1. enable local Haitians to seek targeted assistance from the Haitian Diaspora community;
  2. empower the Haitian Diaspora community to provide assistance in a sustainable and accountable manner;
  3. and to facilitate awareness and collaboration amongst the Haitian Diaspora community.

As the project team formed, there were many backgrounds represented - Haitian-Americans, African-Americans, European Americans. There was also a diversity of experience - product management, design, engineering, and business development were some of the skills represented. Since only a few of our team members were familiar with the work environment in Port-au-Prince, a deep dive into life in Haiti was necessary to ground our thinking. Semi-structured interviews, along with a survey, were conducted in order to identify current constraints, and affordances (see Table 1).

During the week at Microsoft, the team of about 7 people used this context in order to create personas, ideate around technical solutions, and build a prototype. The first iteration of the solution allowed for intake of information about local entrepreneurs in Haiti and their relevant needs, and matching of those needs with experts from the Haitian Diaspora community using html, Linkedin API's, and Google Forms. The next step was to execute deeper collaboration and evaluation of the prototype with entrepreneurs in Haiti.

Port-au-Prince Startup Week

During the week of the 2017 Port-au-Prince Startup Week, I traveled to Haiti to better understand Haitian culture and to work with local entrepreneurs in creating the mentoring platform. Kay Tita was one of the sponsors for the conference, along with other organizations that support entrepreneurs in the region, like Activeh and Impact Ayiti. Although I had to work with a translator to understand the content of the workshops, I could easily recognize the passion and pure ambition that was present. It felt amazing and inspiring to be amongst so many people that were starting and growing businesses, in spite of obstacles that would easily halt most people from action.

The first event I participated in was a panel on mentorship, where I was able to share my thoughts on being a mentor, approaching a mentor, and working with mentors. It was insightful to hear the perspectives of how people in Haiti maintain mentor relationships, formally and informally, and to compare and contrast this process with my experience in the United States. Much of the mechanics were similar, however tools like Linkedin were not as widely used.

In between workshops on drones, virtual reality, 3D printing, branding, a blockchain hackathon, and kompa vibes provided by DJ Sabine, I was able to hold a session dedicated to connecting participants to mentors along with Pierre-Louis and Nzingah Oniwosan, Director of Communications of Impact Hub Port-au-Prince. The session was split into three phases:

  1. semi-structured interviews with entrepreneurs that captured relevant information for use in matching with a mentor;
  2. an interactive design thinking workshop that facilitated co-creation;
  3. and a presentation of ideas from participants.

The interviews and the design thinking workshop happened simultaneously. While the entrepreneurs were interviewed by Kay Tita volunteers in an adjacent room, I started by explaining the design thinking process, which is much like the user-centered design methodology - empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. Attendees rotated between participating in the interviews and joining in on the workshop.

One of the most fun times I had during the trip was the warm-up exercise before the ideation portion of the workshop. The group was split into two teams of about 10 people each. Both teams got 5 minutes to think about how they would redesign a banana, and then present sketches of their ideas. Next, each team critiqued the other’s sketches and practiced giving generative feedback. The teams carried their excitement into the ideation phase of the process, where they got 15 minutes to brainstorm how they might connect local entrepreneurs with mentors. The remaining time in the workshop was spent presenting results from the previous brainstorm. Although Kay Tita came to Port-au-Prince with a mentor connection prototype, we were aware that the perspective that informed the initial design was skewed, since previously the only users involved in its creation were people from the Haitian Diaspora community. The workshop allowed for co-creation with the other user group, validation of previous insights, and a more informed iteration of the future prototype. It also built trust between Kay Tita and the participants, who might be future users of the platform.


I am grateful to be able to contribute to this project using the knowledge that I have accumulated from my time in the HCDE program, such as user research methods and usability studies. I am also very appreciative of what I was able to learn from Microsoft employees during the Hack for Good event, namely the customer journey mapping exercise we went through. The project is still ongoing, and the next step will be to translate all of the feedback and ideas from Haitian Creole to English. I’m looking forward to keeping in touch with all of the people that I met during my time on this project, and continuing to help Kay Tita with the next iteration of their platform.

Impact Hub

Impact Hub Port-Au-Prince takes an authentic approach to developing community, inspiring members through sustainable practices. Emphasizing progressive inclusivity and transparency, Impact Hub aims to preserve and expand Port-Au-Prince’s creative and thriving entrepreneurial culture. We hope to reach maximum effectiveness with the intentional practice of accountability. Guided by love, respect, honor, and trust, we always seek to refine, elevate, and restore the health of our community.

Infinitum Humanitarian Systems

will direct a training and operations program within Impact Hub called GeoHaiti. GeoHaiti trains adults on geospatial information systems (GIS) that serve to improve community disaster resilience. Training topics include community communications, water and sanitation management, environmental preservation, public health measures, community disease surveillance, sustainable infrastructure, and hazard analysis.

Living Building Challenge

Kay Tita will be the greenest commercial building in Haiti since it will be constructed according to The Living Building Challenge (LBC) standards, considered the most rigorous environmental performance standard. People from around the world use this regenerative design framework to create spaces that produce more energy than they utilize.


MUCE EDUCATES is an organization co-founded by Barthelemy Mervil, David Pierre-Louis’ brother, and utilizes arts promote intercultural exchange and to bring an end to cyclical poverty. MUCE is committed to teaching the visual arts to youth in urban areas so that they may compete in the global market. The organization provides educational workshops and opportunities for the emerging labor force with an emphasis on production in arts and culture.

Haiti Coffee Co

Haiti Coffee Co. is a U.S. based company that imports Haitian Coffee while working towards infrastructure development that directly benefits the farmers from whom they source. The organization provides solutions that address deforestation, environmental sustainability, agriculture training, and infrastructure development.

Impact Bio Energy

Seattle‐based startup, Impact Bioenergy, manufactures and sells bioenergy systems that convert organic waste materials into renewable natural gas and fertilizer with zero waste.

Ambient Water

Ambient Water (formerly AWG International) is Washington state based company that uses  a patented technology that transforms humidity into an abundant source of safe, clean water.

Startup Week

Startup Week brings entrepreneurs, local leaders, and friends together over five days to build momentum for their vision for change.

The DoSchool

The DoSchool develops experiential learning programs centered around innovation and facilitates opportunities for entrepreneurs to move from ideation to implementation.

Yes Baby I Like It Raw

Yes Baby I Like it Raw helps people tap into their raw potential and “process the unprocessed life” by developing health and wellness programming such as yoga meditation, and nutrition.

Days for Girls

Days for Girls puts freedom and opportunity back into the hands of women and girls by providing sustainable hygiene solutions.