By Laura Zhang and Shannon Randolph


Do you ever wonder how human-centered design (HCD) might be applied in the world? This summer, the Hive went abroad to Vietnam to pilot a Hive and EnviroLab Asia design research and internship program. A team of three students -Laura Zhang (PO ’19), Lena Tran (PI ’18), and Kim Ha (PI ’18) – and the Hive’s Director of Community and Global Engagement applied HCD to reframe an environmental-health issue and test out behavior change campaigns for bear bile reduction. Read more below and watch our homemade video about the process here!

The plan was to continue the last project Shannon had been working on with her postdoc at the San Diego Zoo and the animal welfare organization, Animals Asia (AA). AA focuses on on shifting consumer demand away from bear bile and ending the inhumane farming of moon bear bile. With support from EnviroLab Asia, the Pomona College Dean’s Office International Initiatives, and the Pomona College Internship funds, in June 2018, our team set off for Hanoi, Vietnam!

The primary reason that moon bears are captured from the wild and kept in small cages on bear farms is for their bile. Bear farmers extract the bile from the bears’ gallbladders (a painful process). They later sell the bile to people who use bear bile as traditional medicine to treat inflammation and liver and gall bladder conditions. There are now many readily available herbal and synthetic alternatives with the same medicinal properties. While it is currently illegal to extract bear bile in Vietnam, it is not illegal to keep the bears in captivity in small metal cages. Bears can only be rescued if the bear farmers voluntarily give up the bears or they are caught in the act of bile extraction (which rarely ever happens).

One way that AA has tried to advance the rescue of these bears is through their Health Day interventions. These interventions are targeted toward the villages around Hanoi that still keep bears and have residents who use bear bile. At these Health Days, AA brings in official traditional medical practitioners (TMPs) from the Hanoi Traditional Medicine Association (TMA). The TMPs offer free walk-in consultations to any residents in the village and prescribe herbal alternative medicines for conditions that patients may use bear bile to treat. Patients are educated about different herbal plants that they can grow in their garden, and they are given a small bottle of an herbal alternative medicine to bear bile.

AA’s hope is that through these Health Days, people will find replacements for bear bile or other animal-sourced products to maintain their health and stop using bear bile altogether. This would reduce the demand for bear bile, and hopefully make bear farmers more willing to give the bears up. Once rescued, the bears live out the rest of their lives in AA’s beautiful Tam Dao sanctuary, where they are cared for by an amazing international veterinary and caretaking team.

As conservation is a slow progressing field, we knew we couldn’t help AA solve the problem in just one month. Our goal was to implement the HCD process and identify key ways that the Health Day interventions were working or not and where AA needed to focus their outreach efforts with target populations in the community.


How does HCD fit into this?


 We used HCD combined with additional social science methods (surveying and rapid ethnographic qualitative analysis) as our approach to assess this issue and identify points of intervention. HCD is a framework for creative thinking and out-of-the-box problem solving. HCD has five stages: empathy, define, ideate, prototype, and test. In the empathy stage, we conducted surveys and interviews with our target population to engage them and understand their deeper motivations for preferring bear bile among other medical choices. Using this quantitative and qualitative data, we drew insights that helped us define (or reframe) personas for our target audiences (also called users) and unexpected insights about user needs around which to frame this behavior change campaign. In the ideation stage, we used structured prompts, such as “How might we … (make herbal alternatives more accessible)?”, to brainstorm as many realistic or unrealistic ideas (100+) as possible. Then, with AA staff input, we selected the ones we thought were most feasible, most exciting, and most groundbreaking human-centered strategies to reduce bear bile demand to prototype. In the prototyping stage, we used very basic materials (post-its, cardboard, colored paper, simulations) to create prototyped experiences of our ideas, and then tested these prototyped experiences with original users to gain their candid feedback. Based on their candid feedback, we could determine whether our idea was something that our users would actually use, or whether the prototype needed more modifications or needed to be scrapped completely. In the times where our ideas were completely off, we needed to go back to the define stage, and reassess our user and our framing of their need-insight statement.

This process encourages one to fail early, and to keep the human aspect of problem-solving in the forefront – hence the name, “human-centered.” No matter what solution you personally think will work best, if the user doesn’t use it, then it doesn’t work. AA found this process to fit very well with their environmental non-profit work. In these spheres, trying to convince people to change something familiar to something unfamiliar is often the goal. In the conservation realm, solutions – or behavior change approaches – are also often presented from culturally-skewed perspectives. Without gaining a deep sense of empathy and understanding of the target audiences’ needs, organizations’ work can regress rather than move forward. However, a behavior change idea that fits the daily routines and implicit needs of the target audience (illuminated through in-depth observation and interviews) is much more likely to lead to a successful behavior change solution or campaign strategy.


Sample results from Design Process


Through the HCD process, we identified three key personas to engage, who were influential and had extreme (i.e. amplified) experiences and opinions about health decision-making regarding bear bile. These were: “respected male elder,” “granny,” and “reputable traditional medical doctors.” One example persona from our work – the “respected male elder” – was a respected patriarch of the family, who had suffered from long-term health issues without resolve and would only accept advice from a man of similar status (doctor or peer of same age group). He felt the need to maintain a masculine front in order to save face. He often reported being in fairly good health, but from time to time, would open up about his health accomplishments (e.g. overcoming a condition, regaining strength). These victory stories played a huge role in influencing how his peers – especially his male peers of the same status and age – perceived him. His stories informed how other men make their own health decisions.

Because his reputation of being a strong leader was very important to him, he didn’t want to waste time using medication that appeared mediocre, weak, or gentle. Herbal medicine was often perceived as gentle, weak, or slow to affect change, whereas bear bile and pharmaceutical medicine were viewed as strong and fast-acting. Thus, men who had had experiences using herbal medicine long-term and seeing lasting effects could speak to this being gentle in an effective, long-lasting way. They had shifted their opinions through personal experience about the necessity to have fast-acting, strong medicine, to desiring slower-acting but effective medicine.

Our prototype intervention idea was to identify and support respected men in the community who are already sharing health advice with one another to share their stories more widely, either through personal gatherings or through radio shows for men. AA could build upon this system of social hierarchy to identify reputable men in the community who want to grow their social capital by helping disseminate health knowledge.


Reflection on the process


AA found the HCD process, paired with evaluation surveys, quite useful for finding nuanced approaches to engage target audiences in the community. We were surprised to discover that the most important tools for shifting behavior already existed within the social fabric of the communities we engaged, in both the rural far North and in the peri-urban North around Hanoi. Older, high status men and women engage in their gendered, age-stratified groups in particular ways, sharing and exchanging health insights and knowledge. A conservation organization, such as AA, can amplify and support these existing messaging pathways or create similar ways of passing along health knowledge to more effectively achieve their desired conservation outcomes.

Contact Laura ( and Shannon ( if you want to learn more about these kinds of opportunities.

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