Design Research

Applying ethnography to scale social change


Founded on the belief that education is every child's birthright, Bridge International Academies is a global chain of private schools dedicated to making the highest quality education available to children everywhere. By developing a technology-driven approach to teaching and classroom management, Bridge delivers the same exceptional education to every child, in every classroom. Each day, Bridge reaches over 100,000 children in emerging communities across Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Liberia, and India. 

My work for Bridge focused on customer experience strategy, with an emphasis on launching in Liberia.


Monique Jaques for The New York Times


As the Associate Director of Global Customer Strategy, I designed and executed ethnographic research in Liberia, in order to help Bridge and the Government of Liberia launch a public-private partnership of 25 new Bridge Academies throughout the country. I did this work in partnership with Jennifer Giroux, then a consultant at ReD Associates, and now Vice President and Head of Global Insights & Strategy at Bridge.

The initiative presented an opportunity to go beyond ensuring more children learning in classrooms. The opportunity to transform ineffective schools into schools that embody what all public schools in Liberia should (and can) become - powerful places of learning that provide parents, pupils, and teachers a stable, supportive environment they can trust, and opportunities and resources to help them reach their potential.

But change is rarely easy.

To build a powerful engagement strategy for launch, our team spent three weeks (April-May 2016) in eight different communities in Liberia. Immersed into daily life, we spent time with parents, educators, and local leaders in order to uncover meaningful insights.


This is education in Liberia: A girl is more likely to be married by 18 than to know how to read. The last two times the University of Liberia held its entrance exams, 15 students passed — out of some 38,000 who took the test. Only 59 percent of 6-to-11-year-olds are actually in school.

Tina Rosenberg, New York Times



  • Contextual inquiry
  • Expert interviews
  • Quantitative surveys using local researchers
  • Focus groups
  • Inquiry into social science best practices on social change research


To ensure a full understanding of our project, we explored a number of themes in our research plan.

Project Goal: What is the main value the Bridge brings to schools and communities?
Research Goal: Understand the educational needs, frustrations and aspirations of educators, parents and the community.  

  • Parenting: What are parents' dreams and hopes for their children's future? How does the child's school impact parenting?
  • Teaching: What are the challenges, needs and aspirations that educators have?
  • Learning: How do educators and parents know that learning is happening? What are markers of signifiers of success and progress?
  • Education: What are the different ways the community views education and the school system? What does a good education look like and what does it provide? 

Project Goal: What guidelines do we use when engaging schools and communities?
Research Goal: Understand how trust is gained by new organizations and initiatives.  

  • Making sense of the new: How do people understand and build trust in something, especially when it's new?
  • Social license to operate: How should communities be engaged in new initiatives?

Project Goal: Who do we engage and what are the tools needed to do so? 
Research Goal: Understand social and influencer dynamics in order to facilitate a change process.

  • Social networks (behavior): How do people organize during moments of change or disruption in their communities? WHat are the different (and most important) social circles and settings? How do they shape narratives and influence?
  • Information sharing (tactics): What are the physical and digital channels for sharing local news, rumors and gossip? What are the additional touchpoints and processes?  


1.) Finding Power Through Order
In a land of lawlessness, schools that have strong systems of order become a place of trust & power.

Key Finding
Government institutions, such as public schools, tend to be places of powerlessness – a battle all stakeholders feel like they are losing. In turn, people actively seek a gateway out of this system and into systems of order, through which they step into a more powerful world – one where they feel confident and cand start to build trust.

Supporting Data

  • Parents and educators consistently spoke about private schools as being more trusted because they feel like there are rules that are being followed and enforced.
  • Both men and women find turst and power in social savings groups where systems and benefits keep members in check.

Strategic Implications

  • Communicate that Bridge Partnership Schools are powerful schools that can be trusted.
  • Reignite teachers' passion for trasforming lives through education by building pride and respect through narratives, events and peer-to-peer recognition that celebrates the role of the teacher.

2.) Bring Parents Along
To build an engaged parent body, parents need to be lifted up along
the way.

Key Finding
Weak PTAs often mirror weak schools, while strong PTAs often mirror stronger schools. At the heart of active PTAs are confident parents that are invited to engage the school and feel encouraged when they do.

Supporting Data

  • More confident parents found purpose when they observed, acknowledged and/or took the extra time to ensure their children were learning.
  • More confident parents are more active in the management of their child's school.

Strategic Implications


3.) Co-Create to Commit
Communities need to be invested in transformative interventions in order to find meaning, belonging & ensure longevity.

Key Finding
On the surface, communities can seem weak and fragmented. But looking more closely it's clear that when a community is collectively engaged, they have tremendous strength and capacity to co-create and facilitate positive change.

Supporting Data

  • NGO and international development projects that require shared investment to initiate are commonly successful in Liberia, including Community Health Committees, which helped end the Ebola outbreak.

Strategic Implications

  • By making people true partners, we create communities they desire to be a part of and a deep, enduring sense of engagement and ownership.

4.) Listen - Learn - Act
To transform perceptions & shape a positive narrative, information sharing & storytelling must drive communities to act.

Key Finding
Word of mouth is important, but when communities are presented with a framework for action, they are able to make sense of an initiative or change and develop a stronger sense of agency and ownership in the process. 

Supporting Data

  • Ebola response and the Listen - Learn - Act framework
  • Community members proudly wearing key identifiers that signified their link to a cause and desire to talk about it.

Strategic Implications

  • Tapping into the Listen - Learn - Act framework, outreach efforts should be built on community organizing dynamics, markers and artificats.

Monique Jaques for The New York Times


The result of our research process unconvered a new value proposition & insights that build the foundation of our engagement strategy in Liberia.


The new Bridge schools in Liberia have had promising results. The Ministry of Education recently gave Bridge an 'A' rating on the basis of 'significant quality of implementation' and agreed to open 43 additional schools in the second year of the pilot, for a total of 68 Bridge schools operating in Liberia.

Liberia, Desperate to Educate, Turns to Charter Schools, New York Times

Our Liberia engagement strategy layers on the global CX strategy & principles we developed. 

CX Brief 7-1914

Additional Work

TeachingProject type

ResearchProject type

StrategyProject type

ServiceProject type

User ResearchProject type

User InterfaceProject type


Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn