A website highlighting key principles and standards for humanitarian aid.

The goal of this project was to empower in-field humanitarian workers to make quality and informed decisions using Sphere Standards as their guiding principle.

sphere indicator generator key indicator page displaying on laptop.

Project Info:

October 2019
Client: Sphere
Team of 4
8 Weeks
Master Digital Design


UX/UI Design
Information Architecture
Design Research
Desk Research

project BackGround

Sphere is an international humanitarian organization with the mission to improve the quality of work performed by humanitarian crisis responders. The Sphere Handbook, a 500+ page print publication, is likely the mostly widely known tool in the field of humanitarian standards. Due to the handbook's length and complexity, it can take significant time to locate essential information. The handbook is meant to serve as a reference guide and its information must be carefully adapted to fit the crisis context.

Together with our client at Sphere, our team conceived a web platform which intuitively organizes and highlights key Sphere handbook content, creating links between related topics. The platform also enables users to customize their humanitarian program targets and to export this information into a report format so that they may share these internally or with other humanitarian agencies.

A mostly black and white, illustrated sketch of the four Sphere design team members.

problem space

Humanitarian workers rely heavily on essential handbook information which allows them to plan/assess crisis situations and to measure the impact of their program. There is immense pressure on them to locate this information in a timely manner. Our client at Sphere challenged our team to rethink and redesign the Sphere handbook in a digital form to reduce information overload and with the goal to increase the adoption of Sphere Standards amongst international NGO’s.

Another challenge our team faced was limited access to humanitarian workers for interviews and user testing. (Humanitarian workers have busy schedules and are often located on-site.)

  • What humanitarian challenges does the handbook solve?
  • What do humanitarians like/dislike about the handbook?
  • How is handbook information adapted and applied to different crisis contexts?
The 2018 edition of the Sphere handbook with a purple and white cover.


To better understand the problem space I dove straight into locating previous research on the usage of Sphere standards for humanitarian response. I soon located two comprehensive survey studies which outline: who uses the handbook, what sections of the handbook are considered most important, what its criticisms are and how internationally impactful it is.

I presented my research findings in a table summarizing the study method, findings, conclusions and ideas that I had while reading the article. I also organized my thoughts into three key themes:

  1. Fast access
  2. Context is key
  3. Pertinent information

While I conducted desk research, my teammates arranged a user interview with a Red Cross employee. Our interview questions focused around the topic of how humanitarian programs are organized and how the Sphere handbook is meant to help facilitate this process. Below are some examples of interview questions we asked:

  • What is your background in humanitarian work and what experience do you have with Sphere standards?
  • What is your approach to navigating the handbook. Can you walk us through an example?
  • How does the handbook supplement humanitarian programs during different phases? Is it consulted during some phases more than others? Why is that?
  • Are there handbook sections that you use more than others and why?

We used an empathy map to organize our interview findings. We also included user quotes from the open ended response questions in the two survey studies. This map helped our team to create a shared understanding of user actions, needs, pain points and emotions.

Next, my team and I created an experience map which depicts the stages of the humanitarian program cycle, when the handbook is most often used and user mindsets. We learned from our interviewee that users consult the handbook most during the “needs assessment and analysis” stage and that its technical chapters are most important during this time.


After spending significant time orienting ourselves with humanitarian work we were eager to start brainstorming solutions. Each of us sketched our own version of what a digital version of the Sphere handbook might look like. We created enough sketches to show a basic user flow and conducted user walkthrough tests with friends to see if they could perform simple tasks such as locating a specific piece of information from the handbook.

We discovered that our mock users desired visual clues to show current location within the handbook structure and how they might navigate backwards (or forwards) if necessary. We also discovered that these users would prefer to drill down to information by category rather than by keyword search because they lacked knowledge of Sphere terminology.

two human hands pointing to paper sketch of Sphere Indicator Generator prototype.

It started to become clear that we had important decisions to make about what handbook content to highlight and which additional features to include. We used a prioritization matrix to visualize overlap between client and user needs so that our design would appease all stakeholders.

This visualization helped us to realize that our design should:

  1. Highlight technical information from the handbook
  2. Focus on frictionless navigation
  3. Offer users customization


Our final design has a simple, but professional aesthetic which focuses user attention on the key handbook content needed to assess crisis situations. The colour palette sticks to the attractive and recognizable Sphere branding, and we used plenty of negative white space to avoid user fatigue and information overload.

sphere indicator generator style guide.

Our platform uses a beginner-friendly, sidebar navigation and filter design to highlight handbook structure. Users can modify or delete filter selections from any screen. Intermediate or advanced users can skip directly to the handbook content which they require.

Tables are used to show relations between the handbook targets and categories, and Wikipedia-style in-text hyperlinks are used for cross referencing. Key summaries of content are found at the top of each informational page and supplementary information is hidden under accordion-style menus.

Users also have the ability to edit suggested humanitarian program targets when these cannot be met or where the situation allows them to achieve a higher standard. Lastly, users can export handbook content, edited targets and notes into a standard report format to be imported into another tool, or to be shared with other humanitarian agencies.


The most difficult challenge during this project was orienting ourselves with the humanitarian program process. My team and I managed to overcome this hurdle by summarizing themes from past research studies to highlight user pain points and desires. We conducted usability tests with mock users instead of humanitarian workers, but this was okay as their approach to finding information would not be that different from someone who had minimal Sphere training.

Our design caters to beginner and intermediate users of the Sphere handbook and lays out the foundation for how future digital versions might be structured. Expectations for information finding are different from what they used to be when the Sphere handbook was first published - users want quick, digestible, and interactive information. Our Sphere design focuses on these requirements.