An Epic Journey: Building the African CSO Excellence Awards Platform with EPIC-Africa

By Kennedy Kirui
iHub Consulting
  Published 15 Nov 2018
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How do you shine the spotlight on the excellent work that African Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) do across the continent? This is the main question that the co-founders of EPIC-Africa, Rose Maruru, and Adwoa Agyeman, asked themselves after having worked in the development sector for over 20 years. This question requires an urgent answer because a lot of the recognition and money in the CSO space go to international players, yet indigenous African CSOs play a significant role in our societies. Adwoa and Rose decided to launch the first African CSO Excellence Awards, a joint initiative between EPIC-Africa and the Rockefeller Foundation. The Awards highlight the importance of organizational capacity to achieve program impact and is open to all legally registered not-for-profit, or other classification of social purpose organization, founded and led by Africans, composed in majority of African staff and working on significant challenges impacting Africa. To learn more and apply, please visithttps://awards.epic-africa.org/.

iHub Software Consulting (iSC) worked with Epic Africa to design, develop, and launch the application portal for the African CSO Excellence Awards.

How it all started

We first met Rose in April 2018 when she was in Nairobi. She had reached out to iSC seeking to explore a tech partnership to help build the awards platform. Little did we know that this was the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration. It started small but over time grew into one of our major projects. In this post, I will attempt to capture the journey building the African CSO Excellence Award Platform. We started off with a technical advisory role, ran a usability study, took over the development of the platform, ran another usability test, launched the platform, and we continue to support it.

Step 1: Technical Advisory

When we met with the EPIC-Africa team, they were struggling to understand what the platform they were trying to build could do and which phase of software development it was at, since there was a sense of miscommunication between them and their development partner. We came in as their technical advisor to help bridge the communication gap between the team that was developing their platform andEPIC-Africa. Over 3 months, our lead engineer, Mike Manuthu, sat in on meetings with both teams to provide advice. His job was to ensure both sides were on the same page at any given time and he did a splendid job!

Step 2: Usability Testing

As big believers of the human-centered design approach, we always encourage our clients to get user feedback as many times as possible before product launch. One of the fastest and most affordable human-centered design methods is usability testing.

Usability testing is a UX research method used to evaluate how natural a product is to use. The tests take place with real users to measure how ‘usable’ or ‘intuitive’ a product is and how easy it is for users to reach their goals. Usability tests take place with real users of the product and not the internal team. It relies on the power of small data to surface critical challenges users face as they interact with a product.

To test the African CSO Excellence Awards platform, EPIC-Africa helped us recruit two cohorts of CSOs. Cohort one had small NGOs and community-based organizations. Cohort two had a mix of national and regional NGOs. Each group was made up of seven participants. The usability test had two key objectives. The first was to establish whether the messaging about the Awards resonated with the target users. The second was to understand whether the application process was intuitive to the users.

The original version of the Epic Africa African CSO Excellence Awards landingpage The original version of the Epic Africa African CSO Excellence Awards landingpage

From the feedback we got from the usability test, it was clear that we had to rethink everything. The messaging didn’t resonate well with the users, and most participants could not complete the application. Based on this, EPIC-Africa contracted us to redo the platform. It was time to walk the talk.

Step 3: Platform Rebuild

With three months to the launch, the iSC team started the rebuild. A customized Survey Monkey form was used to build version one of the platform. Our technical review showed us that it couldn’t work for what we hoped to build. The team that took on this included Mike (back-end), Dennis (front-end), Eric (Design), and Joy (Scrum Master). Our Communications Designer, Liz, later took over from Eric. They decided to build something custom. Python (Flask) powered the back-end while React powered the front-end. Mike created a RESTful API allowing Dennis to manipulate the data as required.

Before launch, the team had to deliver three essential items. A landing page to help visitors understand what the award is about and why they should apply, the application process, and a dashboard for Epic Africa to manage applications and offer support where necessary. Quite a tough challenge considering the short window before launch. Add the fact that the platform was in English and French and you have a big problem in front of you.

The landing page and the application process were built in parallel using one-week sprints to shorten the time it took to get feedback. The team convinced the Epic Africa team to use Slack for communication, and they are converts now. Two and a half months later, we were ready for the second usability test.

Step 4: More Usability Testing

Jo’burg (South Africa) and Dakar (Senegal) were the choices for the second usability tests. We worked with YUX Dakar, a design agency based in Senegal, on this. The test would allow us to get feedback from both French and English speaking participants. The objectives were similar to the first test. We sought to understand whether the messaging strategy and the flow resonated with the goals of the award.

Barring the South African visa challenges for our UX researcher (Kennedy Kirui), the test went rather well. The test in Dakar was done first and the Jo’burg test a week later. Before the test, we had reservations about the landing page we had developed and the participants quickly gave us the same feedback.

Version two of the landing page. It was too wordy and we quickly got thatfeedback Version two of the landing page. It was too wordy and we quickly got thatfeedback

The application process looks as follows.

The application process captures the key pillars used to evaluate the organizational capacity The application process captures the key pillars used to evaluate the organizational capacity

Most of the other sections worked as expected. Some interesting insights we got were:

  • Terminologies across the continent vary greatly. In SA, no one understood what the term CSO stands for
  • Most of our participants didn’t understand the autosave function. When asked to quit and resume later they couldn’t because they feared their application would disappear

Armed with this information, we did a final round of development then launched.

Step 5: Final Redesign

Most of the rework after the second usability test was on the landing page. The version we tested didn’t communicate well. With the application process, we had to do a better job with labeling and information hierarchy.

The concept developed by YUX Dakar profoundly influenced the redesign of the landing page.

The YUX landing page redesignsketch

The first version we had looked as follows.

The image didn’t communicate the African part well enough and didn’t show the judging criteria The image didn’t communicate the African part well enough and didn’t show the judging criteria

The design we settled on looked as follows.

The design depicted above is the live version of the Epic Africa African CSO Excellence Awardplatform The design depicted above is the live version of the Epic Africa African CSO Excellence Awardplatform

Step 6: Launch and further support

On October 15th, 2018 the African CSO Excellence Awards platform went live. We watched anxiously as the first applications trickled in. Nothing out of the ordinary went wrong. The team was there to support applicants stuck in the process and fix any bugs that appeared in the live environment.

Applications are open until 31st December 2018. To learn more / apply visit https://awards.epic-africa.org. We continue to support the Epic Africa team on this Epic journey.


iHub Software Consulting (iSC) is a design thinking and software development consultancy company working with corporates, startups, and NGOs to build products for African markets. We offer user research, design thinking workshop facilitation, and software development services. We are legally registered as Tanasuk Africa and established legally through an agreement between iHub Limited and Tanasuk Africa to co-develop the iSC brand.

Interested in our services? Reach out via [email protected]

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