Design Research Internship Prison (2014)

For 5 months, I worked as design research intern in the prison of Vught, the highest security prison in the Netherlands.

Project Info:
Time: 5 Months

PI Vught


For my master research project, I got the unique opportunity of conducting a research study in prison. For 5 months, I worked as design research intern in the prison of Vught, the highest security prison in the Netherlands.

Back in 2013, the Dutch government came with a proposal to introduce tablets for prisoners, to improve their self-reliance and reduce the administrative tasks of prison guards. Since then, the project had been developed as a business case but the human-side lacked behind. 

During my internship I researched the opportunities and challenges for introducing a digital information system for staff members and prisoners.

I conducted in-context research with prisoners and staff members based on various ethnographic and participatory design methods and used this to create prototypes for user validation. The results were communicated in a research report, digital prototypes and a video that was produced in prison. The results of the project are currently used in the development of new systems, rolling out in the upcoming years.

But why?

During my bachelor I became fascinated with human-centered design and the power of contextual research. What I love about design is getting to know the context and translating the findings of research into meaningful solutions for that context. During the master research project, my goal was to learn more about ethnographic research by pursuing a project in a challenging context. I came in contact with the prison in Vught and was immediately triggered by the unique environment. Although it is around the corner, it’s a completely different world that you normally won’t see from up close.

The front door of the prison in Vught.


To conduct contextual research, I used various qualitative methods, mostly drawn from ethnography and participatory design practices. I started by deploying research probes, conducting interviews and contextual inquiries to get to know the context. Later on in the project I used focus groups to elicit discussions and used a methodology called co-constructing stories to validate and create scenario’s. What I like about these qualitative research methods is that they allow for an iterative process, where the findings of a research step result in new questions for future research activities. What I liked about being in the same context for a longer period of time is that I could not only experience working with different methodologies but also learn about their effectiveness in this specific context.


The classic ‘fly on the wall observation’ where you don’t interfere with the context didn’t work out well, as you’re always noticed in a high security context. Before talking or observing, people wanted to know who I was and what I was doing. When meeting people for the first time they were often sceptical, mainly due to bad previous experiences with digitalization. I became the first contact in hearing about their frustrations. This resulted in a role I didn’t expect to have beforehand: being an advocate for the project. In the end it was in these discussions that I learned the most about peoples worries and preconceptions.

As the systems I was researching were not yet introduced, I learned how hard it was for the staff to think about their wishes for the future. When asking open questions, the response was often very limited. Thomas Wendt calls this the problem-solution paradox.

“What I like to call the problem-solution paradox states that we cannot think about solutions until we understand the problem, and we cannot understand a problem until we think about solutions.”

Thomas Wendt, Design for Dassein

I therefore started with creating interactive prototypes and future scenario’s based on initial research findings, I used design and storytelling as means to gain feedback. I noticed that these prototypes really helped in eliciting new ideas and refinements, both with prisoners, staff and the management. I ended up doing “research by day, design at night”. 


The initial focus of the project as initiated by the government has been on the introduction of a tablet for prisoners. However, little focus was given to the development of a supporting infrastructure for staff members. I therefore proposed a more holistic information system that can be accessed from different devices, to streamline communication between prisoners and staff and between staff members. Based on research with prisoners, staff and the management, several scenarios were created where digitalization could have a large impact on daily practice in prison. For example, improving the workflow of reporting and the communication about incidents between different teams and shifts. An important focus was to balance what communication can be done digitally and what has to be done in person. The end-goal is that the staff spends less time on administration and logistics and more time in conversation with the prisoners.

To support these scenario’s, I created interactive prototypes and designed over 100 screens to experience what the proposed system would look like in the future. The final video shows how the system would be used in the context of the prison. The video has been used in meetings of the managing directors of all prisons in the Netherlands and some of the research insights and design decisions have made into the development of the final system. Unfortunately, the video and research report are under a confidentiality agreement but you can see a small sample of screens created for the project below.


I hope you enjoyed this project.

How about looking at another one below?!