Design Research Prison - Contextual research and design on digital information systems.


This project in 60 seconds

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

Back in 2013, the Dutch government drafted a proposal to introduce tablets for prisoners, to improve their self-reliance and reduce the administrative tasks of prison staff. Since then, the project had been developed as a business case but there was still a lack of understanding of how this proposal would impact guards and prisoners.

My role

I conducted in-context research to better understand the challenges and opportunities of introducing a new information system for prisoners and staff members. I used various ethnographic and participatory design methods to conduct research and used findings to create prototypes for user validation. The results were communicated in a research report, digital prototypes and a video that was recorded with participation of the staff within prison. The results of the project are currently used in the development of new systems, rolling out in the upcoming years.

The front door of the prison in Vught.


During the course of my bachelor, I became fascinated with human-centered design and the power of contextual research. I like to get to know a context and translating research findings into meaningful solutions for that context. For my master’s research project I wanted to challenge myself and learn more about ethnographic research by pursuing a project in a challenging context.

I got in contact with the prison in Vught and was excited about the unique working environment it would provide. Although it’s around the corner, it’s almost a mini-society with its own distinct set of systems, rules and methods.



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 with prisoners, staff and management and doing contextual inquiries to better understand the tools and systems used on a daily basis. I used the findings of one iteration to raise questions for the next iteration. Later on in the project I lead focus groups to elicit discussions and used a methodology called co-constructing stories to collaboratively create and validate scenarios about potential futures. 

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.


Fly on the wall?

Within ethnography, researchers often use a “fly on the wall” approach, observing a situation without interfering. As you can imagine, this approach doesn’t work well within a high-security context. When arriving at a new location, people wanted to know who I was and what I was doing. 

When meeting people for the first time they were often skeptical, mainly due to bad previous experiences with digitalization in the past. I became the first in line hearing about their frustrations. This resulted in a role I didn’t expect to have beforehand: being a spokesperson for the project. Instead of a more contemplative role, I often had to be actively involved in discussions. In the end, it was in these discussions that I learned the most about people's worries and preconceptions.

Product-Solution Paradox

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 more open questions, the response was often very limited. Design Researcher 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 Dasein

I therefore started with creating interactive prototypes and future scenarios based on initial research findings. I used design and storytelling as a means to gain feedback. I noticed that these prototypes really helped in eliciting feedback, new ideas and refinements, both with prisoners, staff and the management.


The initial focus of the project as initiated by the government has been on the introduction of a tablet for prisoners. However, while conducting research I learned that 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 and access to information for both staff and prisoners.

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 communicating about incidents that occurred between different teams and work shifts. An important aspect was to balance what communication can be done digitally and what communication (e.g. explaining the reasoning behind a rejection) 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 each other and the inmates.

  • pzi 1
  • pzi 4
  • pzi 3
  • pzi 2
  • tablet 1
  • tablet 2

To support these scenarios, I designed over 100 screens and created interactive prototypes to let people experience what the proposed system could look like in the future. The final video illustrates how the system could fit in within the context of the prison. The video has been used during meetings with the managing staff of Dutch prisons and the Department of Justice. Some of the research insights and design decisions have been used in 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.

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