Can visual thinking facilitate evaluation? WFP’s innovative approach to validation workshops

visual thinking
©WFP/Yumiko Kanemitsu

Can visual thinking facilitate evaluation? WFP’s innovative approach to validation workshops

Since the advent of the Internet, we have been living in a time of information explosion. As the amount of available data grows, managing all of that material becomes more difficult, which can lead to information overload.

We produce many evaluations and a huge amount of evidence each year – but how much information are we really digesting?

Michael Quinn Patton, Founder and CEO of Utilization-Focused Evaluation, says that the most notable trend emerging among leading evaluators today is the increased importance of visuals.  Visual tools, such as animation, infographics, and the use of graphic recording to present text and pictures during presentations, can help to transform complex information into more comprehensive “thinking tools”. However, many people might see visuals as less important or even childish. 

In my role as WFP’s Regional Evaluation Officer for Asia and the Pacific, I had the pleasure of meeting up with Keisuke Taketani, Graphic Facilitator, at the Asian Evaluation Week conference two years ago. During that encounter, we brainstormed the possibilities and challenges of combining visual thinking and evaluation facilitation. In the beginning, visual thinking in evaluation workshops was not easily understood by colleagues and government counterparts: What was it? Why was it important? What would come of it? Using visual thinking is not new to WFP. Participatory drawings have been used for evaluation at WFP Colombia, and a comic book has been used to explain the country strategic plan at WFP Lao PDR. And yet, for most people, applying visual thinking to facilitate the evaluation process was a new experience.

After some trials, the first visual thinking validation workshop took place in November 2019 in   Bangladesh, followed by Lao PDR and Myanmar in 2020.

How does it work?

Visual thinking validation workshops typically take two sessions: one at the community level and another at the national level. We emphasize community feedback on the evaluation findings with the people in the communities, and at the same time bridge the communication gap between the provincial and national levels.

The overall purpose of this approach is to provide a space to talk with the help of a presentation and graphic summary. In the process, stakeholders understand, discuss, and validate the key evaluation findings. They also identify and prioritize next steps, which then feed into a management response.

The community-level workshop gathers beneficiaries, sub-national government officials, local partners, and project staff. We explain the key evaluation findings in the local language and, with the support of visual tools and participatory dialogue, workshop facilitators also invite direct feedback from participants.

Graphic summaries and video recordings then bring the voices of the community into the national workshop. At national level, policy makers, partners, donors and WFP staff discuss the next steps in terms of priorities, importance, and feasibility.

Benefits of visual thinking in evaluation validation workshops

1) Engagement

The workshop process encourages participation at various levels – from national policy makers to people at the community level. Its inclusive and culturally sensitive process creates an environment in which all participants can feel safe sharing their views.

The graphic facilitator draws images that turn complex findings and recommendations into concrete and comprehensible messages. This helps to create meaning and understanding for the participants.

For an evaluation of a school feeding programme in Bangladesh, for example, some parents were illiterate. To make sure they understood the content of the evaluation, participants gathered around an illustration to validate the findings. The drawing lowered the barriers to participation and increased the level of engagement and collaboration.

2) The big picture

While good evaluation is all about the details, it should never get lost in the details. It is important to be able to see the big picture andmake broader connections. Illustration support from a graphic facilitator captures different aspects of a programme in one picture—its stakeholders, needs and demands--so that participants can clarify the relationships between them.

At a validation workshop of a local and regional procurement project in Lao PDR, an illustration captured an entire supply chain and the communities involved.  This helped participants to understand which challenges farmers faced, and what the key considerations would be for similar projects in the future.

3) Brainstorming for problem solving

The workshop provides space to reflect through visual thinking. The illustration captures not only what the evaluation says but also what it does not say – emotions, hidden context, biases and assumptions. Participants are invited to identify what worked well, what can be improved, and to brainstorm on what should come next. This allows them to revisit previous learning experiences as well as envision the full potential of a program.

4) Communication

The one-page visual summary resulting from the workshop has been well received by donors and management. Combined with a two-minute video, the essence of the workshop can be communicated easily to stakeholders and to a wider audience through social media and e-mails.

Next steps

The visual thinking validation workshop is based on the graphic facilitation technique. Facilitation can be used in different phases of evaluation, from scoping to design, from validation to dissemination. (More details are covered in the blog post "Why use facilitation in evaluation?”.) We are planning the next visual thinking workshop to cover baseline data collection and validation.

We are also looking into virtual workshops. In the midst of COVID-19, the WFP Myanmar office co-organized a workshop with virtual graphic collaboration tools. The quality of discussion was high and the meeting productive. In the beginning, people were skeptical about the  online validation workshop. However, it was proven that, with technology and good preparation, it could be a meaningful experience. This approach also significantly reduced the cost of the workshop. The main challenge of the virtual workshops, now, is how to engage people in the communities, and we are looking into more technological innovations to address this.