Kahani is an online educational tool for non-English speaking refugees and volunteer ESL tutors.


Project Background

For my senior capstone project at Carnegie Mellon in 2014, I worked on a team with Sun Park and Cristina Shin to investigate how design can help refugees integrate into their host society.

Pittsburgh has a growing population of over 4,000 resettled ethnic Nepali refugees from Bhutan, so for this project we worked closely with members of FORGE, a tutoring and mentoring program that pairs student volunteers with refugee families.



My main contributions were conducting and synthesizing research, problem framing, ideation, and translating research into actionable insights for the design concept. Additionally, I was responsible for communicating the project to different audiences for pitches, presentations, and final documentation.


Research Methods


Interview with a Caseworker

From literature reviews and interviewing a resettlement agency caseworker, we learned about the connection between refugee integration and community isolation faced by the growing Bhutanese refugee population in Pittsburgh.


  Image source:   90.5 WESA / Erika Beras

Shadowing and interviews with Tutors

We worked closely with members of FORGE, a tutoring and mentoring program that pairs student volunteers with refugee families. Through interviews with FORGE members and shadowing their tutoring sessions at refugees’ homes, we found out more about the Bhutanese families and the challenges they face when connecting in new contexts.


  Image source:  CMU FORGE

Image source: CMU FORGE

Problem Reframing

  Image source:   MPR Photo / Laura Yuen

Image source: MPR Photo / Laura Yuen

As we started to synthesize our research, we realized that the experiences between adults and children were very different. We saw that narrowing our scope to adult refugees could have a greater impact.


Problem statement

“Adult refugees face many challenges when integrating into their host society because they come unprepared to acquire new, unfamiliar cultural and language knowledge that is needed to live self-sufficiently.

Effective English as a Second Language (ESL) classes are not always accessible to refugees, nor do volunteer tutors know how to provide for the immediate learning needs of non-English speaking, illiterate individuals.

Design can make integration smoother for adult refugees by helping them become more aware of what cultural and language knowledge they don’t yet know in order to make the interactions between tutors and refugees more impactful.”


The process of Problem Framing

I also explored the subjective nature of “problems” and the importance of problem reframing in a research paper for another course. The paper connects our findings to other theoretical frameworks about refugee resettlement in addition to going more in depth on our own research findings.



Insights and Opportunities

Practice makes language stick, but refugees may not have enough time or energy to devote to the task.

Connecting language learning with cultural knowledge that can be used in everyday life makes the material relevant and can enable them to achieve greater goals.


Children act as translators for their parents.

We chose refugee parents as our target audience to help them achieve self sufficiency and rely less on their children.


Written translations aren’t effective when teaching illiterate refugees.

Visual and audio communication, rather than text, can be used to help parents practice English while tutors are away.


It is difficult for refugees to recall and convey the questions they have out of context.

Audio recording can help refugees remember their questions. Knowing what they don’t know is the first step to gaining new knowledge.


Volunteers don’t have ways to easily share insight or give advice to other members.

Enabling communication between tutors can provide a way for them to share teaching methods with one another.




As a team, we generated a large number of concepts ranging from physical to digital product solutions.

We decided to focus on the concept for a multimedia digital teaching tool that can be used by tutors with illiterate refugees.

As we developed prototypes and the branding identity for this design, we incorporated FORGE member and peer feedback into our refinements.




Kahani means “storytelling” in Nepali. It is an online educational tool for non-English speaking refugees and volunteer ESL tutors. It allows tutors to create and share image-based stories in order to teach cultural and language knowledge that is relevant to the everyday lives of refugees.


How it works


Refugee Interface

The interface and branding for refugees are designed to be simple and intuitive. The UI is designed for users who do not speak English and are not experienced using digital technology. Here you can view our digital prototype for the refugee.


Tutor Interface

The interface for Forge tutors includes a content management system for publishing, editing, and modifying stories they create. Here you can view our digital prototype for the tutor.



  • Frame – and reframe – the problem to drive focus for design and be open to ambiguity.
  • Leverage the relationships that stakeholders already have with the target group. At first we we designing for refugees, but then switched midway to design as an aid for the volunteers as well.
  • As not your typical project for an Industrial Designer, I realized my interests and skills fit best with the role of researcher in this project. While my teammates focused on the actual design, I made sure our insights aligned with our concept and I told the story of our process.


Cover photo image source: Crosscut / Tom James