The life course journey tool: How a piece of fabric became indispensable to design research

Sep 3rd 2018

In Core’s design research field work, a long piece of fabric has been rolled out and used in many discussion sessions. Design Consultant Rose Matthews explains how the life course journey tool works       

Sexual and reproductive health in the course of women’s lives is a vast topic. When the Core project started its research phase, there was a need to create a tool, which would make it easier to organise the large amounts of information and steer the group through the complex subject. 
The life course journey tool was created to act as a ‘map’ for both the research team and the women who were interviewed.  


“Getting a conversation started is not always easy,” tells Design Consultant, Rose Matthews.

“In our Discover phase research, we used group discussions to learn about women’s lives. The life course journey tool is a timeline made from a long piece of fabric, which was rolled open, and the discussion group gathered around it. The idea is for participants to share health moments they have experienced and which have been important to them. Getting over cultural divides and creating dialogue can be challenging, so the tool is meant to make the situation comfortable.”

In addition to serving as an aid to organise the topic, the life course tool also made it easier for women to talk about their health. To make the life course as authentic and relevant as possible, the tools were different in each country and setting, explains Matthews.

Life course journey mapping has an entire family rapt while in use in Bihar, India

“In each country, we customised the tool for that setting. First, we created a template journey map based on research. We used local textiles to make the tool, and the fabric was then marked with points to represent crucial health moments of a typical woman’s life.”

The research was informed by life course theory, and the key  moments ranged from infancy to menarche, marriage, and grandmotherhood, among others. 

“Not every possible scenario can be squeezed onto a single journey map,” Matthews reminds us.

“It’s most effective when it’s realistic for a specific individual. If several scenarios need to be explored, it is best to create multiple journey maps.”

Visualising health journeys

When conducting the field research, Matthews and her team found, that using images as a starting point was helpful. 

First, women were asked to place stickers with different pictures, emoticons for instance, on the timeline to indicate different life moments and the feelings related to them. After key events were marked on the timeline in this way, the team would probe them further. 

Life course mapping tool in use in Tanzania

Life course mapping tool in use in Tanzania

“By pinpointing events on a timeline, we were able to question and explore the reasons behind a particular behaviour or event, in order to understand their significance. Often the conversations revealed patterns and correlations or commonalities between individual experiences in the particular setting.” 

The Innovation Lab as a testing ground  

Overall, the tool has helped Core ground design explorations in research. 

“Mapping the life course of real women has shed light on real life experiences, and  provided us with both the macro and micro visions of different health journeys. The tool helped identify challenges – and also possible opportunities for future interventions,” Matthews tells.   

Before applying them in the field, the team first developed the tools, and took the time to test them.

“We tested and refined the journey mapping tool with partners and experts at the Core Innovation Lab held in May 2018,” tells Matthews. 

“We had 30 participants at the lab, and together in groups, we plotted the life story of an imaginary persona called ‘Fatima’. She was a woman from the Hausa community in Nigeria. We mapped Fatima’s moments of health and wellbeing, from her perspective, across her lifespan. Once the baseline of Fatima’s past experiences was established, the groups plotted a future state that could exist if new intervention ideas were realised.” 

Core's life course journey tool