Dress tool: Interactive storytelling for sensitive conversations

Tanzania, Jan 24th 2019

The Dress tool allows participants to share insights about sensitive life experiences by using material and visual objects, and the power of storytelling.

The Core project has created a design research tool that makes it easy as well as fun to have sensitive conversations around sexual and reproductive health with, and about, adolescents. When working with adolescents, it is important to keep in mind the sensitivity of the age group, and the likelihood of being told about only one version of their lives. In order to avoid that, we made it easy for participants to build different kinds of personas, and different aspects of their lives using dresses and objects. For Core, that has helped us learn about the varied life and SRH linked challenges and experiences that mark the lives of adolescent girls in rural Tanzania. This tool can be adapted to build holistic personas for any purpose. The dresses and associated objects can be adapted to suit any gender, culture, and age group.


The objective of the Dress tool as used for Core is to:

  1. Create adolescent personas using dresses with material and visual objects.
  2. Discuss the adolescent’s life experience in context, with a view to understanding her approach to everyday life and the future.
  3. Make the sharing of information fun and not personal, so that participants don’t feel threatened or judged in any way.

◆ Young Tanzanian women participating in the Dress tool session


Essentials you’ll need to play this game:

  • Three blank white dresses, each made in a distinct style. For instance, for Core Tanzania, we were interested in adolescent girl personas so we created a strappy short dress, a knee length tunic and a sleeved long dress. For different purposes and with different participant groups you can use different kinds of dresses or other clothes.
  • Carefully selected images of all aspects of the adolescents’/participants’ life that are recognisable and serve as visual cues. We used five dominant categories within which we organised our images: People, Places, Emotions, Aspiration, Health linked objects.
  • Assortment of local everyday objects such as jewellery, fabrics, SRH objects such as condoms and sanitary pads. The more interesting and local the objects are, the better your conversation will be! The selected objects depend on the use of  this tool. 
  • Safety pins
  • Markers for notes
  • 1 facilitator


The Dress tool helps generate detailed and rich personas using blank dresses, local objects and visuals, and the power of storytelling. Participants are given images, a blank dress and everyday items. They then build imaginary personas onto the dress using the range of props provided to elaborate on her life story.


Participant profile
It is important to define your participant profile carefully. Typically this tool works well between smaller groups of same-sex participants.

Length of the session and size of the group
A typical Dress game tool session lasts for two hours. Depending on the approach and locale, the ideal size is 2-4 participants in a session.

Decorating the dress tool

◆ Participants were asked to decorate the dresses with everyday items and images, and to tell the groups the life stories of the imaginary personas through the items


1. Warm up
Mention that this interaction is meant to be fun. Since adolescents lead different kinds of lives, there is no single way of defining an adolescent’s life. So it is important for the purpose of the interaction to understand as many types of lives as possible. Remind the participants that this is not about them or their friends, or any specific person they might know. Iterate that the adolescent they will talk about is a fictional persona and characteristics attributed to it should be based on what they know and understand from girls around them. Let the participants know from the outset the approximate time required for the full interaction.

2. Generating descriptors to help build different kinds of adolescent personas
Ask participants to broadly describe the different kinds of adolescents they think are out there. This will involve the participants offering up descriptions for the persona. In rural Tanzania the participants gave descriptors like sweet, rude, pretty, studious, angry, and so on. A selection of these descriptors will then be grouped by the participants to form two personas.

Encourage participants to generate both positive and negative descriptors, as well as ensure the conversation is well-rounded and covers dimensions including social dynamics, psychological aspects, physical factors, economic concerns, and environmental factors. As a facilitator feel free to use the following prompts and use their responses as descriptors:

  • An adolescent is going through a tough health situation. What is it and why?
  • An adolescent is having a tough situation in love or with her family. What is it and why?
  • An adolescent is intent on studying a lot. How much and why?
  • An adolescent in need of money. How much and why?
  • An adolescent has a big secret. What is it?
  • Is the adolescent pregnant or a mother? 

When selecting descriptors to form personas, ensure that it is a mix between positive and negative ones to form balanced profiles. Iterate that no one is only bad or only good.

3. Developing two balanced profiles
Ensure through facilitation that the most compelling and balanced personas are chosen. Continue building each of the profiles, one at a time, but in a fun way. These two personas will form the basis upon which your conversation and findings will be built, so invest time in getting the participants excited about them, and to relate with them:

  • Have the group give them each a name
  • Have the group allot them both an age, but ensure the profiles are between the age group you want to understand – 15-19 years in the case of Core.

Lead the discussion in a way that all participants contribute, stay energised and interested.

4. Revealing the dresses
This is the fun part. Ask participants to visualise the persona they have created and suggest what this person would typically wear. Ask them to pick a dress for each profile. At this point, the facilitator must lightly probe why the particular dress was chosen for the specific profile. Explain to them that the dress is currently bare and simple, but it will be built with their help.

5. Pinning and profile building, layer by layer!
Lay out all the objects on the table, and ask the participants to build out the world of this person using objects, images, colour swatches, fabric cutouts, beads, stickers – anything from the assortment of given items – by pinning the objects onto the dress. 

Intersperse this building activity with light conversation, mentioning this is the key and fun part of the profile building exercise. Probe lightly into their choice of objects, and please ensure to engage with each participant. Request them to be as creative as they can, and they should feel satisfied with the persona they are bringing to life via objects. 

The dress tool

The dresses used in Tanzania in the Discover 2 phase for storytelling

Reveal one complete set of the visuals that you have created for this exercise. Keep the other set for the second persona.

The participants should be encouraged to stand up and actively engage with the cards and pinning activity. 

Encourage the participants to act out or expand on what they share as they pin, making this as informative and detailed as possible. Spend no more than 20 minutes on each profile.

Starting with one persona, use the prompts below to help them layer the profiles and think through the images that they wish to pin onto the dress. Participants may tend to say or create similar characters so encourage them to think about what makes each adolescent different from the other and how best to visualise that.

  • General
    • Ask the group(s) or individual to name the persona(s)
    • How old is she?
    • How does she behave? Is she timid, loud, soft-spoken, tall, confident etc.?
    • Attribute a colour to the dress even though it is plain!
  • Routine and Activities
    • Talk about her daily activities, what does she get up to?
    • Where does she go everyday or every other day? How does she get there?
    • What are her usual modes of transit? What does she prefer?
    • Who decides what she should do everyday? Does she make her own schedule?
  • People and Places
    • Who are the people she meets everyday or every other day? Why does she meet them often?
    • Where would she like to go everyday, and whom would she like to meet?
    • What are the places she does not like to visit, but sometimes has to?
    • Who are the people she likes the most? Is there someone she doesn’t like very much?
    • Who does she trust, and in what matters? Who does she turn to for advice?
    • What different kinds of advice does she need – about love, sex, friendships, school, money etc.?
    • Who does she prefer to avoid?
  • Feelings, Emotions and Aspirations
    • How is she feeling these days, in her head? In her heart?
    • What makes her happy?
    • What makes her sad?
    • What causes her to worry?
    • What does she think about everyday?
    • What does she dream of?
    • What does she dream of becoming?
    • Who does she consider a role model?
  • Aspirations, Dreams, Goals
    • Does she think about her future? 
    • What does she dream of? Not big ones, but even smaller daily dreams
    • Is there something or someone that she wants to become?
    • Does she have a role model?
    • What worries her about her future? Or her dreams?
    • What does she think could be challenges in following these?
    • Does she hope for something magical to happen? What is that?
  • Secrets (Confidential, optional)
    • Who does she turn to when she wants to share her deepest secret?
    • What sort of secrets does she hold in her heart?
    • Whispered into the ear or written and placed into an envelope
  • Health and body
    • Does she take care of her body? How so?
    • Does she have any worries with regards to her body or her health?
    • Does she think of what could keep her in good health?
    • What sort of things does she do, to ensure good health?
    • What are the sorts of things she should be thinking about, but doesn’t today?
  • Wrap up: Advice and Suggestions
    • What advice or tips would you share with this girl? On what and why would she need your advice?
    • How could life have gone different for her in the past?
    • How can life go differently from here on? What would you share with her, from your experience?

Next, follow through with the same activity for the second persona. At the end, ask them for any final thoughts on both, thank and close the session. Make sure to take photos of the dresses before packing them away.

◆ Amina’s dress is ready: she would wear a head scarf and traditional prints. Her dress also includes items for her baby and pictures of the people in her life.




























Tips and Notes

  • Remember to carry project consent forms translated to the local vernacular if necessary, including photo consent and minor consent forms.
  • Carry all tool materials to make the interaction seamless.
  • Bring an audio recorder, camera and notebook to capture interesting moments from the interaction. Ask participants if they’re comfortable being photographed and recorded (audio and video) for parts of the interaction.
  • As you get set to interact with participants, try setting a tone of humility as well as of inclusivity, flexibility and open-mindedness. Ensure they understand that in the interaction there are no right or wrong answers, and that everything they say is valuable!
  • Please be particularly sensitive when talking to young girls. We often wouldn’t know what experiences they are currently going through.
  • Start with introductions. Make sure everyone understands the basics before starting.
  • Make participants aware that they will spend about two hours at the interaction and acquire their verbal or written consent.