Designing information and communication technologies for development

A few weeks ago I was invited to give a guest lecture on information and communication technologies for development in a course on political economy of development at the University of Sydney. The course is taught by Dr Elizabeth Hill, who has done very interesting research on work and care dynamics in the Indian economy.

In the talk I gave an overview of our projects Hello Africa, Zanzicode, and the Seaweed farming study from a human-centred design perspective. Aspects that we discussed in the lecture included methods for understanding the context before doing a project in a development context and how to design for sustainable interventions. I referenced IDEO’s open source human-centred design toolkit which was developed for social enterprises and NGOs. The toolkit describes design techniques that consider the aspects of desirability, feasibility, and viability. The techniques are structured into the phases ‘hear’, ‘create’, and ‘deliver’. Similar to other design frameworks, these phases suggest to start with concrete observations about people in the beginning of a project, to move towards more abstract thinking in the phase of creating ideas, and then back to concrete solutions when delivering the project.

The message at the core of my talk was that focusing on the product or service alone won’t necessarily lead to a successful intervention even if it’s technologically really well delivered. The techniques covered in the toolkit support the consideration of other human-centred layers that will play an important role but might be easily overseen.

In that regard I recently read a very interesting article on why great technology alone is not the answer, as well as the even more interesting responses by Tim Brown from IDEO and Paul Polak from iDE. Tim points out the importance of focusing on the entire chain of how a product reaches and impacts people. Paul talks about the need of establishing an effective communication channel. If no one knows about your product or service no one will be able to benefit from it. Paul describes a case study where they trained local people to install pumps and hired village troubadours and theatre groups to write and perform songs about the pumps, which I think is an amazing story from which there is much to learn.

The slides from my talk are included below and published under CC on slideshare.

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Designing information and communication technologies for development
was published on 27.10.2011 by Martin Tomitsch. It files under global
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Notes from the Workshop on Ethics, Roles and Relationships in Interaction Design in Developing Regions

Yesterday, the workshop Ethics, Roles and Relationships in Interaction Design in Developing Regions took place in Uppsala, Sweden and around the world, as people where joining presentations and discussions online including from the UK, Madeira, and Malaysia. The workshop is part of the INTERACT2009 conference, which takes place from 24-28 August.

Eight very interesting papers were presented and discussed during the workshop. For example, Andy Dearden raised the question of how to analyse the risks of unintended consequences; Maira Carvalho investigated different approaches for designing interactive systems at a distance, where researchers don’t have access to the users; Chu Yin Wong presented a user-centred design process for developing a mobile community service addressing the deaf in Malaysia; Eugene Danilkis and Sofia Nunes presented results from their field research on mobile banking in Mozambique; Pam McLean talked about the work she is doing at Dadamac, and how this can benefit researchers.

An important issue that Ida Horner raised in her presentation, and which we have also experienced during our work in Zanzibar, was the importance of doing research in the field and familiarising yourself with the environment, before implementing anything. Ida stressed that it is particularly important to understand how communities are organised. Otherwise researchers run into conflicts before they even started.

Overall, I expected the workshop to focus more on interaction design and experiences regarding methodologies, while most of the discussions that followed each presentation focused on ethical issues, often raising high-level problems that interaction designers might not always be able to solve. These issues were also reflected by the workshop themes, but the questions that remained for me where: what is the role of interaction designers in developing regions, how is it different to their role in more traditional contexts, and what are appropriate methodologies?

An interesting discussion emerged around problem solving, which seems to be a very engineering/technology-driven approach, and whether this approach is appropriate in a developing context. Are interaction designers solving problems? And are researchers bound to only generate new knowledge and understanding, but not supposed to solve problems? Although being an academic I personally don’t completely agree on that, but maybe that is only because I always had one foot in industry projects as well. I would be interested to hear others’ opinions on this.

We also presented our paper Designing an SMS-based application for seaweed farmers in Zanzibar (and why it failed for now) at the Workshop. In this paper we discuss a project that we started, while we were in Tanzania again last year, working on the Hello Africa movie. The project described in the paper was not successful measured by our initial goals. It was successful given the insights that we gained by applying a user-centred design approach in the field. The aim of the paper is to share our conclusions of why the project failed, since we believe that many projects in an African context might experience similar challenges. Below are the slides from our presentation.

All workshop papers are available from here. Many thanks to Andy Dearden and Niall Winters for organising this event! It’s a really valuable step towards better understanding the roles and ethical issues interaction designers need to be aware of in developing contexts.

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Notes from the Workshop on Ethics, Roles and Relationships in Interaction Design in Developing Regions
was published on 25.08.2009 by Martin Tomitsch. It files under global
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