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 ICT4D.at 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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Ethnography and design (notes from a talk)

A few days ago I attended a talk by Jeanette Blomberg at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). Jeanette worked at Xerox PARC in the 80s and is currently at IBM research. The talk was about ethnography and design, based on her experience from working as an ethnographer in a technology context for the last 25 years.

Since ethnographic research is really relevant for the design of ICT4D solutions and probably most of our readers have used ethnographic methods themselves in their work before, I decided to post a short summary of my notes here.

Jeanette started with a nice introduction about ethnographic research and presented the following principles of ethnography:

  • study activities in their everyday settings
  • focus on relations among activities and people (interactions) and not on single tasks or isolated individuals
  • descriptive accounts of activity
  • member’s point of view
  • focus on what people do

She further emphasized how ethnography should be seen as a collection of multiple methods for collecting data, including informal interviews, observations, self-reporting, video analysis, artifact analysis, etc. It’s also important to “adjust as you go”, since ethnography is a very improvisational approach, which requires iteration. This is a very important issue in my opinion and something that I personally often find difficult to implement in an academic context, where you have to define your research approach in detail beforehand.

Another interesting insight that I took away from this presentation was that participatory design (PD) is often used as ethnographic method, meaning that ethnographers don’t only observe people without interfering (one of the myths about ethnography), but also involve them in the design process. Apparently a joining of PD and ethnography happened in the middle 80s.

PD in an ICT4D context has been done (e.g. for developing community radios), but as Gary Marsden said during a session on mobile interaction design at last year’s MobileActive conference, it often doesn’t work to involve users for informing the design process in developing countries. Or more specific, the context and hence the requirements are different to developed countries, where PD and user-centered design (UCD) have been successfully applied and explored for many decades.

The talk ended with a discussion of how both technologies and goals have changed over time. Technology is currently developing towards an anytime/anywhere approach and technology-enabled services. (Very true for ICT4D.) Goals have changed from improving the quality of work life (in the 80s) to designing more usable and useful technologies, and more success products. Recent trends show that now the most important goal often is to design more sustainable (“green”) products. (Again, something that is very true for ICT4D, considering that resources are scarce in developing countries.)

Thanks to Jeanette Blomberg for this really insightful talk and thanks to UTS for organizing the event.

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Ethnography and design (notes from a talk)
was published on 28.03.2009 by Martin Tomitsch. It files under global
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