UX innovation in Africa: Culture and relevance

It’s rare to find black women working in technology. So, last week, I was delighted to find myself the only “pale male” on the panel at the Interact2013 UX in Africa discussion.

The other three panelists were women from Kenya engaged in different aspects of UX design.

The Interact2013 UX industry in Africa panel
Left to right… Susan Dray (Panel chair). Shikoh Gitau, who works for Google. Me, Phil Barrett. Kagonya Awari, a UX reseacher at iHub’s UX lab in Nairobi. Edna Chelule who manages design and UX at DSTV.

The panel discussed a couple of interesting points about UX in African Countries:

  1. Traditional culture in Kenya, and elsewhere in Africa, does not foster innovation.
  2. Poor people in Africa want what everyone else wants, but in more affordable formats/portions.

Traditional cultures and innovation

There was general agreement that traditionally, Kenyan culture maintains unquestioning respect for leaders and this can stifle innovation or prevent successful adoption of new ideas like user-centred design.

Shikoh, who has a PhD in HCI and computer science, talked about her experience of that ingrained respectfulness. When her opinion differs from that of a senior person in an organisation, she said, she’ll often have to check herself to make sure she doesn’t just stand down immediately out of deference to their seniority.

Mobolaji Ayoade, from the audience, described a similar issue in Nigeria. His strategy was to voice his opinion clearly and then bide his time. When the leader ignored his advice, and encountered problems, he was around to quietly say “Let’s try it this way instead.”

Kagonya described how the iHub has a very flat organisational structure and this causes amazement and admiration from Kenyans who visit, but it takes a bit of explaining.

Kagonya also told me she believes that respect for authority can cause people across Africa to withhold complaints or feedback about poor service. This is bad for them, but also bad for the growth of UX as a whole. It’s hard for organisations to appreciate a business need for an improved customer experience when no-one complains about the current experience.

Update from Kagonya, after reading this post…

Quick correction: I wouldn’t boldy say that traditional culture does not foster innovation in Kenya, but more specifically traditional office culture. The reason being that culturally, while all Kenyan tribes push for respect for elders, I do not think that this always and therefore results in the hindrance of new ideas. Most communities have avenues where the young can pass on their ideas to the old and by these channels create room for new ideas.

Similarly, “traditional culture in Kenya does not foster innovation” may perhaps be too broad a statement? Maybe, “traditional culture in Kenya and other Africa countries, may hinder innovation”.

Poor people in Africa want the normal stuff

Shikoh and Kagonya agreed that many efforts at seed funding African startups are misguided. Well meaning NGOs and investors want tech projects to tackle the “big” issues – like AIDS for example. But the target users of the technology aren’t interested in that. They tend to be interested in the same things everything else wants, like entertainment, beauty and communication.

Both Shikoh and Kagonya said (slightly flippantly) that they could get venture funding in minutes from well-meaning investment funds, just by putting together a powerpoint slide mentioning Kibera (Nairobi’s largest slum), AIDS and mobile apps. But the product that such a venture would deliver would have little or no impact because people wouldn’t make time for it in their lives – or space on their phones.

As an example of what poor people in emerging markets do want, Shikoh gave the example of Unilever. They market the same face creams to several different market segments. But they make the creams available in small sachets for customers on the tightest budgets.

We talked about South African companies that do an excellent job at making products and services available in formats and at price points that people can afford. PEP’s focus on minimising overhead lets them save several cents per rand on distribution costs relative to competitors. DSTV offers pay as you go pricing. And Mxit offers messaging and photo sharing with minimal data usage – something that its loyal customers really appreciate.

Black, South African UX designers

The panel was great fun and very informative. I just wish there were more black South African UX designers who could have participated. Perhaps South Africa’s newly emerging middle class prefers its young people to study law, medicine or engineering? A shame from my perspective, since design thinking in South Africa is just as likely as any of those disciplines to change life for the better.

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