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.

Design thinking: Make your business amazing


Originally posted on memeburn.com

What is design? Most people will answer that question by pointing to a designed object – the iPhone, for example. Now that’s good design! The Mini Cooper. London’s famous map of the Tube. Anything ever built by Norman Foster. That’s design, right?

Wrong. Design is not the object, but the process that created that object. It’s a process that is part creativity, part method. A process that takes a lot of time, much instructive failure and a great deal of thinking. And thinking is something that looks a lot like Doing Nothing At All.

Amazing: The only adjective that counts

It’s very hard to explain this to a client. The Silicon Cape is beavering away right now, making software and websites and iPhone apps. Just do me a design! I need to show my investors something by next Tuesday, and we’re launching before the end of the month. You guys have designed stuff before, right?

Yes, we have designed stuff before. So we know that if you just take assumptions and preconceptions and bundle them up in the first format that crosses your mind, you might churn out something decent, but you’re never going to make something amazing. And given how much stuff is out there, and how little attention people have left to give to it, amazing is the only adjective that counts.

If you want to make something amazing, you have to be prepared to do the following:
Read more

Sideloading free content from the sneakernet

Mobile devices are the primary experience of personal computing for most people in emerging markets. Accessing content at prices these users can afford is all but impossible. But using sideloading and sneakernet, content can spread for free.

I was lucky enough to watch a great talk by Gary Marsden at the recent SA UX meeting in Cape Town. He talked about many interesting things, but this one captured my imagination the most.

In developing markets, mobile devices have much greater market penetration the personal computers. In South Africa, for example, around 77% of the population have mobiles but only 12% get online with PCs. So for hundreds of millions worldwide, the main, everyday experience of digital technology is probably a phone. When a phone is one of the few pieces of technology you’ve got, it’s amazing what you will use it for. In emerging markets, mobile phones are becoming a primary mechanism for reading text, storing photo albums, watching video and listening to music.

Nokia has recently announced their $50 2323 phone, along with a suite of carefully targetted custom content to address this developing market demand.

Nokia lifetools promo extract

But nearer the “bottom of the pyramid” the the cost of mobile data services is too much for most people to afford more than a trickle of bytes. Typical data consumption for a young South African might cost them around R7 per week, which is around 50 pence. Downloading MP3s or ebooks isn’t realistic. So instead, some content is percolating across the community using bluetooth sideloading and sneakernet.

Sideloading sneakernet

Sideloading is a newish term, still ill-defined. But one meaning is that people can share content from one mobile device to the next, rather than downloading it from network servers.

Sneakernets are a venerable concept, still used by even the largest companies when the cost of electronic data transfer is too high. It just means that you carry data from A to B on a storage medium, instead of sending it over a wire. Google, for example, used blocks of disks to transfer 120 terabyte files.

If you put the two together you can transfer data to mobile devices for free, across any distance. Basically, one person sends a piece of content to another using bluetooth. The recepient can share their copy with more friends, and from them it can go on to more. The potential rate of distribution grows exponentially.

Riding the sneakernet

With only 6.6 degrees of separation between everyone on the planet, it’s not hard to see that this could let content percolate quite fast. But our daily face to face contact is with far fewer people than our total network, so content will percolate more slowly, really.

Targetting connectors will help. The Tipping Point tells us that a few people in the world are connectors – they know a lot of people. To get a message out over a sneakernet, it would make sense to ensure it gets to the connectors.

In reality, it may be that most content won’t hop quickly or reliably enough from user to user for many applications. So providing physical severs in public spaces to allow bluetooth content downloads looks like a more controlled option.

Bigboard, and one example content square

To do just that, Gary Marsden’s team at the University of Cape Town, along with Microsoft Research have invented Big Board. It’s a digital message board that allows people with ordinary, bluetooth-enabled phones to download text, images, audio and video for free. Most important, it requires no extra software on the handset at all – most phones can already receive mutimedia messages via bluetooth.

What content is worth distributing? For big board, community and local content make sense. Big board can also allow content to be uploaded to it, making it true, digital message board. Education and entertainment also fit well, and are good sneakernet fuel too. I’ve heard plans for using soap opera mobisodes to provide health education and AIDS awareness messages…

Further reading

Designing future happiness

Humans are not very good at predicting what will make us happy in the future. Designers need user centred design techniques to help them to overcome that limitation.

We don’t know what’s good for us

In Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert, describes recent research on “prospection” – the act of considering the future. Our ability to simulate future experiences is one of the things that makes us human. But our experience simulator (the pre frontal cortex) makes lots of mistakes. A key mistake is to imagine the future will be like the present.

Will people want to live in homes like these? Nope!

For example, past visions of the future included rocket cars and jet packs, but usually the people’s behaviour didn’t change a bit. Mom still hung out in the kitchen, even though the work was being done by machines. And people lived happily in high-rise, concrete complexes. Today, retro-futuristic visions are more a quaint commentary on the time when they were made than a relevant description of the present.

Yummy duck dinner. FotoosVanRobin: http://www.flickr.com/photos/fotoosvanrobin/

On an individual level, we’re bad at predicting what experiences will make us happy in our own future. After finishing a delicious roast duck dinner at a favourite restaurant, I will be full and I will have “habituated” to the duck. So future duck dinners will not seem so appealing to me. If asked to pre-order for my next visit in a month’s time, I’m more likely to choose something other than duck. But when I arrive at the restaurant a month later, I am more likely to actually choose the duck again. When I made the choice about my future, I assumed it would be like my present, where I’d had enough of the duck. But when the future came, I was actually hungry – a frame of mind that I did not predict.

Methods for predicting the future

On a straightforward level, designers need to make this prediction: “What will people want to do with this product?” For example…

  • Will people want to shop on my website by brand, price or by specification?
  • Will people want to devote full attention to this mobile device or just glance at it?
  • Will people want to watch a 30-second animated intro to my website?
  • Will people want to click a button to clear all the data from a web form ans start again?

In all these real-life situations, the designers had to imagine future usage of their product and make decisions accordingly. A lot of them got things wrong, because they imagined that when using the finished product in the future they would be in the same frame of mind as when they were designing it.

Bringing the future to the present in a usability test

Since we’re actually better at thinking about the present than the future, designers who want robust results need to bring the future into the present. In some respects, that’s what user centred design is.

  • Ethnographic studies: Since target users are (usually) human they can’t predict accurately what will make them happy in the future. So it’s best to watch what people do instead. Study what makes them happy, and what unhappy moments you can address with design.
  • Iterative prototyping: The future product isn’t finished yet. But make a mock-up of it and get target users to try it out. By simulating real usage, you’re simulating the future more accurately than you can imagine it.
  • Scenarios and cognitive walkthroughs: Be methodical and write down what people’s future situations might be. Then you’ve got a better chance of predicting their future behaviour.
  • Field trials: For particularly huge and life-changing ideas, your prototypes need to be a bit more solid. Leave them with a select few for a while and see what you get. For example, Microsoft’s SenseCam and whereabouts clock. Or Bill Gaver’s Flight tracker.

Field trial of the  Whereabouts clock in a  family kitchen

Making future happiness evident

Designers are often asked to design things that look desirable – that convince people to buy, rather than to deliver ongoing satisfaction. In a way, the user experience design movement has been about changing that: creating products that make people happy over time.

But since our customers can’t predict what will make them happy, they might buy the wrong thing. Something with lots of impressive-looking buttons, for example. So not only does the product have to make people happy, it has to look like it will make them happy.

One trick is to emphasise simplicity (which is what seems to make most people happy) as a feature. Sometimes it works.

Our technologies shape us

As the world around us changes, we need new technology and improved interaction to help us. But what causes the world to change? The very technology that we introduce.

I saw this quote stuck up on the wall of a furniture shop the other day.

Winston Churchill: We shape our homes and then our homes shape us

It set me thinking: if you replace “homes” with “technology” you get an insight into the business of interaction design.

Modified quote: we shape technology and our technologies shape us

Hitting a moving target

Good interaction designers know that their job is never done. As people adopt a new technology, their behaviour changes. And the technology needs to change with them, if its going to stay useful.

  • When everyone has a mobile phone, we discover we like sending text messages.
  • Multi-tap is a bit cumbersome for creating text messages. So predictive text helps us send more texts faster.
  • Blogs are great. But we can’t keep up. So we subscribe via RSS.
  • We can’t keep up with RSS. So we use an RSS ticker to help me stay on top of the flood.
  • We’re stuck in front of computers all day so Twitter helps us stay in touch with our friends and family.
  • We need the best quality information to be filtered from the noise. So Digg and Delicious help us share attention and opinion data.
  • We have lots of information available to us but we discover we want to mix and match it. So RDF, promises the next evolution, along with interfaces like Ubiquity and Aurora.

I think there’s a recurring theme here:

Information technology empowers people to produce more information more quickly. (SMS, Predictive text, Blogs, Twitter, HTML, IM, Ubiquity…)
Information technology protects us from the flood of information we have been empowered to produce. (RSS, Digg, Google, Technorati, Aurora?…)

We’re in a bizarre arms race with ourselves. I think the “producer” team is winning. Some people say that the “protect” team don’t stand a chance.

That’s progress

So, it seems, it has always been. Venerable sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen put it like this:

“Invention is the mother of necessity.”

This probably means two things, but I’m interested in just one meaning: When we use technology to solve one problem, we often create a new and different one, which in turn needs a solution.

Technology for our children

Well, since I had a few minutes to spare I asked my daughter to take that photo in the furniture shop, using my mobile phone. She’s 4. She managed it fine.

When the first mobile phone designers started out, I’m sure they had no idea of that requirement.

What makes us productive and what makes us stupid

Your working environment has a big impact on your productivity, creativity and happiness. And good user experiences follow the same rules.

The interruptions caused by email and other digital communications reduce your IQ by up to 10 points, and cost large corporations UD$1m in revenue per annum. They also make people unhappy. Among many corporations, Intel has been running a “quiet time” initiative, where every Tuesday morning is set aside for quiet thinking only. No email, no IM, no phone calls, even.

On the flip side, I found interesting research about how corporate environments that provide clear goals, facilitate progress and praise success make people happier, more creative and more productive.

It struck me that most of this is linked to the concept of Flow, proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Flow is a state of optimal experience (very closely linked to happiness). If you’ve ever looked up at the clock and realised that an hour or two has rushed past unexpectedly, chances are you were in a state of Flow.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi proposed the idea of Flow

Flow is frequently caused by having clear and worthwhile goals, making visible progress towards those goals, and being appropriately challenged as you go. Almost exactly like that description of the happy and productive working environment.

But how many times have you sat down at your desk expecting to make rewarding progress, only to realise that you have a pile of unread email? Suddenly you’re wading through unexpected issues and problems, and your original goal for the day is pushed further away. That’s a recipe for no flow, and a feeling of frustration. No wonder the Intel pilot group look forward to Tuesday mornings.

Happy interaction

So, if you’re a manager, you need to be shaping your team or organisation to work in a Flow-inducing way.

If you’re an interaction designer, you need to design interfaces to help your users experience Flow. Three fairly plain lessons:

  • Don’t interrupt your users. People using computers are goal directed – they’re online to get a task done. Excessive confirmation dialogs cause frustration. Interstitial and pop-up ads are worse. Flash intros are, mercifully, a thing of the past.  And perhaps the cardinal sin is emailing your customers too much. Why any brand would want to be associated with these negative, frustration-causing events is a mystery to me. “Are users stupid?” some unenlightened designers have been heard to ask. Well, if you keep interrupting them, you’re reducing their IQ.
  • Help your users to accept new ideas. Innovation is a hot topic for corporations looking for an edge. Helping your customers to innovate makes them happy too. Blogger.com helps new users understand blogging and create a blog in astoundingly simple steps. Google Adwords suggests new products and services that are specifically selected to be relevant to the user’s goal. Amazon does the same, and also keeps many of it recommendations for after you’ve made some productive steps towards your goal – it recommends most stuff when you add to basket and when you complete a purchase.
  • Help your users to think creatively. A lot of Web2.0, and the latest thinking in UCD, is about helping people to express themselves by building or creating something. Myspace and Facebook pages and relationships are a labour of love for some. Family trees are loving crafted in Geni. Photobox lets you craft beautiful paper photo albums using custom software. All Flow activities, where users make clear progress towards desirable goals, and learn something on the way.

To be effective interaction designers, we need to be happiness experts. And because the organisation behind the interface will always show through, we need to be happy and work in happy places. Now that’s a goal worth working towards.

Collaboration and creativity use up the social surplus

Organised, industrial society creates left-over time for its citizens — and that time has to be used up somehow. At first it was with gin. Then TV. Now it’s just beginning to be with mass creation and collaboration.

Thanks to Anne Sophie Leens for the pointer. And “wow” to Clay Shirky for such a great post. I hope the book is just as good.

I have to say – it really shifted my mindset.

…if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project–every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in–that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it’s the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, “Where do they find the time?” when they’re looking at things like Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that’s finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.

See? Read the whole thing…