Addressing critical challenges

XV.1 January + February 2008
Page: 59
Digital Citation

UNDER DEVELOPMENTNew users, new paradigms, new challenges

Gary Marsden

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It is not surprising that the field of HCI has been closely bound to Moore's law. At its inception, HCI was concerned primarily with the only large group of people who had access to the technology—office workers. This type of user had very clearly defined tasks and goals that they tried to achieve on fairly limited hardware. As Moore's law resulted in computer technology leaking out of corporations, HCI morphed to accommodate home usage and to look at how people set about completing less well-defined tasks. Currently, HCI has expanded to look at social and even whimsical applications of technology. But what's next?

It is tempting to believe that the only result of Moore's law is more and cheaper technology for us to use in augmenting our lives. However, another side effect is that, for the first time ever, computer technology is affordable to those who live in developing countries. With a cellular handset, many people around the world are purchasing their first ever computer. They may not have a house, a regular job, or even access to electricity, but they own and use a cellular telephone.

To place these figures in context, in South Africa where I live, 77 percent of the population have a cellular handset, but only 11 percent have access to a computer according to the 2007 CIA World Factbook. Between 2001 and 2005 the number of cellular subscribers in Africa increased from 25 million to 192 million (more than sevenfold). In the same period in Europe, numbers merely doubled, to 759 million. And is the Internet having an impact? Data from the ITU shows that in 2006, only one person in every 1000 in Africa had an Internet subscription. In Europe this number rises two orders of magnitude, to 110 people per 1,000.

So how does one design for these new and highly specific users? Designing for mobile devices is complex enough, but users in the developing world are unlike any that most HCI practitioners and researchers have encountered before. In Africa, at least, many of these users live in a village with no electricity. They have few possessions—a bicycle, perhaps, and a few cooking utensils. It is unlikely that they will have had any high school education, and most will never have used a computer before in their lives.

The days when "internationalization" meant translating menus into the users' home language are over.

Take for a moment an idea beloved to interface designers, held over from the office-worker days: the desktop metaphor. It loses a great deal of its efficacy when applied to users who have never used a desk, folder, or filing cabinet. Before the students can be taught to use a computer, they must first learn the metaphor on which the interface is based; this tongue-in-cheek double "training" is hardly an ideal situation.

Much of this desktop thinking is being carried over into cellular-handset design. For example, my Sony Ericsson K800i uses the image of a 3.5-inch floppy disk for "save" menu items. Given that "save" is quite a complex idea to convey in a few pixels, one could argue that the disk icon is as good as any. Fine, but then the interface should at least be consistent to allow the users to learn this new visual literacy—my Sony Ericsson also uses icons of memory cards to convey the notion of "save," making the interface unnecessarily complex for illiterate users. Elsewhere in this issue, Gabe White explores how to overcome these literacy issues in the Motophone by using a more consistent icon design along with new techniques like gesture recognition and exploitation of spatial memory. Ultimately, however, we must move away from simply providing new forms of access to old functionality requirements.

Where does one start, then, to create an experience that is appropriate and effective? These users—new to the world of computing, and without a great deal of the prior tacit knowledge upon which our interface paradigms are based—are willing to put in the time to learn a difficult interface provided there is a demonstrable benefit in their lives. Usability is not so important, but utility is paramount—with limited income, there is little space for the luxury of a superfluous piece of technology. As reflected in the adoption figures, users understand the utility of cellular handsets in a way that has never occurred with the desktop PC. Mobile handsets make sense in a society where few people can afford a home with electricity. They also make sense in a society where many families are separated by migrant labor practices. The cellular telephone also provides a means by which potential employees can be contacted with offers of work—not easy when you don't have a front door or post box. By conducting ethnographic user observational studies (such as contextual inquiry) it is possible to gain good insight into the types of problems these users experience in dealing with technology and start to understand ways in which these devices can be used more creatively—in his article Gabe White outlines some example applications, such as provision of health information.

Less straightforward, however, are the issues that dictate how one can convert these observations into solutions. Participatory design and paper prototypes are of dubious value when working with users who have no prior exposure to technology. Furthermore, the ethics of explaining a user's role in such a process rapidly become complicated—how do you begin to explain your profession and the purpose of your research when the person you are interviewing may never have been to school and has no concept of data collection? In short, HCI does not currently offer a set of rigorous techniques for conducting user-centered research in the developing world.

In this forum, our goal, therefore, is to work toward how we can best conduct effective and ethical HCI research within a developing-world context. We will present case studies, field reports, and reflections on how HCI practice might need to change and how individual researchers have overcome the obstacles they faced when conducting this type of work. To date, our field has helped the first billion ICT users; now it is time to start thinking about the next five billion.

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Gary Marsden
University of Cape Town

About the Author

Gary is currently employed as an associate professor in the department of computer science at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. He was born in Ireland, studied in Scotland, and had his first job in London. Although his background is in computer science, moving to South Africa has forced him to reconsider his views about technology in general and HCI in particular.

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