Societal/cultural consciousness and change

XVII.1 January + February 2010
Page: 32
Digital Citation

UNDER DEVELOPMENTBeyond the Benjamins

Nicola Bidwell, H. Winschiers-Theophilus

Localizing interaction design in Africa is critical for improving usability and user experience for African populations. Genuine localization, as Lucy Suchman and others argue, requires locating accountability in the production of technologies; for Africa, this means design by Africans in Africa for African situations [1].

However, supporting Africans in developing and applying the skills they need to localize interaction design is a serious issue beleaguered by paradox. Here we discuss some of the challenges in building capacity for an African interaction design by reflecting on our 16 years of combined experience in teaching HCI, managing computer science programs in academia, and undertaking interaction design research in southern Africa. These challenges are embedded in an array of factors including: cultural values, which affect both system usability and learner and teacher behavior; historical and geographical power relationships; and socioeconomic issues that both constrain technology and shape the aspirations of learners and professionals. These factors have been widely and deeply discussed independently, but the effect of their intricate interrelationships on the evolution of HCI practice in Africa by Africans has not. To illustrate the effects that emerge from this mesh of factors, we refer to phenomena that we routinely encounter in our work, in particular in Namibia and South Africa.

We seek to depict this reality as a motivation for establishing new ways to support Africans in localizing interaction design, but we do not intend the reader to generalize the details of our specifically situated examples across the vast and diverse continent.

Competition for enrolling in information technology in Southern Africa as part of higher and tertiary education is often fierce, and with affirmative employment policies for Africans (e.g., black people in South Africa) or nationals (e.g., Namibians in Namibia), there is little shortage of IT employment for graduates at locally competitive salaries. For African IT students and graduates, it is, as one colleague succinctly states, “all about the Benjamins.” Money is imperative for African students, who are often obliged to return the investment in their education made by extended kin or by institutional lenders. Economic pragmatism means that few African IT students undertake post-graduate studies. This has consequences for both IT-teacher education and the scope for an advanced capacity in local HCI research and professional practice. There is little payoff in proceeding to post-graduate studies compared with gaining industry certification (e.g., Cisco). For instance, there are only 10 Namibian nationals with a master’s in IT of which only three work in higher education and another two with a HCI specialization.

Individuals undertaking such advanced study are not representative of the majority of Africans. Recent and current undergraduates, who are often the first in their families to matriculate from high school, tend to not undertake advanced study. Thus, they are least likely to influence the frameworks in which HCI and design is practiced and taught locally. Further, under-resourcing in high schools and issues related to education in a language (English) that differs from that spoken at home means higher education effort is often concentrated on a subset of core IT skills. This subset is influenced by employer perceptions of core competencies, which are tuned by power relations with the more developed world. IT systems first introduced to Africa by American and European multinational companies, or by white Africans during the Apartheid era, are embedded with values and practices that differ from those of African people. That is, while systems and procedures might be “internationalized” or customized for African contexts, they are founded on non-African values and practices [2, 3]. Moreover, while African IT professionals and teachers may notice gaps in applications and consider “core” IT skills in local contexts, they are unlikely to question the status quo.

To understand why African teachers, students, and professionals are unlikely to practicably contest the hegemony of IT systems and design—even when they recognize incongruence with local values and practices—we need to account for some of these values themselves, along with power relations. In teaching we routinely observe students’ high regard for textually published knowledge, even if the content focuses on the operations of systems in the digital landscape of developed regions and, in the case of HCI textbooks, is invested with non-African values. The authority of the textbook for Africans relates again to power relations and also to experiences in schools and values inherent in African society.

Schools continue to favor didactic modes in which a teacher reads from a textbook and a student listens and repeats. Teachers, as other elders, have authority in knowledge transfer, and young people are not encouraged to explore independently or pursue curiosity-driven questions in learning. Conceding to the textbook becomes habituated learner behavior, and consequently—with little facilitated discussion—time and again the textbook subverts alternative perspectives. It is not that African elders do not demonstrate an acute awareness of multiple perspectives or adeptness in prolonged debate; they do. But discussion of multiple perspectives is often in the pursuit of consensus, as collectivism is valued more highly than individualism. So power relations operate in two ways: internally in African groups, between learner and elder, and at the interface with Western culture.

IT systems first introduced to Africa by American and European multinational companies, or by white Africans during the Apartheid era, are embedded with values and practices that differ from those of African people. While systems might be customized for African contexts, they are founded on non-African values and practices.


Africa has a 50-year history of political and philosophical questioning of “progress” as defined by Western readings of modernity and development; movements from Negroism and Pan-Africanism to the contemporary African Renaissance call for vocalizing an African cultural identity in learning. But, at least within IT, students are at the mercy of achieving their aspirations by accruing, as Bourdieu would argue, the educational and cultural capital determined by the elite of the West [4]. It is not that students and professionals do not recognize the incompatibility of the imported standards, propagated in textbooks and professional practices, with African contexts. However, the capital they gain through education and professional pathways means that they do not privilege voicing dissent, such as when faced with systems that are being globalized via short visits by non-African IT experts. IT students and professionals know only too well that things work differently in Africa. Consider the following banal incident, one of us experienced, in a country considered to be one of the more developed in southern Africa:

After reserving, but having not yet paid for, a bus operated by a major company from a regional city to access a rural research site, problems ensued. While previously unproblematic, on this particular day the bus office’s electronic ticketing system was down, which created a trial of actions simply because clerks at the regional offices were unable to handle cash payment or manually process credit cards. Thus, payment required finding and then taking a taxi to the bank to draw a bankers order, then to a fax office to fax the receipt of the bankers order to the bus headquarters. It would seem the designer of this system had not balanced the constraints of permissions of the regional office clerks, probably associated with employee trust or security, and the highly likely event of compromised connectivity, due to electricity cuts, etc. The consequence would not have been affordable for the ordinary African passenger.

Situations of the type are common in many African countries and may be acerbated by poverty, corruption, and cronyism. However, they are not the type of constraints and consequences that appear frequently in HCI and systems-design textbooks, nor those that a prospective employee might feel comfortable raising during an interview, especially with an international consultant.

Students and professionals certainly recognize dissonance and cultural gulfs in their relationship with the values that construct and shape gathering requirements and design and usability methods, as well as the constraints shaping the digital environment. For instance, students show a genuine recognition of the paucity of certain instruments for collecting reliable data, in particular, the questionnaire. Class discussions reveal their representative strategy of filling a questionnaire with the expected correct answers, independent of their personal opinion. Yet in HCI examination papers or project proposals, students repeatedly recommend these very same instruments, “because it’s in the textbook.” It is no surprise that when students enter professional life, perhaps collaborating with international consultants, that again they will support inappropriate methods in requirements gathering and usability tests. This is despite an intimate appreciation of the values (e.g., consensus, reciprocation, and economic pragmatism) that drive participants to try to determine what might be the “correct” response on a questionnaire.

To enable students in the context of dissonance and cultural gulfs, we encounter a paradox. In seeking to realize the potential of appropriately encultured design, we need to teach African students to critique the relevancy of system design and development practices that originate in norms produced elsewhere. However, enabling students to enact such critical and reflective practice may require them first to change their own cultural practice in response to perceived authority, and second, to do so within the reality of economics and global power relationships.

It appears that IT students and professionals in Africa manage their identities—within the culture of IT and their home culture—in the context of dissonance, conflicts, and multiple perspectives. This is particularly clear in considering systems design and development for rural environments. Unlike migration patterns in the West, students from rural areas in Southern Africa usually intend to return home from the major cities once they have accumulated sufficient income and maintain ongoing and important kin relationships with their home villages. They rarely intend to practice professionally in their villages and have difficulty envisioning the relevancy of their technical skills. This is not unsurprising since, despite the contribution of the cell phone to rural connectivity, computer systems are designed in and for urban places and are ill-matched to rural life-styles [5]. But the issues seem to be deeper than prosaic opportunity; they implicate incompatibilities of identity.

Both our observations of people in our research in the remote rural area of the eastern cape of South Africa [6] and Mozambique and our African co-researchers with strong links to rural areas show how difficult it is both to be part of a local community and introduce new technologies and practices. Of course, these issues are simply localized versions of the general challenges of managing home and professional identity; articulating aspects of one’s own domestic and intimate life; and translating and conceptualizing informal systems of knowledge in defining and developing systems. The situation, however, is more acute when these challenges are compounded by issues of language, significant cultural gulfs, and global power relations.

With such intractable difficulties, what should we do to equip African students with the skills to localize interaction design? We believe that training students overseas has limited impact, as many do not return and those that do are arguably even less equipped to tackle cultural translation than those educated at home. On the other hand, training overseas graduate students studying in Africa has considerable potential to start the process of integrating African scenarios and views into global HCI. This strategy can only enrich the practices, frameworks, and toolkits that we have to draw upon for design and usability generally. For example, our experience of Africans’ deep appreciation of multiple perspectives and their multilingual skills can broaden conceptual capacity beyond that which is currently available in the developed world.

Investing in specialized advanced courses in Africa, for overseas students, may also begin to redress bias in curricula exerted by the need for African universities to gain international accreditation. That is, it may open up opportunities for us to more comprehensively insert African scenarios and their consequences for computational thinking into a range of undergraduate subjects beyond the conventional domain of HCI. However, for our African students and teachers to engage with such material, it needs to be supported by textbook content based on theoretically sound and authentic real-world projects. So we are issuing two invitations: Come to learn from Africa by staying here for a while, and think about ways to enliven those textbooks with stories from the ground.


1. Suchman, L. “Located Accountabilities in Technology Production.” Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems 14, 2 (2003): 91–105.

2. Winschiers, H. and Fendler, J. “Assumptions Considered Harmful: The Need to Redefine Usability.” Usability and Internationalization, Part I. Ed. N. Aykin. Heidelberg: Springer Berlin, 2007.

3. Winschiers-Theophilus, H. “Cultural Appropriation of Software Design and Evaluation.” Handbook of Research on Socio Technical Design and Social Networking System. Ed. B. Whitworth. Hershey, PA: IGI Global, 2009.

4. Bourdieu, P. The Logic of Practice. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990.

5. Bidwell, N.J. & Browning, D. “Pursuing Genius Loci: Interaction Design And Natural Places.” Personal and Ubiquitous Computing (First published online March 2009) Springer Verlag, 2010.

6. Bidwell, N.J. “Anchoring Design in Rural Ways of Doing and Saying.” Interact 2009, Part 1. Ed. T. Gross et al. Heidelberg: Springer Berlin (2009), 686–699.


Nic Bidwell spent the first few years of life in Africa and has been a Third Culture Kid ever since. From 2003 she has focused on designing interactions suited to rural contexts and Australian indigenous and African cultural views. In her research—most recently in South Africa, Mozambique, and Namibia—she spends extensive durations in situ. Bidwell is a senior research fellow at the Centre for ICT for Development in Cape Town, South Africa, and senior lecturer at James Cook University in far north Australia.

Heike Winschiers-Theophilus is dean of School of Information Technology at the Polytechnic of Namibia. She has lived in Namibia and lectured in the field of software engineering at the University and Polytechnic since 1994. Her Ph.D. research explored cross-cultural design issues and suggests a framework for culture-centered dialogical design. Since then her research has focused on the cultural appropriation of design and evaluation methods of information systems supporting local content creation, storage, organization, and retrieval.




UF1Figure. Students learn hands-on assembly of computer hardware and networking components at Winneba Open Digital Village IT School in Ghana as part of a basic training program organized by Taiwanese volunteers and the oneVillage Initiative.

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