HCI in the developing world

X.2 March + April 2003
Page: 72
Digital Citation

Adopting information technology as a first step in design


Authors:
Clarisse de Souza, Raquel Prates, Simone Barbosa

When the Information Society program (SocInfo [5]) was launched in December 1999, one challenge the Brazilian government posed to itself was to use information technology (IT) to foster wider social inclusion in Brazil. The other was to enable the Brazilian IT industry to compete in a globalized world in which digital presence has a high economic value. "Bridging the digital divide" naturally became a hot topic for technical and political debate, but a sharp image of which factors are involved in this effort has not yet been formed. Government initiatives have typically concentrated on distributing computers to schools and community centers, and connecting them to the Internet. One obvious reason for emphasizing the physical aspects of IT is that they are more easily and objectively measured. Also, achieving immediate tangible impact is in this context an important political goal.

Much less attention has been paid, however, to what runs on these computers, or to which programs and applications will actually improve the lives of users, their families, and their communities. As a society, we tend to feel that giving people more information and education will improve their lives. But we know little beyond that. In particular, we don’t exactly know what kind of information is the most important, much less the form in which we should convey it.

Determining how to proceed requires knowledge and skills in addition to those of IT professionals. We must turn to the social sciences of sociology, anthropology, psychology, education, linguistics, and a number of other disciplines that have traditionally not worked together in Brazil on computer applications. When these disciplines have examined technology, their contribution has typically been more analytical, focusing on what has been the effect of technology on studied groups, and not what kind of intervention should be made to change a specific state of affairs. The SocInfo initiative requires a design and engineering perspective that these disciplines haven’t traditionally adopted in Brazil. One of the few initiatives of SocInfo that focuses not on promoting technology infrastructure but on identifying which applications will help bridge the digital divide is the Digital Contents sub-program. In 2001, government agencies called for proposals and selected 45 of nearly 400 projects. The Oré Project, carried out at the Semiotic Engineering Research Group (SERG), in the Informatics Department of Rio de Janeiro Catholic University, was among the projects selected. The long-range target of Oré [7]—an acronym for Organize, Reflect, Evolve, as well as a native Brazilian word that means "we, our(s), with us"—is to widen the participation of Brazilian civil society in social volunteering initiatives. According to Brazilian government officials [10], a vast number of human resources ready to do volunteer work are wasted for lack of organizational infrastructure. The expected contribution of Oré lies precisely in using IT to help volunteer organizations become functional and effective, by providing them with a suite of groupware applications.

Oré Project

When the project started in January 2002, our first step was to look for partners. One of them was the National Research Network, which has been active in the nationwide development of Internet technology [11]. The other was Associação Saúde-Criança RENASCER (ASCR; Health-Child Rebirth Association), an organization that provides emergency assistance to disenfranchised hospitalized children and their families [9]. ASCR is one of the most successful and respectable nongovernmental organizations (NGO) of its kind in Rio, operating with approximately 150 people, 80 percent of whom are volunteers.

At ASCR, our first step was to identify if and how technology could help the organization. In order to discover ASCR’s main goals in, difficulties with, and possible enhancements from the use of technology, we had several meetings with the director, general manager, and an employee of ASCR who was developing a database for the NGO. These meetings suggested that key challenges for the organization were the difficulty of coordinating the work of its many volunteers, providing sponsors with data about projects, and avoiding duplication of information.

At first, these findings led us to think that we should concentrate on adapting existing groupware and workflow applications to fit ASCR’s needs. We thought we could leverage the experience that SERG already had in developing groupware and workflow applications for large Brazilian companies. However, as we learned more about the particular characteristics of the volunteer organization and its volunteers, we were forced to change these assumptions.

Getting to Know Our Users

Even if a system was intended to meet the needs of ASCR’s managers and professional staff, volunteers would have to interact with it for it to be successful, so we knew that we would need to put a great deal of effort into understanding these "end users." Volunteers constitute a challenging type of users, because they come from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds, they have a constant need to adapt planning and execution of tasks to the available resources (human and other), and finally because their main motivation comes from their own satisfaction in doing their work, as opposed to their salary or careers. We knew we would have to understand factors like these and take them into account if we wanted them to be motivated to interact with a new computer system. In order to learn more about our future users’ particular needs, difficulties, and priorities, we decided to use the Underlying Discourse Unveiling Method (UDUM), originally developed in clinical psychology [1, 6]. UDUM uses open-ended interviews that are sensitive to what people have to say freely. It focuses on grasping and analyzing hidden or implicit fears, desires, motivations, aspirations, conflicts, and other deep feelings experienced by individuals. The method was particularly well suited for the task, given the highly subjective values and attitudes underlying the behavior of individuals who volunteer for a cause.

We looked for ASCR members who already used computers to some degree in their volunteer work, such as by exchanging e-mails. Our broad understanding of computer literacy was "having some experience with computers," that is, not necessarily having any training but regularly using the computer for personal or professional activities. We started by interviewing 10 people, whose ages ranged from late 30s to early 60s. The interview addressed four major topics: (1) the interviewees’ profile (how they described themselves), (2) their experience with computers, (3) the tasks they performed at ASCR, and (4) their dreams or fears about the introduction of information technology at ASCR.

Analysis of the interviews [1] suggested some characteristics of ASCR that potentially extend to organizations of social volunteers (OSV) in general. We learned that most of our interviewees had offered to work for ASCR in order to fill up their idle time. Many were senior citizens who had retired from their primary jobs. Volunteers are largely free to act as they wish, and they enjoy being able to do so. They often applied their experience and knowledge to their activities at ASCR. They are proud of the work they do—and proud of ASCR. We also found that most ASCR employees and volunteers appear to be tentative toward computers and, in some cases, downright averse.

We learned many things about how coordination and communication are accomplished at ASCR without a dedicated software application. The volunteers’ tasks are mainly autonomous, and tasks performed by other volunteers are not explicitly coordinated at a high level. Because tasks are independent and volunteers work only a few days a week for the organization, they do not know many of their fellow volunteers in person. Thus, volunteers who perform the same tasks may not know each other or how they choose to accomplish their tasks. Another complicating factor is that ASCR’s functions are distributed throughout three buildings—a hospital, ASCR’s headquarters, and a training facility. One volunteer described the communication problem among members of ASCR as, "People work in different ASCRs."

Nevertheless, many social and informal communication and coordination channels do exist. Volunteers who know each other often spontaneously meet during coffee breaks or outside their time at ASCR. The organization tries to have better communication channels with all members through a monthly general meeting, through their printed bulletin, and by posting announcements about organizational events and news at different locations. However, volunteers reported never having known that the meeting was open for all volunteers, not learning about events in time to attend, and not knowing much about what was going on with the organization.

We spotted some striking contrasts between these potential users and the kinds of users we had worked with previously. First, at ASCR, and possibly at most OSVs, volunteers are assigned to various activities based on personal interest and availability, and they can have wide latitude in deciding how to perform their work. And because most volunteers work occasionally or part-time, their tasks are typically performed by different people in different ways. This contrasts with the standardization and work flow of quality control present in many companies, where there is more freedom to institute top-down, technology-related policies based on generally perceived productivity gains. Thus, if IT is expected to support work at OSVs and to be spontaneously adopted by all volunteers, it must be flexible enough to accommodate extremely different work practices and subjective motivations. Any mistake in introducing IT in such environments may discourage volunteers and cause severe losses for the organizations. At a minimum, any system oriented only toward the needs of the professional staff would simply not be used.

Therefore, our first lesson learned was that a successful strategy for introducing IT in a community of volunteers should be a prime goal of Oré, overriding all other initial goals. Our thinking about this was consistent with the adopter-centered process approach [12]. Software that meets the managers’ more ambitious organizational goals would be successful only if the volunteers interacted with it. For the volunteers to use the software, it would have to not only meet their needs and be easy for them to use, but also be inviting for them to adopt, given such things as the dynamics of their work and their attitudes about technology. An application that met these requirements was likely to be much more modest in its goals and limited in its functionality than the groupware application we were envisioning initially, but it would have to be the starting point. Only then, we thought, could we actually ask them about the kind of technology that will potentially improve their work practices, support OSV in administering resources and opportunities relative to existing social challenges, and ultimately contribute to promoting this kind of volunteerism in Brazil.

Instead of, therefore, immediately developing full-fledged groupware applications, we decided to begin by developing a more modest application technology that the volunteers could use spontaneously as opposed to through a mandatory, technologically mediated process in the organization. To stimulate its use, we chose to focus on the communication problem our informants had reported, because it would allow for a simple solution, and all members, as well as the organization, could benefit from it. Specifically, we decided to build a prototype bulletin board application on which ASCR community members could read and post news that is relevant or interesting for their activities.

Building the First Prototype

We assumed that a bulletin board was a technologically simple application that could be easily introduced with minimal or no training to this community. Our first prototype was custom-designed for ASCR in the Web environment. We incorporated familiar signs of ASCR’s location, practices, officials and employees, and so on. We emphasized online help in all Oré prototypes and applications, given the purpose of introducing technology. To achieve this end, we followed a model-based approach for both application design [2] and help system design. We assumed that using presentation patterns and a bulletin board function frequently found on the Web might make it easier for infrequent users to learn and use the application, given the possibility to transfer knowledge from other applications to ours, and vice versa. Thus, for example, in our prototype, nonauthenticated users can only browse and search public announcements, whereas authenticated users can post and edit announcements in addition to browsing and searching. Announcements can be classified into sections, which are viewed in a single page. A navigation bar allows users to browse all other sections in the bulletin board. We have chosen to design multiple entry points for the help system, close to the contextual signs to which they applied. Figure 1a shows the Web page for visualizing announcements in a section, and Figure 1b shows the Web page for searching. The latter contains a search form of the type commonly found on Web pages.

Learning from the Exploratory Prototype Evaluation

Having developed this prototype, we next set out to understand how users perceived it. When preparing the prototype for initial exploratory evaluation, we loaded both factual and fictional (although plausible) announcements in our database. We then performed some exploratory communicability evaluation tests [8] with six members of ASCR. We wanted to learn how well our solution would be understood and used by the members of ASCR, and about unanticipated challenges we might face. Among the six participants were two who had been interviewed during the user studies phase. We included users with varying levels of computer literacy (for instance, one used ICQ to communicate with other family members) and belonging to different age groups (early 30s to late 60s). The tasks involved finding specific announcements and creating and editing announcements.

Three of the six participants were able to perform all the tasks, and their tests pointed out only some minor usability problems in the interface. The other three, however, had a lot of difficulties in completing tasks, including some that were quite interesting to us. For example, when looking for specific announcements in the bulletin board, we expected users to try to match the textual content they wanted the announcement to contain. As is the case with most search forms, the content of the fields is combined in an "AND" search expression. But instead of adding up words to refine the search, two participants tried to add up words to increase the chances that a term not found in a first trial would be found in a second or third attempt. They did not realize that rather than broadening their search, they were increasingly constraining it. Another interesting observation occurred when participants were asked to change some data on an announcement they had previously created. Our goal was to observe whether they understood how to edit announcements. But, to our surprise, two of our six participants didn’t even think of editing it. They simply created another announcement that rectified the previous one. This suggested to us that these participants did not grasp the life cycle of an announcement on an electronic bulletin board. They didn’t understand that an announcement is not like a message that has been mailed to people, which, if it contains an error, needs to be followed by a separate message with a correction.

bullet.gif Redesign

On the basis of our findings, we redesigned a set of mock-up Web pages, in an attempt to further simplify the bulletin board interface. For example, we decided to include more instructional information directly into the user-interface screens: contextualized tips and brief instructions within the working space, as well as more explicit instructions in visually distinct areas. On the search page, we decided to move from structured search fields corresponding to the actual database model to unstructured fields in which users may type in any word to appear in any of the database fields. We also made explicit two alternative search options: to search for announcements in which at least one of or all of the typed-in words appear. Figures 2a and 2b show mockups of announcement visualization and search form pages, respectively, for our second prototype.

We discussed the proposed changes with four of our prospective users. Two of them, the general manager and the database designer, had been participants in our tests and experienced some of the difficulties reported in this paper. They had also participated in the first initial definition of the technology to be offered. We focused the discussion on the expected social impacts of each of the prototypes and the time necessary for having them available to ASCR.

Conclusions

In the Oré project we followed a user-centered approach. A key lesson has been the amount of effort we should dedicate to a strategy for technology adoption. The introduction of technology and its impact in the organization were previously considered a challenge for groupware designers [4]. However, in the Oré project, this introduction is different from changing users’ work practice in commercial or industrial organizations, because the gains in the quality of processes and individual productivity are not the main motivation of our community of volunteers. We must gently introduce them to computers, in such a way that they will be motivated to freely adopt the technology (and thus, eventually, help ASCR achieve its organizational goals).

Our work with this community of social volunteers requires skills and knowledge that go beyond user-centered design as practiced for improving work. Addressing subtle and important psychological and cultural factors requires concerted support from researchers and professionals from many other disciplines that typically have not been involved with studying technology from this perspective, particularly psychology, sociology, and anthropology. We believe the lessons learned here can be useful to people working with OSVs worldwide, as well as to those working toward bridging the digital divide anywhere.

References

1. Barbosa, C.M.A.; de Souza, C.S.; Nicolaci-da-Costa, A.M.; and Prates, R.O. Using the underlying discourse unveiling method to understand organizations of social volunteers. In Anais do V Simpósio sobre Fatores Humanos em Sistemas Computacionais, IHC’2002 [Proceedings of the Fifth Workshop on Human Factors in Computer Systems, CHI 2002], Fortaleza, CE, Brazil (Oct. 2002).

2. Barbosa, S.D.J.; de Souza, C.S.; Paula, M.G.; and Silveira, M.S. Modelo de interação como ponte entre o modelo de tarefas e a especificação da interface (in Portuguese). In Anais do V Simpósio sobre Fatores Humanos em Sistemas Computacionais, IHC’2002 [Proceedings of the Fifth Workshop on Human Factors in Computer Systems, CHI 2002], Fortaleza, CE, Brazil (Oct. 2002).

3. de Souza, C.S.; Prates, R.O.; Carey, T. Missing and declining affordances: Are these appropriate concepts? Journal of the Brazilian Computer Society 6, 3 (2000), Campinas-São Paulo, Brazil.

4. Grudin, J. Groupware and social dynamics: Eight challenges for developers. Communications of the ACM 37, 1 (Jan. 1994), pp. 58-93.

5. Ministério da Ciência e Tecnologia (Ministry of Science and Technology) home page, 2000. Available at www.mct.gov.br

6. Nicolaci-da-Costa, A.M. Análise de discurso e pesquisa qualitativa (in Portuguese). In Sociedade de Psicologia de Ribeirão Preto, Anais da 18a Reuni˜o Anual de Psicologia [Proceedings of the 18th Annual Psychology Meeting], 1989, pp. 501-504.

7. Organizar, Refletir, Evoluir [Organize, Reflect, Evolve] (ORÉ) Project home page, 2002. Available at www.serg.inf.puc-rio.br/ore

8. Prates, R.O.; de Souza, C.S.; and Barbosa, S.D.J. A method for evaluating the communicability of user interfaces. ACM interactions (Jan.-Feb. 2000), pp. 31-38.

9. Renascer, Associação Saúde-Criança Renascer [Health-Child Rebirth Association] home page, 2002. Available at www.saude-crianca.org.br

10. RIOVOLUNTÁRIO home page, 2002. Available at www.riovoluntario.org.br

11. RNP, Rede Nacional de Pesquisa [National Research Network] home page, 2002. Available at www.rnp.br

12. Seligman, L. Adoption as sensemaking: Toward an adopter-centered process model of IT adoption. In Proceedings of the 21st International Conference on Information Systems (Dec. 2000, Australia), pp. 361-370.

Authors

Clarisse Sieckenius de Souza has a Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics from PUC-Rio. She joined that institution’s Informatics Department in 1988. Her main topics of interest include semiotic engineering, user interface language design, knowledge representation and acquisition, and discourse organization in distributed information systems. She heads the Semiotic Engineering Research Group (SERG). She has also been a visiting scholar or professor at CSLI (Stanford University), SLIS (Indiana University - Bloomington), LT3 (University of Waterloo) and IFSM (University of Maryland Baltimore County).

Raquel O. Prates holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science from the Informatics Department at PUC-Rio, Brazil. She is an Associate Professor at the Computer Science and Informatics Department at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ) and a coordinator and associate researcher at the Semiotic Engineering Research Group (SERG). Aside from her academic work in HCI, Raquel has been deeply involved in the national and international HCI communities. She is currently SIGCHI’s Vice-Chair for Local SIGs and member of the committees for CLIHC 2003 and CHI 2003.

Simone Diniz Junqueira Barbosa has a Ph.D. in Informatics from PUC-Rio, Brazil. She has worked as a consultant in HCI and software design of commercial applications and Web sites, as well as in training and education. From 1999 to 2001, she was an Associate Researcher in HCI at Tecgraf/PUC-Rio. In 2001, she joined the Informatics Department at PUC-Rio as an Assistant Professor, with research interests in End-User Programming, Model-based User Interface Design, Communicability and Intelligent User Interfaces.

Footnotes

Acknowledgments
We would like to thank PUC-Rio and CNPq for their support to the Oré Project. Clarisse Sieckenius de Souza and Simone D.J. Barbosa would also like to thank CNPq for its individual research grants. Raquel O. Prates would like to thank UERJ for her individual research grant.

Figures

F1Figure 1. Sample pages from an Oré prototype: (a) viewing announcements and (b) search form.

F2Figure 2. Sample pages of the second prototype: (a) announcement display and (b) search form.

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