Forum: under development

XIII.2 March + April 2006
Page: 39
Digital Citation

Designing technology for the developing world

Gary Marsden

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"Under Development" is a new column that discusses the practice of HCI in developing countries. To contribute, contact Gary Marsden at

Governments across the planet are currently taking steps to eradicate poverty in the developing world. Whether spurred by humanitarians such as the musician Bono or their own consciences, governments are making serious attempts to eradicate the gap between developed and developing nations. Those of us interested in technology know how, theoretically at least, Information and Communications Technology (ICT) can be used in developing countries to help provide education and empower those who are, or were formerly, marginalized.

If we are being honest, however, I think most us are ignorant of the complexities and subtleties of the problem. Even those already working in developing countries can easily become bored or frustrated by issues around the digital divide. There seem to be so many initiatives that claim to bridge the divide—governments, companies, and philanthropic agencies all pour funding and energy into the developing world—yet nothing much seems to change. As always, however, the truth is a little more interesting.

Here's my personal story: I moved from London to South Africa with the goal of taking a year's career break. Six years later, I am still in South Africa, facing more interesting and complex challenges than anything I found in London. Before I moved here, I had the image of a continent where every intervention or effort seemed doomed to failure. Having lived here for six years now, I still see failed technologies (this is a global phenomenon), but I have also seen spectacular successes that have impacted people's lives in a way that is hard to imagine in the developed world. As a researcher in HCI, my natural inclination is to understand the social, personal, and technological reasons why some technologies succeed where others do not. And this is the core of what the new column is about: How do we create and develop technology that is relevant to the developing world?

At this point, I imagine some of you are already glancing at the next page as the question posed above may seem either irrelevant or trivial. Stay with me a little while longer. I admit that I, too, once felt the same but have had to change my beliefs.

Creating technology for the developing world may, at first, seem trivial. There has been a lot published on creating cross-cultural interfaces and, besides, people are essentially the same the world over, aren't they? No. Almost every time we run a project here in Africa, some of our fundamental assumptions about people are challenged. One story relayed to me when I first arrived was of a user-observation session in which the instructor asked the user to click on the "OK" button of a dialog box. The user replied that he could not see any buttons. When the instructor pointed to the button on the screen, the user replied that he was not pointing at a button, but a picture of a button. The user came from an environment without access to high-quality imagery and thus did not have the association that an image of a thing represented the actual thing. And it is not just this type of interpretive misunderstanding that emerges. Human-centered design methodologies also come unstuck in the developing world, as they assume that the users know something about the technologies involved. Some of our research has led us to work with people who have never even made a telephone call. Running a project with this type of user, making sure that they feel like an equal member of the team, and ensuring that the project output truly meets their needs are real challenges.

So why bother? This work may be interesting for its own sake, but is it relevant to the core of human-computer interaction? Yes! I think one can make a strong argument on two levels. The first level is purely a commercial one: Where are new customers coming from? The developed world is fairly saturated in technology. Customers have computers, cellular telephones, etc., which are largely good enough to meet their needs. Consequently, the fastest-growing cellular market in the world is Africa, with an annual growth rate of 65 percent [1]. People in the developing world are not yet saturated with technology but are keen to acquire it, provided it meets a real need in their lives.

On a more fundamental level, we have found that the extreme environment in the developing world leads us to develop solutions that never would have occurred to us had we been based in the developed world. In one project we had to develop an asynchronous search system for PDAs, to cope with network outages. After we built the system, we discovered that users preferred to leave the PDA in asynchronous mode even when the network was up—often it was socially not appropriate to do a "live" search (e.g., the users were in a lecture) but wanted the system to do the search for them in the background [2, 3]. If we worked in an environment where the network was always there, we would never have considered this solution.

By now I hope I have convinced you that, besides the altruistic reasons, there are some good financial and scientific reasons to become involved in designing technology for the developing world. And if you don't end up doing research in this field, you will at least read the column and send your ideas to us.

To those of you already involved, you will know that the community is relatively small and disjointed. I hope that this column can play a small part in pulling the community together and forming a better understanding of the context in which we work. Therefore, if you have case studies, research findings or profiles of your work, please send them to me——for inclusion in the column. There is some world-changing research being done out there, and we hope you let us share it with the wider CHI community.

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1. African telecommunication Indicators 2004. Last visited 3rd Febuary 2005

2. E. H. Blake and W. D. Tucker (2005). User Interfaces for Communication Bridges Across the Digital Divide. AI & Society, Springer-Verlag, 19(3).

3. Jones, M, G Buchanan, P Jain and G Marsden (2003) From Sit-Forward to Lean-Back: Using a Mobile Device to Vary Interactive Pace. In Proceedings Mobile HCI, pages 390-394, Udine, Italy.

back to top  Author

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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