During the past few years, there has been an explosion of interest in human-computer interaction for development (HCI4D). But what does this mean for the HCI community? It is not simply design for development, which emphasizes producing technologies that address goals such as poverty reduction and increasing literacy. While these are important goals, there are other ways in which HCI research can benefit users in the developing world. First and foremost, it’s necessary to understand and design technology that supports users’ routine activitieschild rearing, reading the paper, puttering around the house, and communicating with family and friendsthat are as much a part of life in developing countries as they are in developed ones.
In this article, I draw from data collected during fieldwork conducted at home and abroad in which I focused on users’ everyday interactions with technology. In both studies, I examined understudied user groups, higher-income professionals in Nairobi, Kenya, and Kenyan immigrants in Atlanta, GA. Findings from these studies highlight how studying everyday ICT use in developing countries and transnational communication can broaden current HCI4D discourse in two ways. First, prior research in this area tends to create a “here versus there” dichotomy that restricts understanding of how limited access to technology is a global and local issue. In other words, lack of technology infrastructure and access to computers are problems not confined to developing countries, but that also have implications for users in the U.S. Second, I hope to broaden how the HCI4D community imagines users in developing countries. Specifically, studying users’ everyday interactions has the potential to expand the community’s current focus on developing technologies to address poverty and literacy to include a broader range of issues.
HCI4D research primarily examines how to apply user-centered design principles to developing and evaluating ICTs for users in low-income countries. Notable projects include Parikh’s development of a mobile-phone application for microfinance institutions in rural India  and Kam’s work on using mobile-phone games to improve literacy among students in underserved communities . These efforts rightly focus on the design and evaluation of new systems that could help uplift emerging nations economically and socially. In doing so, this research reveals significant differences that emerge when deploying ICTs outside of traditional sites of study. Some differences are due to lack of infrastructure or resources, while others center on cultural dissimilarities between Western and non-Western users. These studies have broadened HCI discourse to include users living in developing regions and imagine innovative ways in which computing can address poverty reduction and illiteracy. Yet these studies arguably shape how users are characterized in developing countries, and in turn, these factors limit our understanding of these users and their technology needs.
Prior HCI4D research focused on a particular user population. A review of older HCI4D literature noted existing research overwhelmingly concentrated on users living in rural areas, with low income and education levels . By contrast, my interest is users who interact with computer technology in ways that are comparable to those in previous HCI4D studies, but whose actual styles of use are shaped by their different social, economical, and technological contexts. Specifically, those I interviewed and observed in Nairobi lived in an urban area, were literate, were college educated and in some cases had advanced educational degrees. These individuals traveled to the UK and U.S. and often exchanged email with family members and coworkers living in these countries.
Second, prior HCI4D studieslike many formative studies in HCItended to take place in a single society. This approach unintentionally conceptualizes users and technology as if they were disconnected from other spaces and times. While the community’s attention has broadened to include global concerns such as HCI4D, sustainability, and religion, HCI researchers’ dominant approaches to conducting user studies remain focused on disconnected sites rather than the relationships between them . To understand global phenomenon, HCI researchers must consider how some topics can no longer be considered in purely local or disconnected terms. I present findings from my fieldwork and use them to elaborate on these issues and to discuss their significance for HCI.
Following six weeks of fieldwork in Nairobi , I uncovered several factors affecting the exchange of information online, specifically differing notions of responsiveness and limited bandwidth. First, for participants working in transnational organizations, the challenge was the frequent need to communicate with people in other countries. For example, participants regularly received email from American coworkers but unreliable Internet connectivity affected how quickly they could respond to these messages. When participants were not at work, they were unable to follow the ongoing email threads taking place among their coworkers in the U.S., because they had limited Internet access outside of the workplace. During interviews, participants told me they were concerned that their colleagues overseas would view their delayed email responses as an indication of a “poor work ethic” rather than a reflection of their Internet access. Managing different expectations for responsiveness and alerting those in more connected environments about their colleagues’ intermittent and (at best) slow Internet access was a struggle for participants.
Second, participants consistently told me how the scarcity of Internet access affected their ability to communicate online. Even in environments where a given location (such as an office) had good connectivity, available bandwidth to international websites (such as free webmail providers or photo-sharing websites) is limited, which not surprisingly frustrated many participants, particularly when they were communicating with coworkers in infrastructure-rich settings such as the U.S. and the UK. For example, Kenyan professionals employed by Western transnational organizations noted how colleagues abroad were sometimes unaware that they lacked constant high-speed Internet connectivity. Exchanging information artifacts such as documents, spreadsheets, URLs, and presentations is an integral part of distributed collaboration, and users with fast connections distribute such attachments effortlessly. However, downloading and uploading large files can take hours without high-speed broadband, crippling some email software that does not allow users to refuse or defer attachments.
While Kenya’s internal and external connectivity is improving steadily, these issues will likely persist. Increasing the availability and reducing the costs of network access requires expansion of network infrastructure, which is costly. Bandwidth in developing countries will remain an issue until bandwidth prices significantly drop and Internet services improve. Social norms surrounding timely responses to email will likely resist change. Thus, there is a need to develop technology interventions that account for the infrastructural differences between developing countries and the U.S. Collaborative tools and email clients can be augmented to help reconcile differences in response times to alert those with higher connectivity speeds and easier access to the Internet about those with different levels of access. A simple idea along these lines is illustrated by the Google Mail feature that exposes the “sender’s time zone.” I imagine a similar feature could be designed that communicates whether users have access to the Internet. In turn, this might create greater awareness among users in the developed world about infrastructural differences in countries like Kenya.
In addition to highlighting design opportunities, this project also prompted me to consider how ICT access was an issue not confined to developing countries, but one that also had local implications. This led me to examine users who understood the possibilities and limitations associated with global Internet access: Kenyan immigrants living in the U.S.
Thus, in a second study I interviewed individuals who regularly navigate the infrastructural obstacles affecting global engagement online. The study involved observational fieldwork and unstructured interviews with members of a Kenyan immigrant church located in metro-Atlanta. This understudied user group provided me with an excellent entry point for investigating how limited Internet access affects both people overseas and those in the U.S.
During a two-month study, I saw some similarities between computer use among immigrants and participants interviewed in Nairobi, such as a reluctance to exchange large files with people overseas. For example, participants often took pictures documenting their life in the U.S., such as photos of children graduating from school or images of a new car or home. Although they wanted to share these experiences with friends and family in their “home” country, they knew the slow download speeds might frustrate those with limited Internet connectivity. Thus, rather than relying on the Internet to exchange pictures with friends and family abroad, participants sent photos via postal mail or with a person in their church who was traveling to Kenya. Interestingly, this finding illustrates how new forms of digital communication do not always replace analog ones.
During interviews, I probed to understand why this analog form of exchange was prioritized over newer digital forms; participants noted the infrastructural and cost problems uncovered during my fieldwork in Nairobi. Surprisingly, they also spoke of the convenience associated with this form of information exchange. This struck me because the dominant idea underlying technology development was its role in making life more convenient for users. Indeed, in my own mind I perceived sending and receiving photographs via email as easier and more efficient than printing and mailing them. However, for many participants, sending pictures to friends and family in Kenya meant asking them to access a computer at a cyber cafe. Given that the Internet is vastly slower in Kenya than in most parts of the U.S., sending large files meant making someone spend extra time and money at a cafe waiting for images to download. Thus, asking a friend from church to take pictures on a return trip to Kenya or even sending them via postal mail was preferable to using the Internet. Further, participants appeared to enjoy the personal touch that came with sending a package of pictures, as well as other items, to friends and family at home. This feeling could not easily be replicated online.
In addition to highlighting new design opportunities, these findings highlight the limitations of investigating ICT use in a single context (e.g., solely in the U.S. or solely in Kenya). Accelerated movements of technologies, finances, and cultural migrants have generated an understanding of place and community that can no longer be considered in purely local terms . However, HCI research tends to focus on local, place-based scenarios, overlooking the new forms of interconnectedness resulting from flows of capital and labor, especially with regard to immigration from sub-Saharan Africa to the U.S. These global changes suggest focusing on connections between sites, rather than the sites themselves, may be useful for uncovering how changing contexts condition the meanings and uses of technology. Fieldwork investigating the linkages between sites, or what is described as multi-sited ethnography, can provide greater insight into how world systems affect local and global communities . This knowledge is essential for HCI researchers studying global problems such as sustainability.
Multidimensional Users in HCI4D
There are parallels between this work and Gaver’s recent exploration into designing for older adults. He and his colleagues developed the Prayer Companion, a device created as a resource for the spiritual activity of a group of elderly cloistered nuns . It is important to note that they did not build the device for older people in general, but for a specific category of peoplenunswho happened to be old. Rather than focusing on disability, memory loss, or other unpleasant changes that occur as people age, Gaver’s focus on spirituality presents the HCI community with another dimension of older adults. Understanding that faith, like declining cognitive and physical abilities, is a part of growing older motivated a novel design idea.
There is a lesson in this approach that can shape the communities’ understanding of designing for users in developing countries. Specifically, my focus on everyday communications between users in Kenya and the U.S. presents the community with a more holistic, or multidimensional, way to imagine users in developing countries. Like Gaver, I believe developing a more holistic understanding of users is an effective way for designers (including myself) to overcome stereotypes that unconsciously affect how users are imagined and, in turn, how the technologies are developed for them.
To be clear, my intention is not to criticize prior HCI4D efforts. Indeed, my own thinking about these topics could not have evolved without the prior groundbreaking work done in this area. Instead, as other researchers work in this area, I hope to see them build on these early efforts by focusing on a broader range of topics and understanding the commonalities, rather than differences, among users living in different countries.
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Susan Wyche is a Computing Innovation Fellow at Virginia Tech’s Center for Human-Computer Interaction. Her research focuses on human-computer interaction, design, and cultural studies of technology.
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