Special topic: Interact Comes to India: Field Trips as a Culture of Design Praxis

XXV.3 May-June 2018
Page: 46
Digital Citation

Engaging different worlds, one field trip at a time

Sumita Sharma, Andreea Niculescu, Grace Eden, Gavin Sim, Dhvani Toprani, Biju Thankachan, Janet Read, Markku Turunen, Pekka Kallioniemi

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In this field trip, nine HCI researchers from different cultures, backgrounds, and nationalities came together for two hours to discuss the role of technology in the daily life of nine parents and their children from Dharavi. The stories shared varied from the experiences of parents wanting their children to study more and play videos games less, to a point-blank question about the need for technology and the Internet. There was a shared reminiscence of a socially driven past, a hope for a better, technology-capable future, and a critique of the present-day fuss over technology. People whose paths would not have crossed otherwise shared some laughs, some unexpected questions, and an unparalleled social experience, starting with having to sit on the floor in a circle. This article discusses the potential and perceived value of such a field trip toward engaging people from different worlds with respect to the HCI goals of design for good and HCI for development.


The field trip aimed to understand parental perspectives of low-income urban communities toward educational technology for their children. Parents are one of the driving forces and motivators for long-term educational technology adoption and acceptance, especially for children with low technology access. Studies with rural Indian parents have highlighted several challenges and opportunities in technology adoption and acceptance among low-literate rural communities [1]. However, since parents in urban areas are more exposed to technology (e.g., smartphones, tablets, and computers) in their environment, this presents different design opportunities. Thus, what works for one group may not work for the other. The one-day field trip used a semi-structured discussion framework based on economic, sociocultural (e.g., social practices, technology aspirations, positive aspects and expectations, and inhibitions), and organizational and environmental (e.g., current state of technology usage in the school, expectations from teachers, and supporting infrastructure) perspectives. We divided into three groups for discussions, where each group adopted a slightly different interaction approach, from the intermittent translation of responses for international researchers to summarizing the responses to each question in both English and Hindi. This variation in the level of interaction influenced the experiences of the Indian and international researchers, the group dynamics and interactions, and what we perceived as the parents’ experience—and therefore, the value gained from being there, for everyone involved.

back to top  Insights


ins03.gif Group discussion at Dharavi.

back to top  Technology Hype and Everyday Life

The first group consisted of one Indian and two international researchers, and two parents. The parents spoke Hindi and a variant of Marathi, spoken by the Koli community to which they belonged. Surprisingly, the Indian researcher also belonged to the same community. It soon became apparent that technology for the parents meant a TV and 2G mobile phones. However, the discussion framework assumed that parents are using a smartphone or computer technology. The two parents in this group did not use smartphones or computers with their children, their husbands, or even by themselves. Putting the questionnaire aside, the researchers began an open-ended conversation with the parents. The Indian researcher enthusiastically described the benefits of having Internet access; however, the parents remained skeptical. They gently insisted that they needed their 2G phones only to make and receive calls, and that their husbands added new names and numbers into the phones. As is common with users with low levels of literacy, the parents used a mnemotechnic approach to retrieve names in their phone’s contacts [2]. Their 2G phones were carefully wrapped in small towels to protect them from the humidity and the notorious Mumbai rains. When asked if there was an Internet cafe near their home, they said they were not sure.

The researchers realized that even though the parents had what would be considered a low technology-adoption profile, they felt that they were not at any disadvantage. Their children attended a local school, they paid their electricity bills at a local shop, and they were updated about most things that mattered to them through conversations with neighbors and merchants. They simply did not feel the need to use the phones for anything other than calls, and especially not for the Internet. They exclaimed that they would probably be scolded by their husbands for wasting time on the Internet instead of doing their usual chores (an example of maintaining traditional gender roles). For one of the parents, the Indian researcher changed the phone’s language to Marathi, and in a very short time it appeared as if she gained a proficiency with her phone that she had not had before. The other parent continued to use the English-language setting because she had become familiar and comfortable with reading English letters as symbols.

From the perspective of the parents, this encounter with seemingly technology-obsessed researchers could range from mildly amusing to annoying, because of the wait that ensued as the other groups finished. For the researchers, who were new to fieldwork in India, this provided an opportunity to interact with a completely fresh world, possibly reevaluate their understanding of the digital divide, and experience firsthand the resourcefulness and ingenuity of people for whom a specific technology was not explicitly designed. Advocating changes to people’s lives that include the introduction of new technologies can be difficult (and resisted) unless there is a perceived benefit or a need that they themselves identify [3].

back to top  “Mobiles are as Good as They are Bad”

A second group, with one Indian and two international researchers, and three parents, went through the entire discussion framework. The parents of this group spoke fluent Hindi and short sentences in English, using several technical terms like using Google search for (their children’s school) and project work, and naming applications, such as WhatsApp, WiFi, Facebook, Chrome, and Google DUO. With summaries of the responses from the parents in both English and Hindi, the international researchers could ask follow-up questions. When asked about technology improvements they would like to see, one parent reflected profoundly, in Hindi, “Mobiles are as good as they are bad.” This was followed by several stories on the dark side of technology, as heard on the news or from friends. From the harmful consequences of mobile and other social games where teenagers are asked to complete dares that are increasingly harmful, with the potential to be fatal. To the disappearing population of the local sparrows due to radiation from cellphone towers, which was apparently made popular in the Indian media by a famous Bollywood actress and her campaign against cell-tower radiation within the city. The parents also shared their concerns and expectations for technology—to be more than just games for fun, for instance, and enhance their child’s skill development and learning. They asked for recommendations for mathematics and language-learning applications for children; the researchers suggested Khan Academy and Duolingo. This exchange in itself is testimony to the level of comfort shared by all in the group.

Although the parents were not asked about their experiences after the discussion, it can still be said, going by their enthusiasm, that they found the experience as engaging as the researchers. For the researchers, the discussion brought a different perspective toward what it means to design for marginalized communities. The concerns and expectations of parents, say, in the U.K., and the ones present in Dharavi during the field trip, are more or less the same. Therefore, technology design should focus on not only the perceived needs of marginalized communities but also their aspirations, which is the new mantra for emboldening HCI4D [4,5]. The human experience of raising a child in this rapidly changing technology landscape brings with it similar experiences, challenges, and maybe even opportunities for parents across the world.

back to top  The Experience of the Context

In the last group, one Indian and two international researchers with three parents covered the questionnaire framework. The parents used smartphones with data plans from a popular low-cost service provider. The parents had high aspirations for their children and saw the Internet as an enabler to access information. As part of the school’s WhatsApp group on behalf of their children, the parents communicated with class teachers and other parents. Although they were not sure how the Internet could be misused, they still preferred to play it safe by keeping an eye on their child’s mobile-phone usage. Translations of parent responses were done during conversational pauses in order to not break the communication flow; however, this created a situation where the international researchers felt isolated from the conversation, with little scope for interaction. They passively observed the discussion but could still interpret the body language a little to establish whether the responses were positive or negative. Greater interaction occurred after the formal discussion, while the group waited for the others to finish. Real-time interpreting might have enabled the international researchers to ask specific questions or talk about similar experiences, and for parents to interact with them.

ins04.gif 2G phones used by parents.
ins05.gif Researchers taking a lunch break after the discussions.

From the perspective of the parents, they might have felt as if they were being watched by a group of tourists while being interviewed, although there was no evidence that they felt uncomfortable with the international researchers’ presence. Moreover, since the researchers were all males and the parents all females, this could have created a more formal atmosphere. This group was the first to finish the discussion, which was later attributed to the “formal atmosphere.” For the researchers, the experience allowed for a greater understanding of the culture and environment in which a particular technology is used. This experience of the environmental context would have been completely missed had the discussion taken place at the conference venue instead.

back to top  Lessons Learned

The researchers shared their thoughts and experiences later that day at the conference venue and continued to discuss through email and Skype for the purpose of this article. The new perspectives gained from the one-day field trip, and how to prepare better were we to do it again, are described next.

First, it is important to understand and appreciate the diversity of digital experiences even within a supposedly homogeneous group of people. For instance, two of the parents in our field trip did not use a smartphone or the Internet, and did not feel the need to use either. However, our discussion framework assumed all parents would have online experiences. In such a case, an open-ended conversation was more effective than sticking to a fixed questionnaire. Furthermore, a backup questionnaire tailored for parents without online experience could have revealed interesting insights into people’s daily activities and where technology may or may not be useful. Therefore, when designing for communities that are marginalized or low literate, it is imperative not to clump them together and to understand the diversity within. After all, Dharavi is home to an estimated 1 million inhabitants [6].

Second, we need to decide on the degree of interpreting for international researchers. For instance, in our field trip, the level of interpreting depended on several factors: the parents’ level of comfort with the discussion topic and the languages they spoke, the level of expertise of the researchers on the topic and with fieldwork in general, and the main objective of the fieldwork. With the parents who had no online experience and did not speak Hindi or English, the researchers were very sensitive toward making them feel comfortable, and therefore focused entirely on having a conversation, which did not allow for interpreting. For the parents who were tech savvy and spoke fluent Hindi and a little English, translations were easier and more frequent. Moreover, all the researchers in this group had expertise in child-computer interaction (CCI) and were interested in probing further with follow-up questions. In the last group, researchers whose domain is CCI felt unable to contribute to the discussion because of infrequent interpreting. There was a difference in opinions among us researchers on how much to translate. In such cases, it is important to also consider the field trip’s main objective, which in this case was to engage everyone. There is, of course, great value in the diversity of the researchers’ experience and domain of expertise, but it brings with it different individual agendas—from experiencing fieldwork to a chance to expand one’s area of expertise.

It is important to understand and appreciate the diversity of digital experiences even within a supposedly homogeneous group of people.

Third, researchers need to be mindful of the fact that we come from a privileged position and that our worldview will not be applicable everywhere. For instance, low adoption of technology may not be inherently negative. The ecosystem for the residents of Dharavi seems to be quite stable—people find a way to work out solutions that work for them, for example, remembering the shapes of letters, paying bills at the local shop (rather than online), and making and receiving phone calls. What HCI researchers, especially those working for development and those with rigidly technology-dominant notions of progress, would describe as the “problematic digital divide,” was casually cast aside with laughter by the parents in our field trip, as the researchers explained to them the “wonders” of ICT. Furthermore, researchers require an understanding of the local context for a sufficient analysis of responses. When several parents mentioned the low population of sparrows or the fatal social dare game, the researchers were quite surprised. However, a quick check revealed this information to be propagated through the local news and media, thus not necessarily an outcome of living in Dharavi. This, therefore, reflects on the parents’ being up to date with the local news and information, quite possibly via their phones.

Finally, researchers need to move away from the rigid notion of what it means to design for development—that is, designing for user needs. Current design practices that focus solely on user needs are unable to support sustainable, scalable, or impactful outcomes. The technology is not always adopted in the long term, after the study has ended and the researchers have left [4,5]. Kentaro Toyama [5] urges us to think beyond designing for user needs, because that model unknowingly projects researcher or designer needs onto users. Instead, one should focus on designing for people’s aspirations. For instance, in the field trip, the different roles and backgrounds the people brought in for those hours converged on the experiences of mothers across the world wanting children to study more and play videos games less—the influence of technology in shaping our social lives every day. Aspirations for the future and experiences grounded in the present were similar the world over. HCI researchers, designers, and practitioners, with varying domains of expertise and level of fieldwork, coming together, even for two hours, and interacting directly with people of so-called marginalized communities, is the first step forward to redefining design for development and breaking misconceptions about the urban poor [3].

back to top  References

1. Pal, J., Lakshmanan, M., and Toyama, K. My child will be respected: Parental perspectives on computers and education in Rural India. Information Systems Frontiers 11, 2 (2009), 129–144.

2. Joshi, A., Welankar, N., Naveen, B.L., Kanitkar, K., and Sheikh, R. Rangoli: A visual phonebook for low-literate users. Proc. of the 10th International Conference on Human Computer Interaction with Mobile Devices and Services. ACM, 2008, 217–223.

3. Pal, J. The fallacy of good: Marginalized populations as design motivation. ACM Interactions 24, 5 (Sept.-Oct. 2017), 65–67.

4. Heeks, R. ICT4D 2.0: The next phase of applying ICT for international development. IEEE Computer 41, 6 (2008), 26–33. DOI: 10.1109/MC.2008.192.

5. Toyama, K. Design, needs, and aspirations in international development. IFIP Advances in Information and Communication Technology 504 (2017).

6. Mumbai Population; worldpopulationreview.com

back to top  Authors

Sumita Sharma is a doctoral candidate at the University of Tampere, Finland. Her research work focuses on designing and evaluating interactive educational applications for underserved Indian children from low-income urban households. This field trip is a continuation of her work, which started in New Delhi’s industrial area, Okhala. sumita.s.sharma@uta.fi

Andreea I. Niculescu is an HCI expert at the Institute for Infocomm Research, Singapore. Her main interests are in user experience and interaction design. Her work focuses on designing interfaces for speech and multimodal interactions, such as dialogue systems, chatbots, and social robots for different application areas. andreea-n@i2r.a-star.edu.sg

Grace Eden studies human-centered computing and conducts practice-based research in interaction design and user experience. She conducts empirical research using a variety of qualitative methods to identify requirements, improve usefulness and usability, and identify implications for how new technologies transform social life, behavior, communication practices, and interactions. g.eden@mmu.ac.uk

Gavin Sim is an expert in usability and user experience evaluation with children, and is part of the ChiCI Group, at the University of Central Lancashire, U.K. His research interests include the design and evaluation of technology for children with a focus on educational games and technology. grsim@uclan.ac.uk

Dhvani Toprani is a doctoral candidate in learning, design, and technology at the College of Education, Pennsylvania State University. Her research focuses on adapting diverse educational technology with young children to develop design thinking and collaboration. She specializes in designing and instructing informal learning environments that develop 21st-century skills. dhvanitoprani@psu.edu

Biju Thankachan is a doctoral candidate at the University of Tampere. His research focuses on designing, developing, and evaluating text-free user interfaces for low-literate users in India. His research interests include HCI for development and interactive and game-based mobile applications for healthcare and education for Indian users. biju.thankachan@uta.fi

Janet C. Read‘s work with children as users of interactive technology helped to define a new research field of child-computer interaction (ChiCI). Her research group at the University of Central Lancashire also looks at the design of serious games with an emphasis on children in developing countries. jcread@uclan.ac.uk

Markku Turunen is the head of the master’s program in human-technology interaction and the Pervasive Interaction research group at the University of Tampere. His research interests include novel interaction techniques, interfaces for people with special needs, and the user experience of multimodal interaction for industrial and healthcare settings. markku.turunen@uta.fi

Pekka Kallioniemi‘s doctoral research work at the University of Tampere concentrates on wayfinding in virtual environments. His research interests include interactive virtual environments employing omnidirectional videos and HCI for development, where he developed mobile applications for farmers in rural Karnataka and learning applications for children in Delhi. pekka.kallioniemi@uta.fi

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