XXVII.3 May - June 2020
Page: 61
Digital Citation

Designing for aspirations

Kentaro Toyama

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About a dozen years ago, I visited a rural area in Jhansi, in the heart of India, to visit projects run by a social enterprise called Development Alternatives. The organization's mission was to find ways to improve local livelihoods sustainably. I still remember how impoverished the area seemed to me. The houses were made of mud bricks and thatched roofs. Everyone looked thin and undernourished. Both children and adults went without shoes and wore tattered clothing. They were getting by on dollar-a-day earnings—"extreme poverty," as classified by the World Bank. It seemed obvious to me that they needed more income.

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My guide was S. Sahni, a retired Indian Air Force major general who was vice president at Development Alternatives. Sahni was a tall man whose wit and brisk walking speed belied his gray hair and slight stoop. He first took me to one of Development Alternatives' computer telecenters—a kind of community Internet cafe. But by then, I had seen many such centers, all struggling to generate sustainable financing and meaningful impact; this one seemed no different. Sahni, too, seemed aware of the project's limits, and he soon introduced me to a project closer to his heart: the local check dam.

Check dams are short, concrete dams that slow the flow of water along a river. Building a check dam at the downstream end of a village community saturates the soil in the area with water. In the dry, wheat-growing region of Jhansi, this allowed farmers to harvest two crops each year, instead of just one, effectively doubling the entire village's income in one stroke.

ins02.gif S. Sahni speaking with villagers in rural Jhansi.

Sahni then told me a story that has stayed with me ever since: He believed that with a slight adjustment to their planting schedule, the villagers could have three harvests a year, leading to triple their original income. But as he tried to mobilize the community toward this goal, he met with unexpected resistance. There was grumbling within the community: "Who is this old man, who has nothing better to do than walk from village to village trying to make us do more work?" Having recently seen their income rise dramatically, the villagers were satisfied with their new financial status. Sahni smiled and said, "You know, there's no point pushing people beyond what they want for themselves."

What people want for themselves. In both human-computer interaction and global development, practitioners often ask what people want, and the question is frequently answered using the language of needs. We conduct needs assessments and seek to understand user needs.

The focus on needs is traceable to a common root: In the late 1970s, Roger Kaufman popularized needs assessments for designing educational technology [1]. He meant for needs assessments to reveal the requirements of an ideal solution, but as the concept spread to other fields—including HCI and international development—there was a shift in what the needs applied to. Instead of focusing on the needs of solutions, we now tend to think of the needs of people who might use the solutions. So, for example, in HCI, we might speak of the needs of users who are shopping online for shoes. In international development, we might say that people have needs such as food, clean water, and healthcare. As soon as challenges are cast as people's needs, though, the goal quickly becomes to meet the need. In design, Don Norman expresses this succinctly: Good design, he says, "puts human needs, capabilities, and behavior first, then designs to accommodate those needs, capabilities, and ways of behaving... We have to accept human behavior the way it is, not the way we would wish it to be" [2].

Social change, however, requires change that is social. To reduce educational inequality, those without a quality education must be supported in absorbing skills and knowledge they do not have. To strengthen democracy and governance, citizens and leaders must embrace not only elections but also the fair rule of law. To eliminate sexism and racism, everyone must internalize the moral and political equality of all human beings. For meaningful social change, we cannot accept human behavior the way it is. People themselves must change.

Where needs originate in negative emotions such as fear or loneliness, aspirations engage hope and optimism.

Ryan Watkins, one of Kaufman's closest collaborators, noted that Kaufman himself thought deeply about what a need was and distinguished between "what [people] can't live without" and the "a gap in results" between "what is" and "what should be" [3]. Needs assessments were supposed to be about the latter. Much of the problem with the way we conduct needs assessments today comes from a misinterpretation of Kaufman.

Whatever the definition, though, needs tend to be based on constraint and deficiency, resulting in problem-solving and solutionism as the response. This is exacerbated when there's a presumption that technology must be part of the solution, as is almost always the case in HCI.

But, isn't everything problem-solving? What else is worth doing? It's true that if our goal is to make the world a better place, some kind of problem-solving, defined broadly, is always involved. I'd like to propose, though, that there are many contexts in which we don't think of the overall goal as problem-solving, per se. For example, in child-rearing, we don't think of our children as problems to be solved. Yes, there are individual problems, such as "How do we wean her off of diapers?" or "How do we respond when they become a rebellious teenager?" Perhaps there is even the occasional "problem child," though the fact that we would hesitate to say that to their face suggests our own misgivings about the label. In child-rearing, our overall intention is not to solve a problem as much as it is to nurture, to help our children become the best versions of themselves. Similarly, suppose we're interested in supporting a rural farming community to engage in more productive agriculture. Again, there are individual problems, such as "How can we best convey information to the farmers?" or "How can we help them overcome obstacles to implementation?" But our overall intention is not problem-solving as much as community-nurturing. We would hesitate to tell the community that they are a problem to be solved, or something broken to be fixed. Putting aside the loss of trust and rapport that might cause, it is troubling to think of people and communities as problems.


What, then, is the alternative? Instead of focusing on needs, what if we focused on aspirations? By aspirations, I mean persistent desires that people have for themselves that aim for something better than their current situation. The desire for financial security might be an aspiration. Dreams to earn a college degree, to launch a successful business, or to become a world-class musician are also aspirations. The wish to give back to society is an aspiration for some. I emphasize that aspirations, at least as I'm using the word here, are persistent. The desire to go to the bathroom is not an aspiration—once relieved, the desire goes away. The desire to own the latest iPhone is not an aspiration, for a similar reason. But such a desire might be expressing a deeper aspiration for greater productivity, higher social status, or more community. The desire for food is not an aspiration—it is either met or leads to dire consequences. The desire for enough financial security that hunger ceases to be a recurring concern, however, could be an aspiration.

As for "something better," who defines it? As a practical matter, I've found that when you ask people about their aspirations, they naturally tend to express goals that most people would agree as having positive moral valence. Over the years, I have posed the following question in surveys, in interviews, and in private conversations, to several thousand people from all over the world with a range of economic backgrounds: "Of those things that you have some control over, what would you most like to change about yourself or your life over the next five years?" (This phrasing translates well across languages and consistently elicits longer-term desires.) The responses can be clustered into just seven categories, indicating desires for greater income, a more fulfilling career, a better standard of living, more education, a stronger family, an improved self, or more social impact—not a single person named a desire that could be easily categorized as negative. This fortuitous fact (of human nature?) allows us to focus on aspirations without worrying that we are supporting questionable activity, while taking the edge off of moral questions about paternalism and external imposition. The objective is to support others to achieve what they aspire to themselves.

Where needs originate in negative emotions such as fear or loneliness, aspirations engage hope and optimism. Where needs coerce, aspirations inspire. Where needs are easy to impose from the outside, as we saw with Sahni's story of check dams, aspirations exist within the person or the community. Where needs are fleeting, aspirations are persistent, supplying the necessary longer-term motive force for human change. Where needs tend to apply only to the impoverished and marginalized, aspirations apply even to the wealthy and powerful. And, where needs elicit charity and problem-solving, aspirations elicit encouragement and mentorship.

As a practical matter, though, what does an aspiration focus mean for HCI? First, when designing for social change, it's at least as important to ask about people's aspirations as it is to ask about their needs and challenges. Even after mulling the idea of aspirations for several years, I find in my own work that I still forget to ask my research participants about their aspirations. The ingrained habit of wanting to understand the problem distracts me from asking about dreams and possibilities. If, instead, I prioritized aspirations, then it would lead naturally to wanting to understand the obstacles to achieving them as well.

Second, focusing on aspirations ought to change how we think about solutions. I believe this can be done in two broad ways. One way is to identify an aspiration and hook desirable actions onto it. For example, the economist Rob Jensen found that if just two young women from the rural communities surrounding Delhi were given office jobs that paid well by village standards, other girls from those communities became better fed and educated [4]. Local families likely had aspirations for greater income, and when they saw the economic potential of their girl children, decided to invest more in them. Digital technologies, incidentally, could be used in this case to make such examples more visible to local families, or to improve the rate of rural hiring. The other way is simply to support people's aspirations directly, and anticipate that as they achieve their goals, they will move onto other aspirations in Maslovian fashion [5]. The residents of Sahni's village seemed to have satisfied their previous aspiration for greater income. What would they aspire to next?

Third, there is a host of research that could be done to better understand aspirations and their role in social change. How can we systematically understand people's aspirations? Are there such things as collective aspirations, and if so, how can we determine them? Is it possible to measure aspirations? What are the best ways to encourage social change through aspirations? What are the different ways in which digital technologies can engage with aspirations?

Ultimately, social change requires a shift in people's thoughts, behaviors, attitudes, and values. For that, we should neither accommodate people as they are, nor impose our own ideas of how they should be. I believe that leaves us with little other than to support people—individually or collectively—in achieving their own aspirations.

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1. Kaufman, R.A. and English, F.W. Needs Assessment: Concept and Application. Educational Technology, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1979.

2. Norman, D.A. The Design of Everyday Things. Basic Books, New York, 2002.

3. Watkins, R. Needs and needs assessment: The influence of Roger Kaufman on defining a term and creating a field of study. In Inglomayor Volume 11. R. Acevedo, ed., 2016.

4. Jensen, R. Do labor market opportunities affect young women's work and family decisions? Experimental evidence from India. Quarterly Journal of Economics 127, 2 (2012), 753–792.

5. Toyama, K. Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology. PublicAffairs, 2015.

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Kentaro Toyama is W.K. Kellogg Professor of Community Information at the University of Michigan School of Information, a Fellow at the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT, and author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology.

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