XVII.6 November + December 2010
Page: 64
Digital Citation

UNDER DEVELOPMENTAngst, and how to overcome it

Gary Marsden

In preparing for this column, I decided to read over the nearly five years’ worth of columns that have been written regarding the design of digital systems for marginalized and developing communities in various parts of the world. Before starting to read, I suspected these columns would represent a disparate and incoherent set of ideas, given they were written by different types of people working in very different contexts. And, to some degree, that is true.

What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was that in taking a historical view, I saw a trend in the articles. I am simplifying slightly, but many of the early columns were filled with angst, as researchers wrote about their first experiences of working in the developing world and how unsure they were of what they were doing. Later columns, however, started to report insightful results and show how these interventions were impacting the target communities. In some of the more recent articles, there have even been ideas expressed of how designs and techniques created for the developing world have a place in developing-world practice. Most recently, Jussi Impiö‘s contribution to “Under Development” (May + June 2010, p. 22) reflected on the very nature of development and the nature of digital interventions, questioning if this field should exist at all.

I think it is fair to say, then, there is strong evidence this field is maturing. It was encouraging to reread these articles and not just reflect on how far this field has come, but also to be excited by the passion and commitment of the people working in it.

But I am left wondering: Does it make sense to separate developing world research from that conducted in more developed economies? At the end of the day, people are people and technology is technology, the world over. Are we doing the developing world a disservice by somehow treating it differently from the developed? To be honest, I am not entirely certain, but this is a question worth asking as we continue to grow our field.

Here, I have tried to draw out some fundamental issues that crop up time and again in the articles published in these columns. Your views may vary, but I think it is time we addressed some of these core issues.

People Are People

At a purely cognitive processing level, all humans operate in the same way: human memory, visual processing, aural capability, etc., hold across all population groups. Different population groups do have different cultures, but no population group is acultural. If we are creating technology for a group in a developed country, we need to understand the culture of that group just as much as one from the developing world. On top of that, emotions are universal; we can recognize the emotions of someone outside our language or culture group. The frustration over a crashed computer is the same in Africa or the U.S.

Technology Is Technology

Globally, users of technology desire computers that are cheap, reliable, and efficient. We want these computers to be joined by networks that are also cheap, reliable, and efficient. The tasks of office workers in India are sufficiently similar to those of workers in Italy; the same software can serve both needs. Our communication needs are also broadly similar so that we use email, social networks, or IRC to keep in touch with people we care about, regardless of location. Mobile phones, laptops, printers, and networks are the same across the planet.

Interaction Design Is Not Interaction Design

If we accept that people and technology are the same across the planet, then it should follow that the methods for designing technology for people should also be universal. Methods such as rapid prototyping, contextual inquiry, and cultural probes can all be used to gain insight into culture and create new designs. But it is here, I think, that we start to see a separation among developed and developing-world cultures; the need for a separate “for-development” (4D) discipline starts to emerge.

Compiled Culture

While interaction designers are taught to respect and design for the culture of a given user, we are not taught to question the cultural biases inherent in our methods. These methods come from a particular culture and carry assumptions that may blind us from key insights. If we take the example of participatory design, most people recognize it is built on a strong Scandinavian tradition of equality and cooperation that leads to the creation of a mutually acceptable design. It is an excellent method. However, inherent in that method is the assumption that the users are willing to contribute to the discussion and are not intimidated by more senior people in the group. In many cultures in which I have worked, this is simply not the case; users will either tell the researcher what they think the researcher wants to hear or will offer no suggestions at all, seeing it as the role of the researcher (as the senior person) to make all the suggestions.

In as much as participatory design is a shared, mediated understanding of design problems, it is an excellent idea, but we need to reinterpret what that means in a different social context if we are to make a success of the method. I use participatory design as an example here, but most of the other methods we use have similar inherent baggage. One contribution of 4D designers is therefore to re-imagine our methods within the target culture. We need to go back to the original research on which these methods were based and repackage it for the context of the developing world.

Curious Constraints

Besides methods, the developing world is full of design constraints that do not appear in the developed world. For example, all mobile-handset users would like a convenient way to charge their handset. Therefore, most handset manufacturers have decided to adopt a charging socket based on the five-volt micro-USB standard. This means that handset owners can charge their handsets using a charger from any manufacturer or even using a computer. However, most rural villages in the developing world charge their handsets from 12-volt car batteries, which are more prevalent in that environment than PCs with USB ports. While the switch to micro-USB will improve lives for some handset users, things stay the same for those in the developing world.

So, again, we see that the goals in designing technology are the same across the planet (e.g., convenience in cellular-handset charging), but inherent assumptions by those creating the technology lead to an imperfect compromise for those in the developing world. Of course, there are ongoing efforts by technology companies to conduct ethnography in the developing world (a lot of which has been reported in this column) in order to understand the constraints of different countries and people groups. So, the 4D community should be providing technology designers with sets of constraints to better inform the design process.

Column Editors are Not Free from Bias

At this point, I feel a confession is in order. I am a white male computer scientist, educated in the U.K. and then employed by several U.K. universities to teach HCI. Eleven years ago, I moved to South Africa to take a position in the computer science department at the University of Cape Town. Since arriving here I have been trying to understand how, why, if computer science and interaction design are different in the developing world. This has resulted in reflections, such as this column, aimed at people in the developed world, in an effort to help them create better technologies for the developing world. However, I believe this is a limited response.

The issues I have highlighted—unintended biases built into technology and methods—would not have arisen were those methods built by people living in the countries for which the technology is intended. As Papeneck noted in his seminal book Design for the Real World, in order to create appropriate designs for the developing world, we need to educate the people in those countries to create their own designs. My unintended bias was, therefore, to believe that the way to tackle the 4D problem was to enable designers from one country to design for another. Instead, I now propose another branch to 4D research: to figure out how to train educators in the developing world not just to teach interaction design students the methods we all use, but also how to adapt those methods to the developing world. Some researchers, I should add, are already exploring this space: for example, Susan Wyche has been running design classes with students in Kenya. As a computer scientist, I want to teach the students who create technology that words like “efficient” can have different meanings in different contexts. Again, although Java may be Java, perhaps teaching it on a mobile platform may be more appropriate in Africa?

Angst Again?

I think it is fair to say that in the past five years we have seen digital design for the developing world mature to the point where it has created a sense of identity and responsibility, both to the developing world and to the disciplines from which it came. And although we started in angst and have moved to maturity, I hope this column keeps the spirit of angst alive in the field. For me, I do not think we can afford to be complacent about the people or contexts in which we work. I doubt we will ever have reliable methods that will work for every context, but that does not mean we should give up trying. I believe 4D is one of the most exciting areas of interaction design at the moment, and I look forward to reading about more angst for as long as this column exists.


Most of the ideas presented here have come from discussions with Edwin Blake, Nic Bidwell, Jonathan Donner, Susan Dray, Richard Harper, and Ed Cuttrell, who have challenged, crushed, and cajoled me to think thoughts I would rather not and challenge ideas that I had held as fundamental.


Gary Marsden 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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