XIX.6 November + December 2012
Page: 68
Digital Citation

Walking together to design

Nic Bidwell

In isiXhosa, the home language in Eastern Cape, South Africa, “Sihamba sobabini” means, literally, “We are walking together,” but figuratively, “Are we still on the same page?” Such translations juxtapose ways in which we make meaning by, as Tim Ingold writes, “going along” through the world or by interacting with representations of it, on paper or screens [1]. In this article, I aim to inspire new paths to design and deploy technologies for those inhabiting the periphery of technology production. To do so I tell of how walking in rural southern Africa revealed incompatibilities between the point-based representations that dominate technology, and local knowledge and communication practices. Along the way I claim that neglecting these mismatches reinforces infrastructures that already marginalize many inhabitants of the world.


We make meaning continuously as we go along in life, but we often scaffold design to points within and external to the world. Some point-based representations are obvious, such as the abstractions we use to coordinate time and space (e.g., hours, years, longitude and latitude). But many mundane tools used in design privilege discrete loci more subtly; consider, for instance, how we structure information using cameras. In a workshop we ran in Eastern Cape to inform the design of a mobile digital-storytelling application, we suggested that participants take photos before recording audio [2]. One group staged, photographed, and ordered scenes according to handwritten storylines and then recorded their speech in segments according to these storylines. Another group recorded unscripted speech continuously as they viewed photos, in the sequence in which they were taken, of an infant preparing for and walking to preschool. All workshop participants’ audio narrative compensated for inherent discontinuities between photos, but we were particularly struck by the flow and rhythm of a group whose members fluidly, and seemingly intuitively, took turns speaking without pausing, and the way their interactions reveal a shared familiarity with local routines and paths.

When we gave the resulting digital-storytelling application to a traditional healer in Namibia to record his indigenous knowledge (IK), he did not use it. Like other prototypes we have introduced to this healer to help teach his IK, the application was unsuited to his practice of gathering, preparing, and treating with herbs. To explore these mismatches, we analyzed his and other local people’s interactions with devices and media, and also the details of walks and discussions that we did or did not record audio-visually [3]. We found that photos and video alone cannot depict the tempo and texture of his speech, gestures, movement, and physical interaction with plants, how these integrate his body and surroundings, nor how they orient us. Further, when we, and sometimes the healer, record, he tends to walk ahead of us and then stand to talk, gesture, and touch a plant; but when no one records the telling, we walk between plants together and he talks alongside us. Our paces and conversation adapt to each other and the terrains; this shapes the meanings we create, such as about relationships between plants and between plants and healing. When standard technologies (from clocks to compasses and lenses to screens) interact with walking, they effect and affect actions that engender meanings. Our digital-storytelling application does not force users to take multiple photos or restrict audio length, but it does involve interacting with a visual interface, which competes for attention to surroundings and other people, and conflicts with oscillations that walking produces.

I was prompted to propose a simple new concept, which we called the Audio Pacemaker, to support meaning making in sharing information asynchronously while walking [4]. I mention it here because although the concept arose in going along, I validated it with meanings made in separate observations. The Pacemaker concept aims to align the tempo at which a listener encounters information as they go along with the tempo of a speaker who walked there before by simulating proximity between them. First, the device automatically and continuously records a speaker’s pace, location, and gestures. When the recording is played back later, vibro-tactile cues orient the listener, without diverting visual attention from the setting, and if he or she deviates from the speaker’s pace or path, the audio decreases in volume. I substantiated the design opportunity, according to our discourse’s tradition, by generalizing different observations. I noted that when walking and talking on the phone, we synchronize our pace by using non-visual cues about the person on the other end of a phone call; that rhythms in walking help us to sense our own and others’ presence in simulations; that conversation shapes our experience of our bodies when we use a phone while moving; and that cross-national studies suggest relationships between norms of walking and social, economic, and cultural factors. I situated the Audio Pacemaker’s potential for supporting African rural knowledge in observations that suggest the healer’s IK links spatiality to social bonds and relationships. So, I represented a concept that emerged in my own continual corporal and kinaesthetic experience by integrating interpretations from distinct, disconnected, geographic milieus.

By going along in Eastern Cape, after living here for a cumulative two years, I embody knowledge in ways that approaches to designing for distant contexts do not emphasize. I, and researchers from the rural community, usually gather data in circumstances of communication that are fairly normal, locally. We interview, observe, converse, propose, and decide, along paths and roads, at football matches and ceremonies, and in gardens and meetings outdoors. This contrasts with practices that accumulate data in short “field” trips by integrating meanings from differentiated sites, such as when various collaborators conduct interviews and workshops inside selected buildings, which they access by car, to ensure that recordings were audible and batteries charged. Ingold uses the term occupant knowledge to describe forming meaning by upwardly integrating separate observations made at discrete locations [1]. And, certainly, we reproduce the very topographies that have already marginalized the digital have-nots when we scaffold design with meanings generated at points that are convenient to our research schedules and tools, and to our transits in foreign lands.

HCI does recognize that the body is foundational to culture and that we create and convey meaning as much by walking, speaking, and gesturing in and physically manipulating the world as by abstracting information about it. Yet I refer to abstractions in representing the knowledge my body has accrued to researchers elsewhere. For instance, I tag aerial view maps of Eastern Cape with GPS coordinates, both of which are illegible to most local people who “read” their setting through the social relationships that they, and their ancestors, forged on foot. Actually, local researchers drew multiple stick-figure people, as well as hills, pitches, paths, and buildings, when they mapped where they had interviewed about mobile phone use. When I communicate in HCI I exploit the tools that are familiar to decision makers, just as indigenous groups use point-based technologies to reclaim and protect their land. Regrettably, my tactics can unintentionally endorse the authority of certain representations and certain literacies. HCI tends to apply the category “literate” to a few skills, typically alphabetic reading and the “technological literacy” of graphical user interfaces and input devices. This inherently de-centers the skills in which we ourselves are illiterate and quietly nurtures Enlightenment values that associate visual media, especially writing systems, with rationality and superior reasoning. So, often with best intentions, we reproduce power relations between knowledge and communication systems—for instance, in using visual media to “show what we mean” to those whose spoken language we fail to master.

Our fluency in certain representations obscures how our bodies form knowledge by interacting with terrains and the people we accompany or pass. Regardless of whether our mobility is global or geographically restricted, we use various linguistic and cognitive tools that differentiate origins, termini, intersections, and locations between them, to manage the complexity of a world that we inhabit topo-kinetically. However, at the same time these tools can distance us from settings, since fixed absolutes, such as north, lie nowhere in the world, and visual media invoke spatio-temporal summaries, boundaries, and separations [1].

Our use of point-based representations also often conveys a philosophy about self and personhood that may not hold in all societies and that has its own consequences for sharing information. In a past interactions article I compared concepts about self in HCI with classical African narratives about human relatedness [5]. HCI tends to universalize a model of the individualized self and constructs users as preexistent nodes in a network. But philosophy across sub-Saharan Africa tends to consider that each person exists because other people exist. Representations that emphasize people’s separateness are entrenched in paradigms for sharing information. For example, authors and readers of print, photography, and hypertext construct meaning independently, which differs from the ongoing mutual exchange that enables us to match paces when we walk and talk together.

Ambling in Africa sensitized me to how walking relates to acoustics and contributes to all sociality. Urban mobilities and routes influence visual culture [6] and surely foot passages must shape the local aural culture of the billion rural people in developing countries who do not have transport [7]. In the village I inhabit people walk between buildings for cooking, sitting, and sleeping that make up homesteads, and between the homesteads of extended families who have inhabited the area for generations. They walk to dams, communal taps, forests, and grassland to do laundry and collect water, fuel, and building materials. And they walk between kraals, pastures, and dips; between school, church, and clinic; and to spaza shops to charge cellphones. Recognizing, identifying, and sharing meanings about sound and voices along these many paths contribute to continuity with the past and belonging to a social collectivity. Meanings associate with, and are shaped by, daily and seasonal cycles, activities, and rituals, and by social bonds, structures, institutions, and protocols. Walking helped me interpret local perspectives about access to a mobile cellphone-charging station that we deployed in Eastern Cape. And it was by being chastised for my “unladylike” (in Namibia) or “unsociable” (in South Africa) stride that I realized that walking performs identity and contributes to social cohesion.

From my experience, walking along the paths of those marginalized in technology design can help us begin to address disconnects that arise from our tendency to be most accountable to the social groups in which our constructs about self belong. The selves in my Eastern Cape setting are not the same as me, but by regularly sharing, crossing, and watching their paths, they are not exactly “other” either. My walking is visible to many around me and has become familiar to, and possibly even resonant with, some. In our going along, neither I nor local researchers can escape the paths of those on whom we inflict applications unsuited to their literacies and constraints. For instance, we could not just drive away after introducing a visual-oriented, text-based media-sharing prototype. Rather, our accountability, generated by everyday encounters, compelled us to design something suited to local practices. In this case we designed a modest Audio Repository [8] that, six months later, inhabitants continue to use within face-to-face communication and for asynchronous sharing.

Situating our accountability and our representing in HCI’s periphery broadens the scope for technological solutions. For instance, when designing the Audio Repository and Pacemaker I realized that advances in media and interfaces for sound and voice lag far behind the visual domain and that asynchronous voice remains relatively unexplored. Representing sounds and their meanings and creating sound-based interfaces pose challenges, not least because sound dissipates, reflects, and leaks and has other complex spatial and temporal properties. However, as I hope this article confirms, inspiration for solving some of these challenges surely lies in the alongness of life, not in situations isolated in labs and studios or by the dominant topographies we apply when we collect, log, and represent information about remote places. So, before I walk over the hill to charge my laptop at the NGO, I invite you to share new paths along which to form the world. We could aspire to the Honey Bee Network’s practice of walking to “discover” local innovators among rural India’s economically poor [9]. But, meanwhile, we might just try to better incorporate our walking-along bodies into design by leaving behind the devices that constrain our world to points.


I thank all who have walked with me, in particular local researchers in Eastern Cape, the traditional healer in Namibia and indigenous groups in Australia, and my academic accomplices Heike Winschiers-Theophilus, truna, and David Browning. I am grateful for the insights of Margot Brereton, Ann Light, Edwin Blake, and Paul Dourish; the encouragement of Mark Rouncefield; the patience of Gary Marsden; and the unwavering support of Paula Kotze.


1. Ingold, T. Lines: A Brief History. Routledge London, 2007.

2. Bidwell, N.J., Reitmaier, T., Marsden, G., and Hansen, S. Designing with mobile digital storytelling in rural Africa. Proc. CHI’10. ACM Press, New York, 2010, 1593–1602.

3. Bidwell, N.J., Winschiers-Theophilus, H., Koch-Kapuire, G., and Chivuno-Kuria, S. Situated interactions between audiovisual media and African herbal lore. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing 15, 6 (2011), 609–627.

4. Bidwell, N.J. and Winschiers-Theophilus, H. Audio Pacemaker: Walking, talking indigenous knowledge. Proc. Annual Research Conf. of the South African Institute for Computer Scientists and Information Technologists (Gauteng, South Africa) 2012.

5. Bidwell, N.J. Ubuntu in the network: Humanness in social capital in rural South Africa. interactions 17, 2 (2010), 68–71.

6. Pink, S. Mobilising visual ethnography: Making routes, making place and making images. Open Journal Systems 9, 3 (2008), 36.


8. Reitmaier, T., Bidwell, N.J., Siya, M., Marsden G., and Tucker, B. Designing an asynchronous oral repository for rural African communities. Proc. IST-Africa (Dar es Salem, Tanzania). 2012.

9. Towards inverted model of innovation. Honey Bee Network Magazine 22, 3 (2011).


Nic Bidwell is a principal researcher at CSIR-Meraka and an associate professor at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, South Africa. Since 2003 she has focused on HCI for rural contexts and Australian Indigenous and African cultural views and applied situated, ethnographic, and participatory research methods. This article is extracted from her keynote at Participatory Design Conference 2012 (August 17, 2012. Roskilde, Denmark).

©2012 ACM  1072-5220/12/11  $15.00

Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. To copy otherwise, to republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or a fee.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2012 ACM, Inc.

Post Comment


Comments submitted to this site are moderated and will appear if they are relevant to the topic.

No Comments Found