XXV.2 March-April 2018
Page: 18
Digital Citation

A tent, a pigeon house, and a pomegranate tree

Shaimaa Lazem, Danilo Giglitto, Anne Preston

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After the 2011 revolution in Egypt, the country faced a challenging socioeconomic transition. Since then, the ICT sector has become one of the most promising contributors to Egypt's economic growth. In 2014, the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology announced the Social Responsibility Strategy in ICT, with an inclusive vision for using technology to integrate different societal groups to achieve equality, prosperity, and social stability. Such goals demand technology professionals to be equipped with user-centered design skills to address groups with various socioeconomic backgrounds.

As a response to these goals, in August 2017 we ran an eight-day HCI summer school for designing technologies to document intangible culture heritage (ICH) in North-Central Egypt. The school was part of a U.K.-Egypt institutional link, the Hilali Network (, a Newton-Mosharafa project between the City for Scientific Research and Technology Applications (SRTA-City) and Kingston University. The link aimed at advancing HCI education in Egypt by training 18 engineering students from Alexandria University to engage in technology design activities with members from the Bedouin community of Borg El-Arab.

The Bedouins in Egypt are a tribal, former nomadic people who migrated to Egypt from the Arabian Peninsula hundreds of years ago, inhabiting the Northern and Western Deserts and the Sinai Peninsula. With increased urbanization in those areas, this sizeable group has mostly become a settled community, at risk of losing social practices, oral traditions, customs, language, and identity associated with ICH. Digital technology has often played a major role in supporting the documentation of ICH with Web-based material, increasing its access and dissemination. Our proposal was that the sustainability of such an approach could reach its full potential by supporting the participation of community members. No small task, since ICH should be researched within each specific social, cultural, and technological setting. We therefore argued that a bottom-up approach to ICH could benefit from HCI participatory methods to engage communities with technologies.

ins01.gif The Bedouin tent in Nagae El-Sanakra.

The challenges we faced were numerous and complex, including that our students were technically oriented, with little appreciation for the topics they classified as humanities, and initially reluctant to engage with community members in participatory activities. The last challenge was surfaced in the ArabHCI network ( as a common issue across the Arab world.

Before the school started, we discussed the project with community members who worked at SRTA-City. Some of them were accustomed to scholars coming to study their culture and lifestyle. However, the participatory approach we intended to adopt was new to them. They shared the fact that they were participating because they were proud of their Bedouin heritage and recognized the risk of it fading away due to the urbanization process affecting the community.

We designed the summer-school curriculum so that students would gradually build a partnership with the chosen community while the instructors remained as facilitators, scaffolding and advising students throughout. The curriculum used interactive material, emphasizing hands-on practice and learning by doing.

We used the Double Diamond design process model ( by the U.K. Design Council to structure the school activity. It is a four-stage model: Discover, Define, Develop, and Deliver, with every two phases forming a diamond shape. The first and third phases were exploratory, while the second and fourth were for narrowing the scope and defining focus. Every stage took roughly a couple of days in our curriculum. Lectures were mostly used in the first exploratory stage. In each phase, we had a participatory moment, where students worked closely with community members.

In the first stage, Discover, we encouraged students to take a conceptual leap from being the engineering student, who is used to solving well-defined problems, to becoming a design thinker, who is co-responsible with the users for framing the design within the sociocultural challenges. We introduced basic HCI concepts such as usability and user experience, as well as the bottom-up approach to ICH documentation.

The participatory moment in this phase was a trip we asked community members to organize for the students to learn more about Bedouin culture. We visited a nagae, a group of houses for the same family, el-Sanakra. They set up a special Arabian tent for us, which they normally do only during their festive events. The Bedouin culture prohibits young women from interacting with unknown males. Thus, the women visitors met the Bedouin women inside the house, while the men were hosted in the tent. The house itself was modern on the inside, with a flat-screen TV and a WiFi connection. Everyone, including the oldest low-literate women, had mobile phones. The house featured the traditional burj, or pigeon house, that they use for their food and hunting falcons. The house had fig and pomegranate trees for the family's own consumption, as both crops thrive in the desert climate. We were surprised by their modern lifestyle, which unearthed interesting discussions about fading traditions.

ins02.gif The pigeon house, or burj.

In the second stage, Define, the students were divided into teams. Each team had to define the scope of their projects (what traditions they would document, who their users would be, what the technical challenges would be). Some of the students had ideas based on the reports they collected during the field trip. We trained students in methods that helped them better understand their participants' needs and perspectives (e.g., conducting interviews, ethnographic observations, cultural probes). We asked the teams to design a two-hour workshop with one or two Bedouin participants to gather the information that would help them define their focus. Every team prepared a semi-structured interview and designed a probe as a family gift for their participant.

For instance, one of the teams designed a family tree, where the participant was invited to color its leaves according to his or her level of knowledge about Bedouin poems and interest in documenting them. Another probe represented a tent that had a box inside containing colored cards (colors varied according to gender and age). The participant was invited to ask members of his family house to write something that reflected what makes them proud to be Bedouins.

ins03.gif Design ideas and prototyping

In the Develop phase, the students used personas to describe their target users as they defined them in the previous stage. They analyzed the data they gathered from the interviews to find insights and identify opportunity areas, and brainstormed to generate ideas about potential solutions. Further, they conducted a second workshop to test their ideas, in which they handed over low-fidelity prototypes to one or two community members, who contributed to the design process.

In the Deliver stage, the students designed four prototypes for mobile applications. These prototypes focused on, respectively: addressing the documentation of improvised Bedouin poems; assessing the documenter's knowledge about traditions; using games to educate children about old Bedouin traditions; and selling handcrafted Bedouin products through an e-marketing platform. The prototypes were presented to community members, who gave encouraging feedback on the designs.

The experience was very positive for the students and community members, as we discussed in the focus groups that followed. The Double Diamond model was a proper framework to explore a user-centered approach. It guided the students as to when they should adopt divergent or convergent thinking. The ICH case study proved invaluable in teaching the students to drop their assumptions about a typical computer user, which was tough for students immersed in 21st-century technologies. The probe-design and persona-creation tasks helped them think deeply about their participants. Further, they had to be attentive to user-interface details, as the Bedouin community is fastidious about their culture. Overall, the students tended to struggle with the design tasks that required data abstraction and synthesis (e.g., generating insights and themes from field notes and interviews), which is understandable because these skills can require a long time to master. Besides conducting the research, the students volunteered to disseminate their learning experience by maintaining an independent blog, Two Weeks in a Pyramid (

As more than half the school activities were student-led, we prepared the assignments to help us reflect on their progress. We thus had to check their responses every day, which was very demanding. However, watching them develop their sense of design agency was our reward. We plan to revise our curriculum and offer it as a flexible, adaptable resource for instructors interested in adopting this approach for their own purposes and goals.

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Shaimaa Lazem ( is a researcher at the City for Scientific Research and Technology Applications, Egypt, focusing on HCI education. She earned a Ph.D. in computer science from Virginia Tech, U.S., and was a postdoctoral researcher at Open Lab (, U.K. She is the co-founder of the ArabHCI initiative ( [email protected]

Danilo Giglitto ( is a research associate at the Learning and Teaching Enhancement Centre, Kingston University. His research interests include intangible cultural heritage, digital heritage, crowdsourcing, community engagement, community empowerment, and bottom-up approaches. [email protected]

Anne Preston works with educators across the higher education sector. Her research, which she applies directly into her teaching, focuses on the different ways in which teachers and students make sense of technological innovation and how they develop an evidence base for the kinds of decisions they enact through practice. [email protected]

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