XXI.6 November-December 2014
Page: 76
Digital Citation

Designing for sustainable development in a remote Mexican community

Mario Rocha, Carlos Sandoval

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We like to think about technology as a magic bullet that can solve every little problem around us efficiently and with ease. As we all know, unfortunately this is not the case, though technology might get us closer to a solution or at least help us to better understand the problem.

This is particularly true when working with indigenous communities and their most important challenges. A number of complex issues have to be considered to understand their situation and try to develop a useful solution. When this effort is made, technology can become an instant equalizer, allowing people to reach out and seize opportunities otherwise unobtainable.

back to top  Insights


This was the case with the women of the remote community of Santos Reyes Yucuná, in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Located in the Mixtec region, it is one of the poorest areas in one of the least developed states in Mexico. Yucuná is a small town of about 2,000 inhabitants, mainly women. This is a place of large migration into the U.S., in which men travel north of the border to work for a better life and support the family they leave behind.

For generations, women in Santos Reyes Yucuná have been getting married early in life so they can have a large family (on average six children). Their rationale is that having many children can lead to a higher income for the whole family. Many women take their children with them to larger cities, mainly in the more affluent north of Mexico, where they beg for money on the streets. When this occurs, children do not attend school. When the family collects enough money, they return to their community until all the money is spent, only to return to the streets the next year, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and marginalization.

Another challenge is low literacy levels. Although the women are bilingual (Mixtec and Spanish), few of them can read or write, with older women having difficulty communicating in Spanish. As expected, they also have little exposure to computer technologies.

back to top  The Enactus-UTM Student Team and ITA-VIKO

Santos Reyes Yucuná is about four hours away from our university, the Universidad Tecnológica de la Mixteca (UTM), a state-run technological university located in the same Mixtec region in Oaxaca. The town first came to our attention through the Promoción al Desarrollo ("development promotion") squads that leave the university every day at dawn. They bring health and veterinary expertise to remote localities that couldn't get it otherwise. The squads are made up of university technicians and professors specially trained to help families and their animals, and to teach them how to get purified water, restore main roads, and set up communications, among other activities.

During 2009, the squad contacted our Enactus-UTM university student team. Formerly SIFE (Students in Free Enterprise), Enactus (Entrepreneurs in Action) is an international nonprofit organization that brings together student, academic, and business leaders who are committed to using the power of entrepreneurial action to improve quality of life and standard of living for people in need. There are 70 Enactus teams in Mexican universities, and our Enactus-UTM team is the proud triple Mexican champion of the yearly competitions, in which teams submit their projects to be judged by a panel of successful business leaders.

UTM advisors, professors, and students visited Santos Reyes Yucuná and realized that before any technology solutions could be designed, hearts and minds had to be won. The first activity conducted in the town was a human-development workshop that the women of Yucuná attended reluctantly. Among the workshop's findings were that the women had very low self-esteem and thought of themselves as worthless.

The Enactus-UTM team created a business model in which they analyzed the women's context to identify productive projects that might be viable. The team couldn't find any natural resources in the area except for cornhusks, which are used to feed donkeys. With cornhusks as raw materials, the UTM team came up with the idea to create flowers the Yucuná women could assemble and sell.

The project grew with great expectations. In two months the women created their own brand, Ita-Viko ("pretty woman"), and more women got involved. The UTM team provided training on entrepreneurial skills and business savvy through human-development workshops.

Ita-Viko has proved to be a successful business venture. In their first year, the women managed to export their flowers, and during the second year they diversified their offerings, crafting earrings, necklaces, and rings, all from cornhusks. Ita-Viko created a real alternative to the only way of life the people of Santos Reyes Yucuná had known for decades.

back to top  Then the Enactus-UTM Team Leaves

By Enactus bylaws, university teams have to leave the projects in which they participate. This meant that the students and professors had to stop coming regularly into the community to teach the women how to create new products, how to set prices, and how to sell products online, and eventually stop teaching them about human development.

Further communication among the team and Ita-Viko was allowed, but Enactus-UTM couldn't keep visiting them on a regular basis. So, the next predicament was born: How could we support the women of Ita-Viko without the ongoing help and presence of the team?

UTM professors and students visited Santos Reyes Yucuná and realized that before any technology solutions could be designed, hearts and minds had to be won.

Carlos Alberto Martínez, this article's co-author, was at the time vice president of the Enactus-UTM team. Also, he worked at the UsaLab Laboratorio de Usabilidad in the same university. UsaLab is a usability laboratory that started in 2002 with the goal of supporting HCI research in our university. Since 2006, we have offered services to industry as well. It is staffed by professors and students, some of them past winners at the ACM Student Design Competition at CHI, CLIHC (the Latin American HCI conference), and MexIHC (the Mexican HCI conference).

When the challenge of Enactus leaving Ita-Viko came to our attention, our first instinct and response was to solve it by means of technology. But a bigger question then arose: Was technology a suitable way to reduce, minimize, and support the lack of communication among teams, even if the women of Ita-Viko couldn't read or write Spanish, let alone use a computer?

In particular, based on Enactus-UTM's work with the women, we identified the basic tasks that the system should accomplish:

  • Presentation of job-training videos. Our users wanted to continue their practice and job training, this time from a distance, through videos teaching them how to make new products.
  • Presentation of business-training videos. Extremely important for new members, and for consolidating Ita-Viko as a company.
  • Direct communication with the Enactus-UTM team. To address questions and maintain their connection to the team.

We set out to complete the following three steps, following user-centered methods: a preliminary ethnographic study to understand the women's environment, context, and their approach to technology; in situ testing of graphic prototypes for system icons and options to ensure a complete understanding of the system's options; and finally, a Wizard of Oz testing for high-fidelity prototypes.

back to top  Ethnographic Study

We observed the women in the contexts in which they would use the technology. This occurred in two locations, Santos Reyes Yucuná and the city of Oaxaca (to observe the users making use of technology similar to what would be implemented in the project and that we could not carry to the community).

We observed the women in the contexts in which they would use the technology.

As a tight-knit community, Santos Reyes Yucuná does not easily accept outsiders. So we approached them with the help of the Enactus-UTM team and an interpreter. As expected, the barriers eventually came down, and we were welcomed as honorary members of the community. This is not to be taken lightly, as they did not embrace us until they were confident that we didn't pose a threat to their interests, customs, and traditions.

Observations in Santos Reyes Yucuná. We conducted five on-site interviews in Santos Reyes Yucuná inside users' houses. We asked them to show us the technologies they used and how they used them. We also invited them to use an Apple iPad (see Figure 2).

We were surprised and glad that the iPad sparked a great deal of interest among the users. They listened carefully to our explanation and then proceeded to use it. Several of them drew flowers on it. They passed the tablet from woman to woman, and finally it reached the children. They all got really excited to use the tablet, regardless of their literacy level.

Observations in the Palacio del Gobierno de Oaxaca Museum. With the objective of testing a higher number of technologies and observing their interaction, we asked users to use six devices with particular characteristics (e.g., headphones, videos, interactive tables, trackballs). We did this at a museum in the city of Oaxaca (the Oaxacan Government Palace Museum). Again, the result was joyful receptiveness. The users shared headphones, toyed with the interactive tables, and finally accepted technology as a way to learn, have fun, and have a presence in this new Ita-Viko phase.

Ethnographic study results. Based on our observations and interviews, we learned that the women use and appreciate technology (e.g., televisions, cellphones), don't have experience with tablets or large interactive displays but welcome them, can learn through training videos, prefer a tabletop to a vertical display for interactions, and have difficulty using technologies that require reading or writing.

back to top  Design and Usability Testing

We developed two designs of the system and obtained feedback from users in the community through an iPad. This was useful for us to gain feedback on the visual design, and helped us correct issues that led us to our final prototype.

The final protoype was developed using a Wizard of Oz setup wherein one of us performed the functions of the computer. Our end goal was to use an interactive tabletop display, but we didn't have access to one, so we used a 40-inch Samsung LCD, Full HD 1080p connected to a Windows 7 laptop instead. We asked the users (in groups of three or four, depending on the previously considered demographic characteristics) to use the equipment. One of us would see where the users interacted and operated the software from the laptop. We conducted the tests at Santo Reyes Yucuná's communal lounge.

Again, with the help of an interpreter, we conducted two tests using the think aloud protocol as well as two other tests using the co-discovery method. We noticed that the second method was more useful. After the tests, we conducted a focus group to obtain further opinions. Figures 3 and 4 show the development of these tests and the prototype evaluated.

back to top  Not Quite a Conclusion

Based on our testing, the prototype worked quite well and came very close to solving user needs. The next challenge is implementing a final product and delivering it in a way that is sustainable and can support the continued growth and independence of the community. Currently, we are in search of additional funding to continue this project.

Developing projects for marginalized communities and, consequently, managing to directly assist them, has always been the primary interest of our university, and therefore of our laboratory. For this reason, our participation in this project has brought us great joy, not only because of the technology we developed, but also due to the fact that the project aims to serve a remote community in Oaxaca.

back to top  Acknowledgments

We profoundly thank the women of the Ita-Viko project from the community of Santos Reyes Yucuná, as well as all the Mexican Science Council Conacyt, the Red TIC researchers, the members of the Enactus-UTM student team, the UsaLab Laboratorio de Usabilidad, and our software development company, KadaSoftware.

back to top  Authors

Mario A. Moreno Rocha is a professor and researcher in HCI and the leader of UsaLab in the Institute of Computing at the Universidad Tecnológica de la Mixteca in Huajuapan de León, Oaxaca, Mexico. He has experience in the development of usability studies, contextual studies, and cross-cultural usability.

Carlos A. Martínez Sandoval is manager of the UsaLab team at the Universidad Tecnológica de la Mixteca in Huajuapan de León, Oaxaca, Mexico. He has experience with cross-cultural usability and contextual studies and is a distinguished Enactus-UTM team member with experience in developing sustainable projects for vulnerable groups.

back to top  Figures

F1Figure 1. Indigenous women from the community of Santos Reyes Yucuná, Oaxaca, users and participants in the contextual study.

F2Figure 2. User interacting with an iPad in the community of Santos Reyes Yucuná. She received an explanation with a printed magazine to show her how to use it.

F3Figure 3. User-group evaluation of the prototype through a Wizard of Oz method in their community center. The technology was accepted immediately.

F4Figure 4. Main screen of the system tested, after repeated improvements.

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