XXV.5 September-October 2018
Page: 8
Digital Citation

Reflecting on the design-culture connection in HCI and HCI4D

José Abdelnour-Nocera, Nimmi Rangaswamy

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This blog post grew out of our experience organizing the Field Trips track for the INTERACT Conference in Mumbai. We knew field trips would lead participants on a journey through the multiple, often contested connections between culture, the technology design process, and its products. Sidestepping postcolonial pitfalls, we hoped the Field Trips track would help translate local knowledge into valid and useful design insights, redefining and renegotiating boundaries and relations between product and user. After all, engaging with indigenous perspectives in the course of field trips should lead to realizations about the ontological and epistemological assumptions behind what constitutes useful, usable, and meaningful design.

These realizations from the field are also configured by the different worlds and traditions in which we have grown up. Rather than feeling, drawing from a positivist epistemology, that we are not being truthful or valid by allowing ourselves to "contaminate" our experience of the other, this should instead be embraced, capitalizing on the rich phenomenological encounters afforded by field trips. A good chunk of our job as designers and researchers is to empathize and find new meanings and connections in existing things, objects, and practices in order to innovate and make life better. The best way to do this, to our knowledge, is to merge and collide viewpoints, traditions, and ways of thinking—to provoke situations of Heideggerian breakdown, where established and often tacit values and knowledge become present at hand, coming to light in order to do something with or about them.

Field trips in India were a unique opportunity for these breakdowns to occur, in the crossing of traditions spawned by the intermeshing of the diverse external delegates and researchers with local communities. In the words of R.K. Mukherjee, "India is a museum of cults and customs, creeds and cultures, faiths and tongues, racial types and social systems" [1]. Field trips opened up the opportunity to discover and reflect on cultural spaces without having to rely on ready-made Hofstedian national cultural models, out of which so many research and design projects emerged, ran their course, and failed. More important, participants discovered and reflected upon not only the cultural spaces of the other but also their own cultural spaces, emerging as a necessary consequence of mutual reflection and recognition. With this in mind, we will briefly discuss this design-culture connection in the context of the agenda for HCI in the developing world.

Culture continues to be a contested construct for humanists and social science scholars. Likewise, its value for design-driven academics and professionals regularly comes into question. However, the concept of culture focuses us on the semiotics that allow us to reflect on our condition of being symbolic beings shaped by beliefs and emotions. This in turn enables us to see the need for technologies to be more human, and to be able to do something about it.

Participants discovered and reflected upon not only the cultural spaces of the other but also their own cultural spaces.

The focus on making technologies for humans while taking into account diverse cultural and contextual positions should then be part of the default agenda of HCI for development (HCI4D) as a research domain. HCI4D researchers and practitioners have documented how technology-design decisions influence technology adoption and usage in a multiplicity of social contexts—all with social consequences. Recognizing that technology is neither culturally neutral, static, nor deterministic reinstates context as a harbinger not only for new design choices but also for a more immersive and usable HCI product.

HCI4D as a domain and a community of researchers is engaged in the play of technology in both quotidian and unusual domains, such as diasporic space, conflict zones, low-literacy populations, reproductive health, and communities on the urban edge. It operates at the intersection of HCI and socioeconomic development, with an evolving sensitivity to technology design and use in diverse geographic regions. The field has steadily required increased receptivity to the influence of varied academic and research domains, from sociocultural anthropology to the engineering sciences, along with behavioral and development economics, the cognitive sciences, and, not least, the spectrum of design disciplines. HCI4D engages with seemingly disparate sciences and initiates a dialogue in the production of an inclusive design community—one that shapes evidence-based research to impact and strengthen interactive technology scenarios for hitherto invisible yet contemporaneous populations.


Nicola Dell and Neha Kumar [2] summarize the HCI4D research area, drawing upon four seminal references that set the context, precursors, and current engagements for the domain. Marshini Chetty and Rebecca Grinter [3], who coined the term HCI4D, argue that entrenched HCI techniques and pedagogy must stay in tune with the shifting technology landscapes of use if they are to function effectively in designing impactful computing products for an array of contexts, especially the Global South. Jenna Burrell and Kentaro Toyama [4] offer a set of definitional pointers to carve out trajectories constituting good research methods and analysis for a multidisciplinary and inclusive field such as HCI4D. Anokwa et al. [5] provide lessons from field immersions for a context-driven HCI, highlighting cultural, linguistic, and social challenges in research with technology users from cultural contexts far removed from those of the researcher. These authors were instrumental in grounding the methodological practices of HCI4D firmly in context.

As Dell and Kumar point out, what the "D" in HCI4D refers to remains a topic of intense debate among the many interdisciplinary scholars of HCI4D. There is general agreement on what is described as a focus on development in low-resource settings and/or marginalized communities, but low-resource and marginalized are pretty broad terms to suggest recipients of development initiatives. HCI4D research for its part has maintained a focus on design for better access and usability, qualified by low-resource settings. Issues of constraints—infrastructural more than cultural—are a running theme, as well as concerns for social justice and a variety of eco-political agendas. Dell and Kumar bring to the fore that the "varied perspectives show HCI4D is an amorphous amalgam of interests that brings together a community of people from varying perspectives."

It seems that HCI4D has a set of thorny methodological issues as well as a challenge to form a definitive identity. The field trips we pioneered illustrate these issues, but with a positive twist, giving HCI4D the excitement of an emergent research ground—and we are all becoming a part of it! We invite you to read the Special Topic in the May—June issue of Interactions, which reports on the different INTERACT 2017 field trips [6].

back to top  References

1. Mukherjee, R.K. Hindu Civilization. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1936.

2. Dell, N. and Kumar, N. The ins and outs of HCI for development. Proc. of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2016, 2220–2232;

3. Chetty, M. and Grinter, R.E. HCI4D: HCI challenges in the Global South. CHI '07 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2007, 2327–2332;

4. Burrell, J. and Toyama, K. What constitutes good ICTD research? Information Technologies & International Development 5, 3 (2009), 82–94.

5. Anokwa, Y., Smyth, T.N., Ramachandran, D., Sherwani, J., Schwartzman, Y., Luk, R., Ho, M., Moraveji, N., and DeRenzi, B. Stories from the field: Reflections on HCI4D experiences. Information Technologies & International Development 5, 4 (2009), 101–115.

6. Roy, D., Abdelnour-Nocera, J., and Rangaswamy, N. Interact comes to India: Field trips as a culture of design praxis. Interactions 25, 3 (May–June 2018).

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José Abdelnour-Nocera is an associate professor in sociotechnical design at the University of West London and affiliate associate professor at M-ITI, Portugal. His interests lie in the role of cultural diversity in the design of people-centered systems. He has been involved in projects in the domains of international development, mHealth, business systems, service design, and higher education. [email protected]

Nimmi Rangaswamy is an associate professor at the Kohli Centre on Intelligent Systems, Indian Institute of Information Technology, Hyderabad. She brings an anthropological lens to understanding the impacts of AI research and praxis. She is also an adjunct professor at IIT Hyderabad, where she teaches courses on the intersection of society and technology. [email protected]

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