Angst, and How to Overcome It
University of Cape Town | email@example.com
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.
November + December 2010
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