Not knowing a lot about the context, we—the improvised panel—
peppered Norm with a range of
questions about the shopkeepers
and mobile use in the country. Norm
answered patiently, deferring some
questions for his trip. And then
we jumped in with some thoughts.
Some of us had had some experience trying to impose record-keep-ing exercises on people in informal
economies and knew that it was not
easy to elicit consistency and precision. Meanwhile, studies showed
that data collection via text messaging was less accurate than information collected through voice calls
[ 5]. One of us asked whether Norm
had considered having a human
operator call the shopkeepers for the
information, rather than using SMS.
As we spoke, Norm’s shoulders
started to slouch and a worried look
appeared on his face. He acknowledged that it might make sense to
have human operators field calls,
but there was a catch: Voice calls
require little design. That solution would eliminate the need for
HCI. What, then, would become of
Norm’s dilemma points to one of
the great ironies of HCI: Sometimes
the core tenets of HCI lead us away
from HCI. User-centered design, participatory design, user experience
design, and so forth all insist that
we should design for, and often with,
the user. Specifically, our designs
shouldn’t inconvenience users or
contradict their own preferences.
But potential users don’t necessarily do or want things that make
for interesting HCI projects. And
sometimes their concerns go well
beyond HCI. In Norm’s case, what
was the right response?
First and foremost, it seemed
important to investigate user
preferences before prototyping.
A big problem with Norm’s proj-
ect was that either he or who-
ever had given him the assign-
ment had assumed the form of
the solution before there was any
chance to interact with users.
Next, let’s suppose he did ask
potential users, and that the vast
majority strongly preferred voice
calls. What then? One possibility
would be to run a trial in which
voice calls and text messages were
compared against one another for
accuracy. It’s always possible that
user preferences don’t align with
other desiderata, and that’s important to know. But unless there was
a good reason to suspect that text
messaging might do better, this
seems like a desperate attempt at
Sometimes the right thing is to
walk away. Not all problems are
HCI problems, and we don’t want
to become the proverbial hammer
that sees everything as a nail. This
point is discussed concisely in a
paper titled “When the Implication
Is Not to Design (Technology)” [ 6].
Admittedly, in Norm’s position
as a student intern it might have
been hard to push back against the
combined authority of his sponsors
and his curricular timeline. But if
there’s one thing we should do as
HCI practitioners, it’s to champion
the potential user even against our
own interests. If we don’t do that,
In the space of just a few years,
HCI has found ways to engage
meaningfully with international
development. We have applied our
general approach to problem solving across the globe while being
sensitive to situational differences.
And we have done so while insist-
ing on the primacy of users and
other beneficiaries of technology in
contexts where they are otherwise
overlooked and marginalized. As a
community of practitioners, we can
be proud not only that our values
apply in challenging circumstances,
but also that they align particularly
well with the attempt to address the
needs and aspirations of the world’s
less privileged people.
In the future, I look forward to a
couple of things: First, it would be
interesting to see more deliberate
efforts to understand the interplay
of human universals and cultural
differences, and how it pertains to
design. Second, we should continue
to strive for greater empathy with
potential users and beneficiaries.
Whether it’s avoiding assumptions
about them, teaching the importance of working with them, or, in
some cases, walking away from
projects they don’t need or want,
there is much more we can do to be
of even greater value to those we
aim to serve.
1. Parikh, T.S., Javid, P., Sasikumar, K., Ghosh,
K., and Toyama, K. Mobile phones and paper
documents: Evaluating a new approach for capturing microfinance data in rural India. Proc. of the
SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing
Systems. ACM, New York, 2006.
2. Toyama, K. Human-computer interaction and
global development. Foundations and Trends in
Human-Computer Interaction 4, 1 (2010) 1–79.
3. Ho, M., Smyth, T., Kam, M., and Dearden, A.
Human-computer interaction for development: The
past, present, and future. Information Technologies
and International Development 5, 4 (2009).
4. Toyama, K. Blind man’s design. ICT4D Jester
blog. Apr. 28, 2010; http://j.mp/jesterbmd
5. Patnaik, S., Brunskill, E., and Thies, W. Evaluating
the accuracy of data collection on mobile phones:
A study of forms, SMS, and voice. Proc. of Int’l Conf.
on Information and Communication Technologies
and Development. 2009.
6. Baumer, E.P.S. and Silberman, M.S. When the
implication is not to design (technology). Proc.
of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in
Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2011.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kentaro Toyama ( www.ken-tarotoyama.org) is a researcher in
the School of Information at the
University of California, Berkeley
and a fellow of the Dalai Lama
Center for Ethics and
Transformative Values at MI T.
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