This year's CHI 2016 Conference kicked off with a fascinating talk by Dayo Olopade, journalist and author of The Bright Continent. Both her book and her talk focus on innovation, technology and opportunity in sub-Saharan Africa. Specifically, she talked about the unique ways in which technology is applied within the unique cultures of Africa. Many of the key takeaways she uncovered in her research can be applied to User Experience design in general.
Beware of Formality Bias
Formality bias is when you emphasize formalities rather than outcomes (i.e. what really matters). Her specific example talked about how leadership throughout the world praised the voting process in Liberia as a triumph of Democracy but failed to emphasize the endemic corruption plaguing the country and hurting the people as a whole. Formality bias is pantomiming progress with no real substance to back it up. When designing systems, we must beware of this as well. Does it really matter that your page views are up or time on site is increased? How are you actually providing value to your users and are you really measuring that? Are you able to take some action based on what you are measuring? (see Vanity Metrics vs Actionable Metrics).
Connect with your Users
Dayo emphasizes that one outcome of formality bias is losing sight of the people. By taking a more top-down approach to providing support to sub-Saharan African countries, the United States and others work with existing power structures and governments with the hope that benefits will trickle down to the people. This often is not the case and ignores the ability for people to self-organize and help themselves. For example, 70% of economic activity in these countries is informal, meaning that they are essentially outside the purview of traditional governmental and economic structures. By observing this ‘informal’ economic activity, one can see how people innovatively use technology such as cell phones to develop ad hoc transportation networks that function as efficiently if not better than more traditional public transport systems. When developing systems, there is also the danger of losing sight of who your users are and what their needs are. Have you done interviews, observations, and other user research to understand what your users really need or did you just get a list of requirements with assumptions about user needs? Have you run user testing to validate your system with actual users or have you just gotten an ok from the client?
Progress is not a straight line
One of the most fascinating insights from Dayo’s talk was the idea that progress is not a straight line. She talked about how she does not like the term ‘developing country’ because it suggests a single path from the Stone Age to Las Vegas. There is not a single ‘best’ or ‘developed’ country that all others strive for. People in different areas have unique cultures, backgrounds and ways of living and will develop and use technologies in their own unique way. Dayo introduces the term ‘kanju’, which describes the creativity that comes out of African difficulty. It’s the way that people in sub-Saharan Africa get things done in the face of bad infrastructure, corruption, and limited resources. Don’t assume that the system you are developing will be useful to all users or that you can just release it as is in another area of the world. This is true even for ‘Western’ countries. For example, the Xbox Kinect, which is able to track user movements for use in things such as dancing and other motion–based games, works great in large American living rooms but works less well in more compact European homes.
Check out Dayo’s site to learn more about her work in Africa and other efforts to expand access to knowledge worldwide. Find out how we at Blue Water build and design great User Experiences – Contact Us Here.