Category: Pub: Article / Paper
Details: Mark Oppenneer, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (2010)
Keywords: , , , , ,

President Truman, in his 1949 inaugural address, announced his plan for America to “embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas.” He said that although our material resources for helping humanity were limited, “our imponderable resources in technical knowledge are constantly growing and are inexhaustible.” Although the face of development has changed over the years, six decades later we see the children of this line of thinking being born with names such as Information and Communications Technologies for Development (ICT4D) and Mobiles for Development (M4D) which involve certain technologies for solutions to the problems faced by developing regions. It is at the intersection between computing technologies and development that we find the subject of this paper, Human-Computer Interaction for Development (HCI4D). This paper explores the current state of HCI4D by examining four broad areas: processes, technologies, methods, and principles.

Some amount of definition is required to clarify the location of HCI4D as a sub-discipline since the boundaries of its parent discipline are often contested. For the purpose of this review, I will use Information and Communications Technologies for Development (ICT4D) to encompass the many efforts to design, develop, and apply ICTs to the pressing social problems of poverty, human rights, and what are generally understood to be the issues facing so-called developing regions. HCI4D then is the “subfield of ICT4D that focuses on understanding how people and computers interact in developing regions, and on designing systems and products specifically for these contexts” (Ho, et al. 2009).

PROCESSES

In the sub-discipline of HCI4D, as in ICT4D in general, projects can be categorized broadly into the manner or process in which they are developed: those that are designed for people, with people, and by people in developing regions. Heeks elaborates on these distinctions by identifying practices that are “pro-poor, para-poor, and per-poor” (2008). Although there are well known examples of pro-poor initiatives (such as the One Laptop Per Child program), the job of designing, testing, and researching interfaces and interactions doesn’t usually lend itself well to remote and parachute methods. Because of the generally participatory and user-centered nature of HCI work, HCI4D programs tend to be developed with and by people. The importance of “participative, user-engaged design processes” was recognized decades ago, “but there is always a need to reinvent such wheels when new application areas arise, filled as they are by a gold rush of new actors” (Heeks 2008).

The social aspects of working on projects with people prompt some researchers to promote developing organizational, community, and interpersonal relationships to strengthen their efforts. Dray, et al., note the importance of establishing “HCI partners in the developing world to help us better understand their special circumstances and their users” (2003). Cogburn recognizes the power of ICTs to enhance these kinds of partnerships over distance through computer-supported collaborative learning and the international scientific collaboration (“collaboratory”) model (2003).

In recent years, African innovation and ingenuity has been recognized through outlets such as Maker Faire Africa (http://makerfaireafrica.com/) events and Africa Gathering meetings (http://www.africagathering.org/) and online at sites like Afrinnovator (http://www.afrinnovator.com) and Appfrica (http://appfrica.net). HCI work being done by people in developing regions is often focused on the adaptation of technologies designed for use by users in the so-called global north. In 2003, Marsden noted that adaptation – and not the introduction of new technology – was flourishing in South Africa:

“What may be considered a limitation in developing countries—a lack of computing equipment and Internet access—has been found by us to be a boon. Through necessity we have been forced to focus on the human side of the HCI equation, and that focus has helped reveal shortcomings in technology (such as cellular handsets) that would otherwise have gone unnoticed.”

TECHNOLOGIES

It is widely accepted that cell phones are the most prevalent modern technology in the developing world. The majority of cellphone subscribers live in developing regions. Computer technology is also important in developing regions, but due to a variety of factors (lack of Internet access, inadequate network infrastructure, low security, etc.) has not proliferated like cell phones have. Generally speaking, HCI4D efforts are based around the interfaces of cell phones and personal computers.

Whether for cell phones or computers, newer HCI4D efforts have focused on developing interfaces for users with low or no literacy. While working with illiterate domestic laborers in three Bangalore slums, Medhi, et al., tested a text-free user interface for computers that would require no intervention from anyone to use (2006). They were not completely successful in doing so, but they did continue to explore “the use of full-context video to motivate and aid non-literate, first-time users of PCs to successfully navigate a computer application with minimal assistance” (2007). In the 2006 study, users had difficulties that went beyond illiteracy: “lack of awareness of what the PC could deliver, fear and mistrust of the technology, and lack of comprehension about how information relevant to them was embedded in the PC” (2007). Through the use of full-context videos that include “dramatizations of the scenario in which the application would be useful and how the relevant data was ultimately input into the computer” as well as technical instructions on how to use the interface, they achieved greater success.

Sherwani and Rosenfeld (2008) identify aspects of cell phones that make them ideal for users in developing areas: they do not require literacy, they offer conversational interaction, they support any spoken language, and their systems can be maintained and upgraded centrally. The authors argue that cell phones are ideal for employing speech systems whose potential in the developing world is untapped.

METHODS

User-centered design (UCD) and participatory design methods are not new to HCI, but the nature of social interaction between researchers and users from different cultural settings (even within the same country) requires special attention and new arrangements of practice. Both Medhi, et al. (2006) and Sambasivan (2009) relate the need for creative ethnographic engagements. They relate scenarios in which the researchers where not able to get people involved in their research to open up due to contributing social factors and relied on variations of the “Bollywood technique” – a situational, narrative-based technique that asks users to respond by imagining how well-known cultural characters (from television or other contexts) would react to a given situation. This technique removes the user from having to answer as themselves and allows them to respond more candidly.

Maunder, et al. (2007) suggests augmenting the UCD model by incorporating the “Real Access / Real Impact” guidelines presented on the website Bridges.org (http://www.bridges.org). The RA/RI approach “helps augment UCD and focus the designer’s attention on pertinent developing world issues, aids critical reflection and emphasises the need for assessing micro (user-centred) and macro (community or environmental-centred) factors.”

PRINCIPLES

By way of concluding this brief overview, let us examine several principles that arise from the processes, technologies, and methods of HCI4D as currently practiced. Among the most common observations by researchers is the importance of fostering awareness (environmental, cultural, community, etc.) and building an understanding of how the context of one’s initiatives will affect its outcomes (Anokwa, et al. 2009, Medhi and Toyama 2007, Sambasivan, et al. 2009). Part of coming to know the users and community in which your users live is to spend time among them. Parachuting as a design practice, for example, will not bear as much fruit as embedding. One way to foster awareness is to employ literary technique known as “defamiliarization” which is used “to make something look new by approaching it from a different perspective, thus causing critical reflection and creating new possibilities in design” (Thomas and Strongfellow 2006). This technique has the benefit of forcing one to “pay very close attention to details, the nature of how and why something works and eliminate affordances.”

Sambasivan, et al. (2009) refer to “minding the gap” that exists between the interviewer and study participants. One way of doing that stems from the work of Ong relating to orality. Sherwani, et al. (2009) use Ong’s psychodynamics of orality to reveal the differences between the ways literate and primarily oral peoples think and understand. The authors argue that HCI methodologies, which have most often been applied in the context of literate Western end-users, need to be rethought for application in HCI4D contexts. Recommendations include a) rooting information in common experience, b) using narrative rather than listed bullet points, c) embedding redundancy in the content, d) avoiding abstract categories, and e) understanding the importance of sourcing information.

Annotated Bibliography

Anokwa, et al., 2009
Nine researchers in HCI4D share the reflective approach they have adopted regarding their fieldwork. They introduce their methodology which is a combination of qualitative and quantitative techniques and well as a for-beginners lessons learned overview (studying users, choosing users, managing expectations, developing content, deploying technology). The paper concludes with a general conversation about participation and control and the conflict between research and development in the field of HCI4D.

Cogburn, 2003
Cogburn was an early proponent of HCI and UCD employed in the service of international development. He argues that neglected cultural factors will keep developing nations from being able to take part in the emerging global information society. He promotes computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) and the international scientific collaboration model (“collaboratory”) as methods to improve the ways in HCI can help reach users in the global South.

Dray et al., 2003
This entry is the introduction to a special issue of the ACM journal Interactions dealing with HCI and the developing world. As such, it serves as a snapshot of the kinds of work being done in HCI in developing-world contexts at that time. The authors interject brief commentary among the introductions highlighting valuable insights such as the need to establish “HCI partners in the developing world to help us better understand their special circumstances and their users,” and that HCI has an obvious role to play in reaching the technologically disenfranchised as well as serving to bridge “the meta-goals of national development and the needs of actual users.”

Ho, et al., 2009
A thorough literature review of HCI4D that also lays a clear map of the development of the issues spanning several disciplines. The authors discuss cross-cultural HCI, unique needs, design methods, and empirical studies and address central issues in HCI4D as an emerging discipline including methodology, participation, research and practice, and evaluation. They conclude by laying out several grand challenges for HCI4D dealing with ways to problematize HCI4D and how to reuse HCI4D knowledge to avoid reinventing the wheel.

Irani, et al., 2010
Postcolonial computing questions notions of power, authority, legitimacy, participation and understanding in the cultural encounter. It has less to do with designing for “other” cultures than it does with examining how all design research and practice is culturally located and power laden. The essay highlights four cases that illustrate some of the complex issues of intercultural engagement. The authors conclude with a discussion of an alternate formulation of design work, replacing design requirements, ideation and iteration with engagement, articulation and translation.

Marsden, 2003
This article focuses on “the importance of cellular technology in South Africa and how that technology can be adapted to better improve the user’s experience.” It presents two projects that illustrate typical HCI endeavors in South Africa. The first is a digital library for use by people in developing areas and the second deals with screen design for cellular handsets. Although this article is part of a special edition journal centered on HCI in the developing world, very little in this article talks about the human side of HCI except for a few brief observations such as “the basic metaphor of information structure (for example, chapter, section, subsection) proved problematic” and that adaptations require reworking current solutions, not introducing new technology.

Maunder, et al., 2007
The authors present the shortcomings of user centered design (UCD) when applied in the developing world through an analysis of two projects: MuTI Mobile and CyberTracker. Traditional UCD methodologies don’t take into account the complex effects of the user’s physical and social environments. Several techniques are presented to address the shortcomings of UCD4Dev such as “Real Access/Real Impact,” the use of higher fidelity technology items during early stage prototyping, the efficacy of developing a motivated user group, etc.

Medhi, et al., 2006
Using a contextual or ethnographic design process with 80 illiterate domestic laborers in three Bangalore slums, the authors worked toward creating a text-free user interface that would require no intervention from anyone to use. They were not completely successful in doing so, but their research, which employed the ‘Bollywood Method’, did bear fruit. A shortlist of their results includes the following: a) avoid text (but using numbers may be okay), b) use semi-abstracted graphics, and increase photorealism with deeper interaction, c) pay attention to subtle graphical cues – user response may depend on psychological, cultural, or religious biases, d) provide voice feedback for all functional units, and e) provide “help” on all screens.

Medhi and Toyama, 2007
This paper provides a continuation of the research outlines in Medhi et al., 2006 by exploring “the use of full-context video to motivate and aid non-literate, first-time users of PCs to successfully navigate a computer application with minimal assistance.” In the 2006 study, users had difficulties that went beyond illiteracy: “lack of awareness of what the PC could deliver, fear and mistrust of the technology, and lack of comprehension about how information relevant to them was embedded in the PC.” Full-context videos include “dramatizations of the scenario in which the application would be useful and how the relevant data was ultimately input into the computer” as well as technical instructions on how to use the interface.

Sambasivan, et al., 2009
This article aims to provide a foundation for good HCI4D research by highlighting the problems of conflicting cultural contexts between the researcher and participants. The authors discuss how using creative ethnographic engagements with informants lends perspective in gauging the sociocultural relevance and acceptability of technologies in a given context. Their suggestions include a) questioning the notion of development: how does the target community understand it? b) understand the scope of your project within the existing local social arrangements, c) understand internal politics and stay alert to tensions within the community, d) understand the moral economy in terms of gift-giving, e) remix the method of inquiry (the authors cite the use of the ‘Bollywood method’), and f) mind the gap that exists between the interviewer and study participants.

Sherwani, et al., 2009
The authors argue that HCI methodologies, which have most often been applied in the context of literate Western end-users, need to be rethought for application in HCI4D contexts. Basing their ideas around Ong’s work in orality, they attempt to raise awareness of methodological blind spots by contrasting common assumptions about HCI in the developed and developing world. The authors first call our attention to the need for designers to understand “cultural practices of community knowledge-building and transmission.” They then break down various aspects of the psychodynamics of oral thought: it is a) additive, not subordinative, b) aggregative, not analytic, c) redundant, d) conservative, e) close to the human lifeworld, f) agonistically toned, g) empathetic and participatory, h) homeostatic, and i) situational, not abstract. These concepts are then applied to design for oral users. Recommendations include a) rooting information in common experience, b) using narrative rather than listed bullet points, c) embedding redundancy in the content, d) avoiding abstract categories, and e) understanding the importance of sourcing information.

Sherwani and Rosenfeld, 2008
This essay presents reasons why speech systems (whose potential in the developing world is untapped) can be preferable to computer-based GUI systems and provides examples for how such speech systems can be manifested. Many ICT4D initiatives use PCs using GUIs connected to the Internet. They are often designed for literate users (or users willing to learn how to use computers) and languages with written forms – and they require system maintenance and upgrades at the user end. Deployment of speech systems on the hand use landline or cellular connectivity, do not require literacy, offer conversational interaction, support any spoken language, and the system can be maintained and upgraded centrally. The authors also debunk several myths surrounding speech systems: “until speech recognition is 100% accurate, speech systems aren’t useable; building speech technologies for new languages is prohibitively expensive, and populations in developing countries have many dialects and accents, making it impossible for a system to recognize their speech accurately.”

Thomas and Stringfellow, 2006
The authors review existing HCI heuristics and guidelines and suggest new ways to ensure the success of new technologies for people living in the area of sub-Saharan Africa (excluding the region of Southern Africa). They outline several social obstacles: lack of public sentiment due to not understanding benefits of technology, resentment among local communities over the increased dependency on foreign personnel, and the concern by native groups that technology will harm traditional local culture. As well, the number of different languages across the region make it difficult to develop computational aids for morphological analysis – complicated by the fact that some of the languages do not have written forms. The authors address environmental obstacles also: the lack of consistent electricity even in urban areas and the effect of sand on the electrical components of the technology. They use Hofstede’s five dimensions of culture as a tool for defining user traits – and offer other approaches such as ‘defamiliarization’ to ensure cultural understanding.

Works Cited

Anokwa, Yaw, Thomas N. Smyth, Divya Ramachandran, Jahanzeb Sherwani, Yael Schwartzman, Rowena Luk, Melissa Ho, Neema Moraveji, and Brian DeRenzi. “Stories from the Field: Reflections on HCI4D Experiences.” Information Technologies & International Development 5.4 (2009): 101-06. Information Technologies & International Development. Web. 21 Sept. 2010.

Cogburn, Derrick L. “HCI in the So-called Developing World: What’s in It for Everyone.” Interactions 10.2 (2003): 80-87. Print.

Dray, Susan M., and David A. Siegel, Paula Kotzé. “Indra’s Net: HCI in the developing world.” ACM Interactions 10.2 (2003): 28-37. Print.

Heeks, Richard. “ICT4D 2.0: The Next Phase of Applying ICT for International Development.” Computer 41.6 (2008): 26-33. Print.

Ho, Melissa R., Thomas N. Smyth, Matthew Kam, and Andy Dearden. “Human-Computer Interaction for Development: The Past, Present, and Future.” Information Technologies & International Development 5.4 (2009): 1-18. Information Technologies & International Development. Web. 21 Sept. 2010.

Irani, Lilly, Janet Vertesi, Paul Dourish, Kavita Philip, and Rebecca E. Grinter. “Postcolonial Computing: A Lens on Design and Development.” Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2010) (2010): 1311-320. Paul Dorish. Web. 21 Sept. 2010.

Marsden, Gary. “Using HCI to leverage communication technology.” ACM Interactions 10.2 (2003): 48-55. Print.

Maunder, Andrew, Gary Marsden, Dominic Gruijters, and Edwin Blake. “Designing Interactive Systems for the Developing World: Reflections on User-centred Design.” In Proceedings IEEE/ACM International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development (ICTD2007) (2007): 321-28. Print.

Medhi, Indrani, Aman Sagar, and Kentaro Toyama. “Text-Free User Interfaces for Illiterate and Semi-literate Users.” Proceedings of the International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development (2006): 72-82. Microsoft Research. Web. 21 Sept. 2010.

Medhi, Indrani, and Kentaro Toyama. “Full-Context Videos for First-Time, Non-Literate PC Users.” Information and Communication Technologies and Development (2007): 1-9. Print.

Sambasivan, Nithya, Nimmi Rangaswamy, Kentaro Toyama, and Bonnie Nardi. “Encountering Development Ethnographically.” ACM Interactions 16.6 (2009): 20-23. Nithya Sambasivan’s Website. Web. 21 Sept. 2010.

Sherwani, Jahanzeb, Nosheen Ali, and Carolyn P. Rosé. “Orality-Grounded HCID: Understanding the Oral User.” Information Technologies & International Development 5.4 (2009): 37-50. Information Technologies & International Development. Web. 21 Sept. 2010.

Sherwani, Jahanzeb, and Roni Rosenfeld. “The Case for Speech and Language Technologies for Developing Regions.” Proceedings of the Human-Computer Interaction for Community and International Development Workshop (2008). Print.

Thomas, Jamie, and Catherine V. Stringfellow. “Using HCI Guidelines to Foster Technological Advancement in Sub-Saharan Africa.” International Journal of Technology, Knowledge, and Society 2.3 (2006): 63-70. Print.