Digital development brings promise and challenges

By Jennifer Brookland

August 4, 2014

Tanzania-Mtwara-computer-kids
Children in Mtwara, Tanzania use ICT to enhance their reading skills. ICT4D principles encourage designers to work with them in mind.

Despite its relative youth, the digital development community has set forth nine Principles for Digital Development to overcome problems that have plagued the industry from the get-go.

Information and Communications Technology for Development (ICT4D) practitioners hope these “living guidelines” inform the design of technology-enabled development programs and help avoid common pitfalls: siloed initiatives, uncoordinated implementers, inflexible donors and an overabundance of unscaleable and unsustainable small projects.

A forum at Creative Associates International on July 31 engaged them in a discussion on Principle number one: Design with the user.

As a tenet, designing with the user elicits little controversy. But for implementers, it’s hard to actually employ.

“Designing for the user is simple in theory. Less so in practice,” says Panthea Lee, Lead Designer and Principal at social impact firm Reboot.

She says good examples from the private sector’s ability to pivot and respond to customer needs belie the complexity of doing the same thing in development.

“When we talk about user-centered design people often point to the private sector as having really good examples of how we should be doing it,” Lee says. “In the development space, we have to contend with multiple stakeholders, complex politics and environments we don’t always know very well.”

Let the user lead the way

To get to know those environments a whole lot better, Dianna Kane and her design team at Medic Mobile ask Nurse Mary, who works at an under-resourced clinic four hours from the nearest hospital.

Or Prudence, the pregnant woman who delivered her first three children at home and has no interaction with the healthcare system.

Mary and Prudence don’t exist in reality, per se, but they are two of four “user personas” the startup queries as it designs mobile health initiatives in 21 countries.

“We don’t start with technology, we start with people,” says Kane, Medic Mobile’s senior designer, who calls human-centered design as much a mindset as a methodology. “It takes a lot of complex issues and brings us back to the four of them. Their approval is how we measure success as a team.”

And, she says, it’s something you can’t fake. “We actually have to care about our users in order to gain meaningful insight that will transfer into tools.”

Medic Mobile also uses sketches, illustrated cards and role-playing to invite participation in the design process by the very people they hope will use the technology being developed. They take a look at the workarounds people are already using—prime clues as to where technological interventions might be embraced and impactful.

“We want Nurse Mary to feel like this was a platform designed for her,” says Kane. “And we want it to do the kinds of things she needs it to do to have a greater impact on her community.”

Getting donors on board

In this way a design with the user approach is explicitly geared toward serving users and not customers.

That can make it a lot trickier to “sell” to donors. It also means implementing partners who act without strong donor support for user-centered design assume a lot of risk.

“It’s really a scary thing for designers to go into a completely new set of users and have to promise something to donors,” says Kane.

Organizations rarely have flexible funding, and feel pressured to get things done quickly. With the seemingly incongruous timeline required to design with the user, it is unclear which donors will be on board.

Fora like this one are being held, in part, so the ICT4D community can present a united front when they explain to clients the importance of designing with the user.

The ICT4D community can’t afford not to, in Kane’s opinion. “It’s more expensive to design something that fails,” she says.

And she foresees organizational costs coming down. “Once you have some best practices based on robust design work and analysis, you can have a much leaner process so that you’re not starting from scratch every time.”

Design for aspiration

When Tapan Parikh was advising Indian social media startup Awaaz.De on increasing the engagement of farmers with a call-in radio show, he wanted to meet the users where they were. He analyzed their context, motivations and abilities, and came up with a system that allowed callers to leave messages.

That was just the beginning. An assistant professor at UC Berkeley, Parikh realized he could do better than meeting the user where they are. He’d meet them where they wanted to be.

“Something I’d like to propose is trying to design for where users want to be, or where they will be tomorrow, in a week, a month, a year or five years.” Parikh says. “Design for aspiration.”

Parikh encouraged Awaaz.De to introduce a browse, search and filter capacity so the farmers could hear all the questions that were being posed to the radio hosts. In a 2010 evaluation, farmers said the biggest benefit was learning from the questions and experiences of others.

The next design step was to take users from consuming and responding to content and allow them to actually create it. Awaaz.De became a voice-based, phone-based content publishing platform that made it easy for farmers to broadcast information to each other.

Parikh envisions the next phase of design to accommodate the move to smart phones. Not because the farmers have them. But because they will.

The next frontier of designing for the user in general is to make not only interfaces user-friendly, but to design the actual databases behind the tools with the user, too.

And yet the forum served to remind the ICT4D community not to get carried away with the next exciting technological intervention without keeping the user at the fore.

“We’re constantly talking about newer and more exciting technologies,” says Lee. “But part of the challenge is, do we ourselves understand whether we as a development community can use, for example, the big data that’s coming in?”

“People forget that by inserting technology, it’s still development,” she says. Technology offers great promise but no respite from the need to adhere to conventional development principles as well. “You still need to have those in-depth discussions.”