Redefining the User Experience

This week in class, we discussed the various reasons that ICT4D projects fail as well as common instances of successful implementation of ICT4D. A general theme that is supported by our readings and class discussion is the notion that when projects are conceived and constructed with the community it is proposed to impacted, projects have a better chance of succeeding.Generally, the bottom-up approach is best.

mWomen Design Challenge invites designers, programmers and innovators to reimagine a smartphone’s core user interface so that it can be more intuitive and accessible when implemented in development contexts. The challenge was created to address the problem that most woman mobile users in developing countries rely on basic feature phones, which generally offer little beyond basic voice and SMS functionality. The mWomen Challenge explains that “smartphones will drive the next stage of the mobile revolution, offering access to more phone features, as well as being the primary tool for internet access for many in the developing world.”

When I first came across this challenge, I qualified it as a top-down ICT4D approach, simply because the designers who are taking part in the challenge aren’t living in the communities, asking women what they want from apps and interfaces. However, as I investigated further, I recognized that the challenge asks participants to consider factors that should be taken into account when designing apps and even offers personal stories of women who explain their needs right on the website. The challenge explains that in order to design a mobile experience that meets specific needs, participants need to consider the context in which the beneficiary lives. The challenge explains that demographics for the women that they are trying to affect,  “are incredibly diverse, with no two countries, communities, or families exactly alike. Likewise, no two women are alike, but many living in resource-poor settings experience similar constraints.” The challenge also provides ample information about the various factors that should be considered:

Written literacy 

  • ‘Literacy’ is not a black and white concept. Many people who are classified as ‘illiterate’ can read and remember numbers and recognize a small vocabulary of written words.
  • While individuals may not be literate, they can usually turn to people who a
  • In some countries, there are multiple languages. For example, there are 22 official languages in India, including Hindi.
  • In some countries, some ethnic groups don’t speak (and hence read) the national language. Sometimes, in these cases, people will speak their local language and an international language such as English or French, rather than the national language.

Technical Literacy

  • Many women learn to use new technology through friends and family.
  • Many women buy second-hand phones, which do not often include instruction manuals.
  • Often, when women already have a phone, they are unfamiliar with anything but the basic voice features, and struggle to identify how to use other common useful features like the built-in flashlight.
  • 77% of resource-poor women have made a mobile phone call, but only 37% have sent an SMS, regardless of literacy levels. Resource-poor women reported that they did not find the SMS service useful.

Culture

  • In some countries, women are expected to stay home. In other settings, women are the chief breadwinner, working long hours as smallholder farmers or shopkeepers.
  • In many countries, due to culture and economics, families live together. In many cases, women move to their in-laws’ homes after getting married. Often, elderly family members or nieces and nephews live as part of the immediate family. Often women are responsible for caring for the entire family.
  • In some settings, women are discouraged or even prohibited from using a phone, as it is considered as being at odds with their role in the home.

Resource Gaps

  • Battery life is important from both a cost and convenience perspective.
  • Many people do not have electricity in their residences, and so will take their phones to a charging shop that will cost around $0.20 to $0.40 per charge. For the many people living in rural areas, this requires the additional cost of travelling to a village.
  • In some settings, homes or communities may have power consistently during some parts of the year, but not others, for example during the monsoon or very hot seasons.
  • Mobile phone signals are often intermittent either due to poor coverage or network technical problems. It is commonly required for rural people to change their physical location to access coverage.
  • Both urban and rural populations, and men and women alike face these constraints, although women tend to have additional challenges related to disposable income and ability to travel outside the home or community.

The website includes additional factors such as the economics of obtaining a phone, purchasing airtime, costs associated with using a phone, and common phone practices. If you would like to see additional factors, you may view them on the website.

So here is my question: If the challenge designers aren’t physically taking a grass-roots approach, is this challenge automatically considered a top-down implementation of ICT4D? Or is giving the designers ample information to meet the nuanced needs of the user enough to qualify this remote project as bottom-up?

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