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Let’s talk about HCI4D

People tend to get very excited about the introduction of new technologies, isn’t it right?

We spent hours watching commercials, previews, unboxing, and playing around with gadgets, fastest broadband connections, new TV services, smart cards, self-parking cars, and so on… and we assume that everywhere in the world, people are doing the same. Thanks to the power of marketing, it also might be substantially true.

However, there are realities where the introduction of new technologies, in terms of both gadgets and services, is a way more complex activity. On paper, technology may introduce great benefits to an environment, but it is important to really understand the needs and wants of the, so called, “targeted users”.

You probably heard about ICT4D (Information Communication Technology for Development), which focuses on delivering ICT projects in Developing Countries, and you though that was about time. I know you did, because I did the same the very first time I heard about it.

It is a matter of facts that ICT is increasingly used by communities and stakeholders in various context around the world, and at the same time, it has the potential to make a big impact for the better in almost every environment. However, we [should] also know how easily ICT projects can fail in “First World” realities. To contain this behaviour, we usually take advantage of different practices, disciplines, philosophies… or call them as you prefer, such as Agile and the concept of Iteration, System Thinking, Fixes-that-Fails, and, my favourite, Design Thinking. Based on my personal experience, these “tools” have many commonalities, and thanks to that, they can be easily overlaid or swapped around to maximise their benefits when planning and running any project.

In addition, it exists a discipline, called Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), which, in my opinion, the industry does not understand it as deeply as the Academia world is doing. Based on User-Centred Design (UCD) principles, and often on Design Thinking, HCI is the reason why every piece of technology looks and behaves as it does. The layout of your keyboard, the shape and functions of your mobile phone, the university course you are taking on-line, the concept of Accessible Web, speech-recognition, and other assistive technologies, are few examples of contributions. Of course, HCI covers also interfaces design and pure web design, that the industry loves to call UX (User eXperience).

At this stage, you might also think that it seems an easy transaction. All the principles used in HCI and other practices are universally recognised, so just throw them to ICT4D, and that will do.

After operating an intensive tuning on those “tools”, that is practically what happens. It is crystal clear that HCI research is one way to properly plan and deliver beneficial ICT  and other projects in regions of social disadvantage. On the other hand, in those contexts, many of the HCI assumptions fail. I mentioned “First World” before, can you think how diverse we already are in areas “classified” like that? Now, imagine the massive Cultural Diversity that a project faces in any developing country. Quick reminder that Culture is not only about behaviour and religion, it is a lot more.

For this reason, it is important to define a new discipline of HCI who focuses on these specific context, called HCI4D. The acronym reads Human-Computer Interaction for Development, and it was considered an “emerging discipline” in 2009. Then, HCI4D obtained constant coverage through Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) conferences and events all over the world. As everything else, this practice has flaws and strengths, that have been reported by pioneers of this specific discipline.

HCI4D fragility resides in the fact that observations and conclusions reached for a specific culture or situation may not hold for others. HCI4D can also be very expensive, in terms of time and money. According to Maunder et al. (2007), to be able to gather useful feedback from the potential user, it often requires high-fidelity prototypes already in early stages of the design process. Moreover, some realities have limited or none technology available. Hence, users can neither understand the proposed solution, nor choose among different design options.

To overcome such obstacles, the approach suggested by Maunder et al. is to help the users learn the skills needed to understand the proposed technology. This should happen in parallel with the development of the project.

It does seem difficult, and resources consuming. Why should we invest in such projects, then? I am not an economist, an expert of politics or similar, but, as a visionary, I can say that nowadays, we have the brain power, and physical capability to create a minimum range of truly useful benefits for everyone who wants or needs them. The important point that I want to immediately repeat is: “users must want it, it must be necessary”. We have to approach these projects with ethics, and avoid exploiting those situations.

The benefits that HCI4D can deliver are very relevant for certain situations. I talk about easier access to resources and services, such as education and health care. It allows communities to operate, collaborate, and contribute with other people. Most important, it provides information, knowledge that enable people to make better decisions in critical aspects of their own reality. It is about giving opportunities, right in people’s environment.

Finally, the beauty of HCI4D is that its findings may be valuable resources also for more general HCI practice. As some solutions are unique for their context, some may be implemented also in our “modern” world. Ideas about simplifying our systems to their real requirements, may translate in saving money. I may be naive, but just think about it.

You are probably wondering how the picture I featured is relevant to this topic. I have the honour to talk with people who live for sufficient time in one of these contexts, and provided me with stories and pictures. The water problem, they are living, it might be tackled  with some piece of technology that enables proper mapping, and monitoring on that part of the existing aqueduct, so that everyone in the area could receive an equal and proper service, on top of the capability of knowing the status of the system.

It is thanks to these people’s passion that I decided to openly write about HCI4D, and allow readers to discover and talk about this topic, also outside Academia.

This was my take on HCI4D. I am still reading, and learning about this fascinating topic. For this reason, it would be great if you feel like having an exchange of opinions on this topic. Feel free to not agree, every opinion count. I am looking forward to read more, and fill in the many blank spaces that I have.

Allow me to mention the resources who enabled me to make up my mind, and put together this piece:

The brilliant lectures by Dr. Duncan Stevenson, held at the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia, attended in 2015.

Anokwa et al., 2009 Stories from the Field: Reflections on HCI4D Experiences,Information Technologies and International Development vol. 5, issue 4, pages 101‐115

Maunder et al., 2007, Designing interactive systems for the developing word – reflections on User-Centred Design, in Proc. International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development, page 321-328

Thanks to Roberto Bonomi and his wife, for the stories, the passion, and the pictures.

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