Joe Dollar-Smirnov, UX Trainer at General Assembly, defines user experience (UX) design as the act of designing an intuitive and rewarding product or service around the needs of the end user. When working on products at OneWorld, I keep two objectives in mind: When interacting with the technology, the user needs have a successful and a positive experience.
To fulfil the first objective of creating a ‘successful experience’ is a pretty straightforward element of ICT4D interventions. Each ICT4D intervention has (or should have) a clear objective as to what the technology is supposed to achieve. This can be providing information on crop prices for farmers or giving community health workers access to their patients’ health records. It is key to the ICT4D intervention that the user experience of the technology is successful, as this will mean that the intervention is reaching its objective.
It is however also important to create a positive experience, because it means that the chances that the user will come back and recommend the product to their friends, family and neighbours are much greater. Bad first user experience will put users off. In the case of data collection interventions, this may also lead to incorrect or incomplete data.
Additionally, it is important to work closely with your users, because you aren’t creating a product you would use yourself – at least in most cases. When you are designing for users who have a different relationship with technology, you need to spend considerable amounts of time testing and retesting. Else, you can easily fall into the trap of creating a product for the elites, who are more technologically-able and therefore more adaptable to new technology. Spending time and effort on user experience design will make sure that your product fits with your target audience.
A successful and positive user experience means that your product is more likely to have a larger reach, engage people and be meaningful, and is not a token product that ticks the ICT box.
If it is so important, why aren’t we talking about UX design in ICT4D interventions?
It is quite easy to convince engineering and management teams to create successful user experiences, since it’s essential to the objective of the product. But what about tweaking and adapting your product through series of user testing to create a positive user experience that leaves the user with a good feeling that means she’s likely to come back and recommend the product?
The eternal iceberg of development interventions – funding models – is a major obstacle in this case as well. With restricted funding and often-unrealistic expectations from funders as to how much time it takes to fine-tune a technology product, bug fixing and actually making the technology achieve its primary objective overrides any attempt to create positive experiences. While funders are easily impressed by products that fulfill their objective, they fail to see the importance of really good UX design in order to create meaningful products, that are constantly improved.
I really don’t want to name and shame some of the products I’ve seen out there, because I know a lot of hard work has gone into them and there are probably people at these organisations frustrated just as I am that they weren’t able to spend more time to improve these products. But if I see one more mobile data collection form with 20 drop-downs, I may change my mind.
I believe it is important that we talk about user experience in ICT4D projects and that we should build a community of practitioners who care about good UX and share the learnings from the for-profit technology sector with development practitioners. We need to increase the amount of training on UX design available to project and field staff, and put pressure on funders to allow us to improve products.