CHI 2007 – Can user-centred design be harmful?

CHI 2007
Researchers and practitioners meeting at CHI 2007 produced the surprising argument that user-centred design is a bad idea, writes Andy Daerden on Usability News.

Instead, a range of alternative approaches were proposed for projects in developing countries such as “community centred design” and “deployment centred design”.

The context was a workshop on User Centred Design and International Development, looking at the contribution that HCI can make in developing countries. A critical observation was that in these settings, the idea of a single user owning and interacting with a single device, around some individually oriented task, is often inappropriate. Instead, systems are more often shared and used by communities, and their objectives are also geared to development and growth of the community. The challenge is to find applications that can strengthen a community’s ability to create jobs and income, to improve educational opportunities.

Examples of applications discussed included:

  • A small scale finance systems for use by organisations making microloans to women’s self help groups in India, including applications using camera-phones to capture transaction data;
  • PDA-based tools used by game wardens in South Africa that are designed to be used without requiring literacy
  • Storytelling software using cameraphones to support a community radio network sharing knowledge between villages in Southern India
  • A computer aided design tool to assist hand weavers in understanding purchasers’ preferences, and discussing design ideas with fair-trade organisations
  • Delivering English as a second language courses and games onto mobile phones.

Much of the discussion centred on methods used for designing in developing world contexts. Design methods in HCI embed cultural assumptions, and they may need to be adapted or replaced when working in other cultural settings. Many of the design methods developed in western culture are dependent on the words that are said, with too little attention paid to non-verbal communication. Techniques like paper prototyping assume some initial familiarity with computer technologies. Participants also reported that the social distance between the intended end users and western developers or evaluators was so huge that participants in design and evaluation rarely reported their true experiences. Instead, better results might be obtained by training local staff to do the work. We need to develop expertise, courses and organisations in developing countries to promote HCI skills.

The workshop, initiated by the Bridging the Global Digital Divide project included participants from India, Malaysia, China, South Africa, Namibia, Benin, and Kenya, as well as from Europe and North America. Support for the workshop was provided by the US National Science Foundation, The UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and ACM SIGCHI.

Leave a Reply