Bulletin, August/September 2006

Designing for Developing Contexts

by Jason Hobbs

Jason Hobbs lives in Johannesburg and runs jh-01 (www.jh-01.com), an information architecture and user design company. His time is also given to raising awareness of information architecture through teaching, article writing and his participation in UXnet as the local ambassador for South Africa. 

South Africa, where I live and work, is marked by low bandwidth connections over the Internet, small user bases and small budget allocations for the development of services over the Internet compared to spending in other media channels. 

The Living Standards Measure (LSM), the most used market research tool in Southern Africa, “…groups people according to their living standards using criteria such as degree of urbanization and ownership of cars and major appliances.” The majority of targeted Internet based marketing tends to focus on customers within LSMs 6-8 (8 being highest, 1 lowest). 

There are said to be roughly 4.7 million Internet users in South Africa. That’s about 10% of the total population. The majority of research conducted and of boardroom conversations held revolve around understandings of the user and the context for use based on access from work or home. The assumption here is that there is a connection between the higher LSMs and having a home, a job and Internet access.

And yet there is something of a phenomenon occurring in a two-block radius in Braamfontein in Johannesburg, a city suburb that sits alongside and north of the old central business district downtown. Braamfontein is a thoroughfare for many people who commute in from the South Western Township (SOWETO) into the city and surrounding suburbs. 

There are 15 Internet cafés situated in this small area along Biccard, in the neighborhood of Juta, De Korte, Simmonds, and Jorrison and Stiemens streets. Although there are other Internet cafés in and around Johannesburg, there is nothing of this concentration in the higher income areas (see Figure 1). Over the course of a day Tegan Bristow and I documented these cafés and spent time talking with customers and shop owners. The outcome was a photographic essay (http://www.jh-01.com). There are four main themes that emerge in the documentation: exteriors, interiors, proximity and signage (see photographic collage). 


All photographs by Tegan Bristow.
Used with permission.

  • It is clear from the signage that in many cases “Internet café” is a misleading term as the shops offer multiple services and products and may even have started out offering other services (for instance, as a hair dressing salon or video / DVD shop). 

    Figure 1: Map of Internet Cafes on or near Biccard St. in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, South Africa
    Figure 1: Map of Internet Cafes on or near Biccard St. in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, South Africa

  • There is a strong emphasis on business use. Multiple Internet and software based services are offered (word processing, emailing, Web browsing, business cards). Signage often speaks to specific needs rather than technology service (“CVs” as opposed to “word processing”).

  • Secretarial services and the teaching of software skills are offered, hinting at the need for services and a lack of either skills or resources.

  • The great number of shops offering these services in such close proximity has lowered the cost of Internet access. They all charge R5 an hour (less than a dollar US) which, we were told, is cheaper than the access offered in SOWETO itself – R20 on average in SOWETO according to one shop owner (about $3 US).

  • The great number of cafés is surprising in and of itself and clearly hints at the demand for access. Although no figures are available the shops experience much traffic and have many repeat customers according to the owners. 

  • In the Braamfontein area some shop owners referred to high numbers of students using their computers. Braamfontein sits between the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS) and the University of Johannesburg Technical Campuses and other city-based campuses.

  • An Internet café customer with whom we spoke remarked that most people living in the townships knew of the Internet and understood what it was. 

  • We have noted African Foreign Nationals using these spaces. It is possible that business is being conducted here with people elsewhere in Africa.

  • There is a corresponding pattern of Internet cafés emerging along other major streets in Johannesburg (like Louis Botha Avenue) where people are moving into suburbs from townships. 

These spaces of informal Internet use are unobserved in research, business and marketing. 

Why does the word informal seem appropriate here? Internet cafés evoke images of world travelers checking email from home or reporting back tales of travel. 

Are these Internet cafés being used as once off spaces for short time periods (while I’m passing through the city) or are they integrated into the lives of people who live in and around the city where they don’t have access at home or at work? Are these spaces used for recreational use or are they being used for key functions in daily life like sending résumés to potential employers, as we have seen? 

Are they informal because our understanding of the computer as the medium for the experience of the Internet is based on the notion of the personal computer? 

Beyond the unattainable goal of one person/one computer (plus Internet access) for developing countries, we have to wonder how contexts such as South Africa came to inherit this understanding. The notion of a personal computer is from the first world while sharing resources and community-based use is far more familiar to the third world. 

I met Antonella Pastore, an Italian information architect regularly consulting for international development organizations, at the 2006 IA summit in Vancouver. Over coffee she suggested the idea of "community computing" which seems to come closer not only to the reality of use (for those in lower income brackets) but to a model that could assist us in thinking about how to use these spaces to better serve the needs of the users and increase use of the Internet there. 

The impression I get from the (Web) design industry here and the nature of the research seems to have at its core some preconceived notion of what a user is or should be. This view includes, for instance, aspiring to a first world style of usage – people happily downloading mp3s while surfing Amazon and loading their carts at the same time as having a Skype video chat with a friend abroad. It seems that before the value of the medium is perceived (and larger budgets allocated) we have to reach that point of being on a par with the first world in terms of the available technology and type of use – buying online and recreational use.

“Websites? Don’t bother.” “The bandwidth is too low. It’s all Telkom’s fault.” “We can’t design like they do overseas.” “There aren’t enough users to make it worthwhile.” “We’ll wait for broadband… we can start to design properly then.” In one form or another, these are common phrases heard when discussing matters concerning working with the Web here in South Africa.

The real challenge is not low bandwidth, small user bases and budgets for building but our notions of what constitutes a user and how we can design for them and their contexts of use. The opportunity is to design within the limitations that exist to increase trust in the channel (as a meaningful alternative) and thus increase use of the channel. 

We can think of design as being both a process and an umbrella term for a number of disciplines and practices that constitute design in digital spaces (graphic, interaction, information and information architecture design). 

In terms of process we can begin with contextual enquiry and ethnographic research into existing ways of doing things and investigate use in informal spaces providing Internet access (Internet cafés, a friend using a friend’s computer at work). A needs-based approach can allow us to understand changing need states experienced by users through the steps in a process. Understanding current patterns of behavior (in the physical world) can help us to create new, more context-relevant and helpful ways of doing things through Web-based access to information and services. 

Designing information architecture based on this larger context of the user experience can allow us to provide a structure for the content and functionality required to answer the needs that people have while moving through a process. 

For instance, a government service that offers Web-based income tax returns needs to take into account various stages in the process. These include understanding the end goal of the service and what will be needed to complete the activity; gathering the necessary information; completing the submission; awaiting a response and follow up; and uptake of the Web-based service over the course of the next year to make completing the returns next time round even easier. 

If we understand that someone may be doing this over the course of three visits to an Internet café, then how do we make the architecture and navigation support picking up from where the user left off with continued guidance and hand holding over the course of the visits – always anticipating the next need and creating awareness of what will be required to complete the action. Assuming the information required is in the adjacent room at home or that a user can save their files on their personal computer desktop may be incorrect.

In this example, saving one's progress through an online forms submission process is no longer "nice to have" functionality but an absolute necessity. And unlike other instances where leaving registration till the end of the process may lower barriers, here we need it right up front. 

Organizing the content and functionality (architecture) with navigational support around the journey or process can increase trust that the channel will support the full experience and thus increase use and reduce drop off from the process. And where drop off is expected (even required), we can design the experience to support bringing people back. 

There is one final advantage to the needs-based approach. If we understand the need then we can conceptualize any number of ways to answer that need. Perhaps it’s static text; maybe it’s a form-based, server-run wizard. Maybe it’s a 5-megabyte flash application. For the user, the best solution will be the one that answers the need (whether a flash application or a text file). For the context, the best designed solution will be the one that takes into account the limitations of the environment (low bandwidth, for instance).

This approach can help to guide us in assessing which solution is the most appropriate, which will help the user the most, assist in changing behavior to get things done better and increase trust in the channel.