Designing for Participation (Part 2)

By Eric Zan

In Part 1 I discussed the value of participation in international development and how it can be problematic.Can leveraging the value of openness in technology create solutions to allow participation to be done in the right way? Perhaps these networking tools that foste rparticipation somehow allow for greater inclusiveness. Well, evidence suggests the same pitfalls of participation in development can be found in a virtually networked community. Online communities become a reflection of the offline society of which it belongs. Tools that facilitate openness and collaboration are subject to reflectingexisting authorityhierarchies that affect who participates and the type of information that is shared.
But networking tools don’t have to be designed with complete openness as an overriding principle.

The design of ICTs has a profound affect on the quality and quantity of participation. A lack of confidentiality for users of a system, designed in the effort to be “open”, can prevent participants from speaking plainly from fear of repercussions. As discovered in evaluating the AfricaAdapt Network, the tool type and the way one is invited play a role in what kind of people actually join, and therefore participate, in a networked community1. The editorial and quality control mechanisms of a platform, such as how blog comments are filtered, can affect the values that form in a shared space, alienating or attracting certain types of participants. Therefore, the ICT’s design plays an integral role in the “negotiation of meaning” in a shared space1.

So how can we go about improving how these tools are designed? Instead of just looking at how ICTs can enable participation for development, what about participating in the creation ICTs for development?When the process of creation is open as well, perhaps products could be better about optimizing inclusion and minimizing oppression.

The means for accomplishing this is typically through participatory design, where the target users of a product take part inits design and implementation. However, due to the high cost and time investments with this approach, participation usually only takes placeearly on. In the formative stages of developing a tool, the target population is observed and can provide input to designers, but the idea formation portion, where concepts and values are synthesized, is performed only by the design team. Users have little to say in how the products actually get implemented and then are only presented with limited choices in the prototyping and iteration phases where the solution has been narrowly defined. Because of this, many times the emphasis becomes more on the usability of the system as opposed to the solution itself.

This has come to be known as user centered design, and is close to what Heeks describes as “para-poor” innovation, where solutions are designed in collaboration with the beneficiaries3.

The mainproblem limitinguser-centered design is developers can miss important design decisions. By neglecting nuances between communities, a false sense of generalizabilityfor a solution can be created. Kam notes that evenin smaller communities there are social differences that can affect adoption and argues “that what user center design needs are models of microcultures that allow technology designers to capture, express and reflect on the uniqueness of each context of use.”4

A true participatory design approach focuses on inclusion in order to meet a person’s needs. This is accomplished by having members of the intended audience take part throughout the entire product development process, including implementing the system. The idea is that this allows people’s needs to be more closely met, leading to more sustainable solutions. There is a bottom line practical advantage as well: 70% of the costs of product development can be traced back to the design stage but it only accounts for 5% of the planned costs5.

In the interest of “openness that serves the purpose of development”7, we should look beyond just openness with respect to content generation but also to the creation of the platforms that allow access to the content. Design of the user interface and interactions with the data define the culture of a tool and thus who shares, how they share, and how often. For example, the availability of “safe spaces”, or private groups can allow for marginalized members of society to speak more freely or for greater risk taking in ideation before presenting ideas to the entire community.

Looking beyond the quality or effectiveness of the designed product, there is an argument that the act of participation itself fosters development. Ray &Kuriyan put forward an “increase in the capacity to aspire” as a worthy goal to improving people’s well being7. Participating in developing a technical solution for one’s community has the potential to do just that.Frierepassionately states creation is vital for the underprivileged to be truly free as it makes people active participants and forces them to fully question their situation.

But what would full participation in the creation of ICT tools look like? It would seemingly entail a level of digital literacy that would require extensive training to reach the ability to design and code technical solutions - monies that could be spent in arguably more worthwhile development pursuits.Also, not everyone would be able to receive those skills, leading to a concentration of power and non-inclusiveness, which will amplify the problems openness, is trying to address.

Beyond the ability to develop code, what can be done to improve participation throughout the process of innovation and creation?

Participation in design can be more than coding or providing input and feedback on a design. It can involve actually designing the process where input and feedback are sought in the user centered design process mentioned above.

As Winschiers notes, when designing across cultures one should do more than include users when designing a product but include them in designing the process of design8. This involves not just in gathering knowledge on the problem but also in designing the methods of the design process. “Culturally valid communication techniques” can be utilized to overcome cultural barriers like historical submission to outsiders due to colonization that prevent potential users from speaking up to critique a design created by outsiders. One example of a culturally valid technique is the Bollywood method where the participant is asked to act out a scenario similar to a Bollywood movie plot. This helped expose meaningful and frequent critiques of a website for booking plane tickets.

Leading the knowledge gathering stagesof design, such as interviews for formative research or usability testing, is another way to participate directly in the process. This can lead to better quality feedback and therefore better understanding of what a culture will actually find usable. For instance, in Namibia it was discovered that traditional ideas of what makes a usable system like speed, learnability, and low error rates, were superseded by concepts more important like saving, comfortability and pace8.

Another approach to participation is to design in a way thatallows for innovation of the tool or system after it is deployed. This runs the risk of creating solutions too general to be useful, an issue participatory design is targeted to help solve.But emphasizing a design to enable adaptability so that end users can design and create on their own may be a cheaper and even more effective means to include the community in designing technology solutions. For example, WiFi router chips have been uploaded with new firmware by end-users to enable their use as community mesh networks5. How else might we allow this paradigm through design?

I think the goal of harnessing the ethos of openness in technology to improve development programs and products has potential. But we should think beyond how we can use the basic Web 2.0 platforms for sharing information and towards the role of participation in the design of those platforms to generate a participatory environment that is most conducive to development outcomes.

1 Harvey, Blane. "Negotiating Openness Across Science, ICTs, and Participatory Development: Lessons from the AfricaAdapt Network." Information Technologies & International Development 7.1 (2011).
2 Heeks, Richard. "The tyranny of participation in information systems: Learning from development projects." (1999): 9.
3 Heeks, Richard. "The ICT4D 2.0 Manifesto: Where Next for ICTs and International Development?." Development Economics Working Paper Series, Paper 42 (2009).
4 Kam, Matthew, et al. "The social complexities of user-centered design in ICTD: experiences from four schools in India's villages and slums." Information and Communication Technologies and Development, 2007. ICTD 2007. International Conference on.IEEE, 2007.
5 Tongia, Rahul, and EswaranSubrahmanian. "Information and Communications Technology for Development (ICT4D)-A design challenge?." Information and Communication Technologies and Development, 2006.ICTD'06.International Conference on.IEEE, 2006.

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