Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Wrong Assumptions of Technology Adoption in Emerging Economies

Relevant to the post earlier this week, sharing Patrick Meier's tweet from the iLab Liberia session, I'm tempted to repost the entire content of Patrick's excellent blog summary of the day. It starts with its the refreshing title, A List of Completely Wrong Assumptions about Technology Use in Emerging Economies. It is a really well-written post, not least because it straight-forwardly discusses the author's own ex-pat bias, and works through this to understand local culture and its thinking around technology, with the goal of maximizing dexterity, impetus and desirability of technology by end users in emerging-market settings. The reasons for great adoption of technology can often be simple, and so obvious as to be mysterious to foreigners. Some highlights of his post:

The following examples come from conversations with my colleague Kate Cummings who directs Ushahidi Liberia and the iLab here in Monrovia. She and her truly outstanding team—Kpetermeni Siakor, Carter Draper, Luther Jeke and Anthony Kamah—spearheaded a number of excellent training workshops over the past few days.

At one point we began discussing the reasons for the limited use of SMS in Liberia. There are the usual and obvious reasons. But the one hurdle I had not expected to hear was Nokia’s predictive text functionality. This feature is incredibly helpful since the mobile phone basically guesses which words you’re trying to write so you don’t have to type every single letter.But as soon as she pointed out how confusing this can be, I immediately understood what she meant. If I had never seen or been warned about this feature before, I’d honestly think the phone was broken. It would really be impossible to type with. I’d get frustrated and give up (the tiny screen further adds to the frustration). And if I was new to mobile phones, it wouldn’t be obvious how to switch that feature off either. (There are several tutorials online on how to use the predictive text feature and how to turn it off, which clearly proves they’re not intuitive).

...[when showing an image from Google Earth] Kate jumped in and asked participants: “What do you see in this picture? Do you see the trees, the little roads?” She pointed at the features as she described the individual shapes. This is when it finally dawned on me that there is absolutely nothing inherently intuitive about satellite images. Most people on this planet have not been on an airplane or a tall building. So why would a bird’s eye view of their village be anything remotely recognizable? I really kicked myself on that one. So I’ll write it again: there is nothing intuitive about satellite imagery. Nor is there anything intuitive about GPS and the existence of a latitude and longitude coordinate system.

Kate went on to explain that this kind of picture is what you would see if you were flying high like a bird. That was the way I should have introduced the image but I had taken it completely for granted that satellite imagery was self-explanatory when it simply isn’t. I really kicked myself on that one. In further conversations with Kate, she explained that they too had made that assumption early on when trying to introduce the in’s and out’s of the Ushahidi platform. They quickly realized that they had to rethink their approach and decided to provide introductory courses on Google Maps instead.

More wrong assumptions revealed themselves during these courses. For example, the “+” and “-” markers on the map are not intuitive either nor is the concept of zooming in and out. How are you supposed to understand that pressing these buttons still shows the same map but at a different scale and not an entirely different picture instead?

Again, when I took a moment to think about this, I realized again how completely confusing that could be. And again I kicked myself...So those are some of the assumptions I’ve gotten wrong...Incidentally, I realize that emerging economies vary widely in technology diffusion and adoption—not to mention sub-nationally as well. This is why having the iLab in Liberia is so important. Identifying which assumptions are wrong in more challenging environments is really important if our goal is to use technology to help contribute meaningfully to a community’s empowerment, development and independence.

Excellent work, Patrick, Kate & team. And again, really insightful post.

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