capstone: Design framework for rural india. The role of ICTs and the lack of design in some of these

Me and Christian Beck are working on very similar topics, and there is a lot of collaboration in this project between us. But at the end of it, we will have two different, inter-related projects, that will feed off each other. This is a gist of something we sent in to CHI 2007 work-in-progress. again, am just putting it out there to get people to comment. Related post available here.

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Technological interventions in lesser-developed countries (LDCs) are an “in-thing” now. Many entrepreneurs are using digital artifacts to”improve” the lives of people in thse countries by giving them access to western technology. My thesis questions and analyzes thisphenomenon to understand how much good it really does, and to design a framework for doing this better. Note: I have removed citations and references in this short intro. And while these are my ideas, they are based on research in HCI and ICT projects, and is done with the help of many people at the school of Informatics at Indiana University, most notably Christian Beck and Erik Stolterman.

There is a long history of failed interventions in LDCs at the hands of outside development organizations. A recurring characteristic of these failures is a general flaw in their design. Often they lack fundamental requirements for effective design such as insufficient involvement of the user and needs assessment, and application of in appropriate models. A lack of proper communication between the developer and the villager results in misappropriated implementations of ICTs. More recently, many African leaders themselves have learned economics and politics in other countries then attempted to adapt them for their countries, often with negative results. These failures reveal a consistent underlying problem: disregard for thoughtful design but more importantly they provide designers with a call to action.

There is an emerging trend towards social entrepreneurship and ICTs in developing countries. Projects such as the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) Project place a greater responsibility on Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) designers. In order to avoid repeating mistakes, HCI designers must stake their claim in this movement now. The question is how can HCI practitioners effectively adapt to this vastly different environment?

The foundation of HCI is still rooted in digital artifacts which are not vastly used in the rural areas of LDCs. The problem facing HCI is how to translate these theories and methods usefully into a realm devoid of the pretenses under which they were originally derived. Since villages in LDCs lack a fundamental component of HCI—the computer—then the focus of study and research approaches must be placed elsewhere. A growing theory which follows this ideology is Activity Theory. It as a means of directing HCI design towards understanding preexisting activities. Accordingly, Activity Theory is better suited for environments where there no digital artifacts exist, and work and daily activities can remain the primary area of research. By focusing on work and goals in the village, Activity Theory can better inform design. However, it is not sufficient to simply ‘apply’ activity theory towards designing digital artifacts in rural areas. For instance, every example given by Rogers in her overview of Activity Theory centers on ‘digital environments’. The implications for practice in rural areas will require the use of a different framework. As a result, our research aims at deriving a framework for practical application of HCID. Activity Theory will serve as a grounding theory for abstracting principles from successful and unsuccessful digital interventions.

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People I have cited in this paper include Bonnie Nardi, Victor Kaptelinin, Yvonne Rogers. If you are interested in Activity Theory, I would suggest you start with one of these people. Yrjo Engestrom is another person who is involved in AT, but I am still not through digesting his stuff.

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