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Designing on Mars: Participatory Design and Training in Very Unfamiliar Environments

Let’s suppose that you are part of a design task force sent to a very different context from the one you are familiar with. Let’s also suppose that you have less than two months to gather useful information on the local cultural and social ground as part of filling a gap created by the imminent deployment of new technology in this context.

In this situation, conventional research methods, such as collecting demographic and ethnographic data or cultural probes, or even observations noted in a sketchbook, may prove tremendously time-consuming. Conventional methods also risk expanding the field of research when instead you need a more focused and constrained investigation. This article describes the technique adopted by a team of the Madeira Interactive Technologies Institute (M-ITI) in just such a situation.

M-ITI has been sent to the red planet Mars on a spaceship that resembles an Air France Airbus, rather than a NASA shuttle. Still, the M-ITI team reached a land unexplored by western service designers, a land where technological innovation is about to lead to big changes in services and in society itself. The land we are talking about goes under the name of Burkina Faso, but surely the red sands of this African country are like those of the red planet. If not the sands, then the overall context is at least as exotic. Therefore, during the preparation and execution of the project, we referred to it as Mars, keeping in mind that for the locals we were the aliens.

The major fallacy that can occur in this design process is thinking there is some similarity between the Western world and Burkina Faso; doing so would lead to assumptions and preconceptions that most likely would affect creative thinking, or even thinking itself.

Convincing ourselves of the possibility of a copy-and-paste process between our world and the red planet of Burkina Faso would probably bring us to the misconception of the African country as a “backward nation.” This concept might be true if Western and African cultures were progressing on the same line of development, but in a more open-minded vision, the line of progress of Burkina Faso—as in many other African countries—is more likely orthogonal to the one we are used to. It is a system where simple and advanced technologies are plugged in without following the Western chronology. Therefore, the same technologies can take on very different connotations; technology and culture always mediate each other, after all.

The idea of installing an Internet connection in the town of Ouahigouya, in the north of the country, came when the Italian organization Coordinamento Comuni per la Pace (Co.Co.Pa.), which has run cooperative projects in the area for ten years, contacted us to ask for a proposal.

Usually these organizations tend to favor one of two project types. The first aims to provide results in the very short term, such as reacting to emergencies—natural disasters, wars, or epidemics. The second looks at the very long term, for example starting education programs by opening schools. We observed that they often leave out the medium term, something that can produce some benefit within three to five years.

We also wanted to propose a project without fixed objectives that would, instead, enable the locals to set the uses and goals. We basically wanted to offer tools, rather than solutions. The Internet seemed to fit our vision quite well. Besides, in previous years, Co.Co.Pa. had already set up a physical structure equipped with a few PCs and a printer.

We tend to forget that the Internet is not just for searching things on Google or poking people on Facebook. The Internet is a read-and-write technology with active contribution at its center, and using the Internet in an active way may result in the creation of new services and businesses. We know it in our daily jobs; it’s what motivates agencies, freelancers, and corporations to embrace Internet-based innovation projects. We were wondering if similar things could work in a context like Burkina Faso. It was clear that we were about to start a project leading down unpredictable paths and a high risk of failures, but luckily Co.Co.Pa. understood the potential of our direction.

The Internet connection by itself didn’t represent an absolute novelty for the locals; in fact, some cafés and the post office offer the use of Internet. However, the connections are quite slow and the fees rather expensive, so the Internet remains a privilege for very few. Instead, the connection we set up was reasonably fast and, most notably, free to use.

After the initial culture shock in Burkina Faso, one notices how advanced the system of micro-services are. An example occurred one day when, after weeks of local food, Franco and I started feeling some Italian food nostalgia. So we shamefully communicated our desire for pizza to our local friend Sylvie. We knew very well that the closest pizzeria was in the capital, 200 km of dirt road away from us in Ouahigouya. We surely didn’t expect any pizza delivery guy to cover that distance. Surprisingly, Sylvie didn’t see any problem; she just picked up her mobile and called her cousin in the capital Ouagadougou, telling her to be at the bus station at a certain time, when the bus connecting the two locations would arrive. Then she went to the local bus station, handed some cash to the driver, received a code and sent it to her cousin through SMS. The cousin got the money, bought the pizza, and shipped it back on the same bus. Four hours after our shameful communication to Sylvie, we were eating a relatively cold—but still delicious—pizza, proof that things do work in Burkina Faso, even in a quite efficient way. They simply happen in a different way than the one we are used to.

Because of the limited amount of time and resources available, together with the seemingly unlimited amount of knowledge and information we needed to explore, this project initially appeared to be extremely complicated. We soon realized that the best way to investigate the culture would be to offer an exchange to a group of local people who decided to participate in our workshops. About twenty participants, aged eighteen to forty, and having basic familiarity with computers, attended our workshops. The exchange consisted of a flow of knowledge: we introduced participants to technologies and services already freely available on the Internet while the locals conceived and communicated to us possible applications of those resources in their context.

The recurrent question after having introduced some technology or resource was: what would you do with it?

Abel’s maps show hidden information to tourists.
Olle’s drum services for tourists.

What would you do with Google Maps, for example? One of the participants, Abel, had a lively interest in Google Maps as a tool. His intention was to create a tourist map of the area. He started going around on his scooter and taking pictures of interesting locations. Once back home, he placed those images on his online map. At first it seemed a very conventional map, but then he added an unexpected element. He included some telephone numbers in the basic description of individual spots. He explained that many locations or elements in the surroundings hide stories which are part of the local culture and that could be of some touristic interest. In his vision, the map would be handed to foreigners who visit the region so that they could not only reach those spots, but also contact local guides to take a live tour remotely through the mobile phone.

Although Abel’s idea had some technical and practical issues to solve, such as the way the map would have been distributed and other matters regarding the different languages and dialects spoken by the hypothetical guides and tourists, it was still teaching us a lot. First, Abel’s idea revealed to us a layer of location-based information we were not aware of. Second, it opened the possibility of creating a new set of services, based on the involvement of local people through a digital layer. And third, it disclosed a very important cultural element: that some people have the role of keeping information through oral storytelling rather than in permanent records.

Continuing our workshop sessions, we introduced instant messaging and the VoIP software of Skype. Then we asked participants to suggest possible applications of that resource. Our participant Ollé proposed a simple idea; he said, “When a Western visitor comes here, most likely he will buy a drum to bring home. I know that after some weeks, when back home, he won’t enjoy his drum much, because Westerners lack the technique. I would like to combine drums with my Skype contact. So that after the drum is sold, he or she can contact me for extra lessons on remote, and establish a friendship.” Ollé basically combined a service—the lessons—with a product—the drum. He created a strategy aimed at extracting some revenue out of these drum lessons in the long term, as well as gaining contacts and a personal network. Information provided by this early concept was telling us a lot about how locals value contacts, and the cultural aspects they would base communication on.

Our workshops assumed a consistent structure which we noticed being beneficial for everybody involved: for the participants it was a more practical way of learning, and a chance to generate concepts of services and micro-businesses that would make sense in their lives; for us, their ideas were effective ways to gather insights about the local culture and social context. The information gathered was usually pertinent to the specific technology introduced as well as its application, and this was of much help for our research.

The combination of anthropology with the use of technology and a bit of business thinking allowed us to go beyond mere training. In fact, together with the participants, we were conducting engaging activities of participatory design for services. That was ultimately what we wanted to offer to Co.Co.Pa. and the locals.

It turns out that designing on Mars isn’t that hard, as long as you accept that you are the alien.

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