INTERCULTURAL INTERACTION DESIGN. An interview with John Thomas (IBM) and Nuray Arkin.

How should we approach interaction design when the applications are meant for foreign countries? And what if those countries belong to the developing world? John Thomas (see picture on the left) is very concerned with these topics. He is in the Research Staff at IBM’s T. J. Watson Research Center, and has worked in the area of Human-Computer Interaction for 30 years, publishing over 150 papers. At CHI 2008, he is one of the organizers of the workshop HCI for Community and International Development, which is taking place today. I have spoken with him and Nuray Arkin (who is also workshop co-organizer) and here you can find their stimulating answers:

Can interaction design be afforded by the richest countries only?  What role is it playing or should it be playing in developing countries?

Nuray: “Not necessarily.  However, interaction design has a long history in the developed countries.  Therefore, it feels natural for the interaction designers from the developed countries lead the work in the developing countries.  In most cases, adapting the design methodologies and incorporating innovation to the current design principles could play a significant role in leapfrogging interaction design activities in developing countries.  We see many efforts in this area in all the continents.  The topic is getting a lot of attention in the developing countries.”

John: “The exact importance of interaction design depends on the particulars; however, in general, I would say good interaction design is even *more* critical in developing countries.  Why?  Because they have less resource to lose on bad design than richer countries.  Of course, if one thinks of interaction design only in terms of the “surface” or “skin” of applications, it is relatively more important in developing countries to make sure people have their basic needs met.  But interaction design deals with the fundamental match between human needs and values on the one hand and what is possible technologically on the other. Without an adequate understanding of the communities, cultures, and practices in developing countries, the limited resources of developing countries will be wasted.
Too often, developing countries are seen by richer countries only as “new markets” for existing products.  While there may be some economic benefit to this view even in some cases for the developing countries, a more complete analysis would show the advantages of a deeper partnership and synergy that could result in completely new ideas, services, and products to benefit both so-called developing and developing countries.”   

What are the major differences in designing applications for the developed wrt to the developing countries? What role do cultural aspects play?

Nuray: “Depends.  Sometimes, the differences are small which can be handled by small modifications to existing solutions.  But, in many cases, the differences are so significant that we may need to design a totally different solution for the new user groups in developing countries.  Culture had a significant impact on design in the past.  However, during the 90’s, most of the cultural differences studied included the developed countries.  Now, the developing countries add more dimensions to culture which include infrastructures, affordability, literacy levels, technology penetration, and impact on sustainability.”

John: “First, it is important to remember that even within the so-called developed nations there are huge cultural differences among countries, among regions within a country, among professions, and among various subgroups; for instance, in the United States, the cultural differences between eco-sensitive backpackers and state park RV campers or between audiences for professional golf and professional wrestling are enormous.  Nonetheless, in designing for all of these diverse people in the US, one can assume access to electrical power and a basic physical toolkit and someone who knows how to use them. Further, even such diverse people have similar notions of time, space, money, and family.  In designing for communities in developing countries *none* of these common assumptions might hold true.”    

Could you give me a few examples of particularly interesting work presented at your workshop?

John: “All of the papers are really interesting and different.  Here is an example that exemplifies some of the issues that can come into play.  The first is entitled, Design of video-sharing kiosks for Liberia’s post-conflict reconciliation (Thomas Smyth and other students and faculty at Georgia Tech).  This application must deal with “usual” UI issues but in a context, not only of low computer literacy but of low general literacy.  In addition, there are serious social and cultural issues that much be addressed on the one hand as well as unusual environmental factors such as high heat and humidity.”

What sorts of new applications for community needs do you see in the future, also thanks to the research that is being discussed at your workshop?

Nuray: “The solutions designed for the community needs should have an impact on the well-being of the individuals (– including health, economic, education improvements) and an impact on the sustainability of the system after being implemented. These applications can range from solar cooking systems to creative mobile communications to water delivery systems.”

John: “Much of humanity is still living under the delusion that only folks with superior weaponry have useful ideas.  Today we face the mass extinction of plant and animal species. But we also face the mass extinction of languages and modes of thought and perception.  Just as disappearing plant species may hold the keys to preventing or curing physical diseases, the modes of being and thinking of so-called primitive peoples may hold crucial keys to solving some of humanities recurrent problems such as prejudice and warfare and emergent ones such as global pollution. I would like to see technology used to try to help preserve alternative ways of thinking and help make them accessible to wider groups of people.”    

What do you expect from this workshop in terms of its contribution in this field? 

John: “The attempt to provide adequately for not usual groups of people is important to the field of computer human interaction because it stretches our ideas about appropriate methods as well as appropriate technologies and techniques for interaction design.”

© 2008, Il Sole 24 Ore. Web report from CHI 2008.