Ethnography in User Experience, the African Angle

I get to advise on global user experience (UX) stuff for Oracle applications, so I am always on the lookout for research opportunities in local markets and for information that might lead us there.

The Everyone Speaks Text Message article in the New York Times (a surprisingly great source of articles on translation, language and cultural issues, by the way) is very revealing about the importance of knowing local users and how they use their technology in work and everyday life: their user experience, if you like.

N'Ko script image available from WikiPedia. Public domain.

Sure, that’s one great message there about how technology (and conventions such as Unicode) is helping the N’Ko language thrive, but read on and you come across information about how that technology needs to be designed to take into account other local usage factors:

Dabo says it’s possible to build a cheap cellphone with N’Ko as its language, a camera and slots for two SIM cards — a necessity in Africa, where reception is often spotty.

From a UX perspective, nothing can beat researching a local market like getting out there and living and working with real users for a while and understanding the context of use, and mobile phone-based usage is no different: ethnography.

For example, did you know that M-Pesa (pesa is Swahili for money), a mobile money transfer app that made the mobile money market in Kenya so exciting and innovative, is now the most used app in the world, with 200 transactions per second? You can read more about mobile ethnographic methodology done by Oracle on the Usable Apps website.

With over 620 million mobile connections as of September 2011, Africa has overtaken Latin America to become the second largest mobile market in the world, after Asia. Mobile usage in Africa has important developmental consequences too, and mobile computing reflects that. Check out iCow for example.  But that’s not all.  Just as accessibility requirements make life better for everyone so too can the needs of developing markets result in user experience improvements in more fortunate regions. M-Pesa in this case making mobile payments–through Near Field Communication (NFC)–seem all the more natural.

We must be wary of treating Africa as one homogenous economic market too, as this excellent GMS World report illustrates, remembering the range of languages and complex political and cultural dynamics at work there.

On a UX level, is no single user profile for mobile phones and apps in Africa anymore than there is in any other region either. For some interesting mobile personas for the region, and the requirements for the phones themselves, see the excellent Foolproof UX report Mobile and Africa: Are Smartphones Really Smart? by Souleymane Camara.

Said it before, but we don’t hear enough about the need for UX in our industry, or about cultural, localization or translation (or indeed UX) issues in Africa.  Our loss. Mobile phone usage and how it is revolutionizing lives in Africa is one of the big stories for 2011 (and 2012).


Ultan Ó Broin
Ultan Ó Broin (@localization), is an independent UX consultant. With three decades of UX and L10n experience and outreach, he specializes in helping people ensure their global digital transformation makes sense culturally and also reflects how users behave locally. Any views expressed are his own. Especially the ones you agree with.

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