Technology as a Cultural Practice


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How do you design a mobile money service for people in rural Uganda who’ve never had a bank account?

How do you test the usability of a mobile phone’s address book for users in rural India who’ve never had an address… yet alone an analog address book?

As cheap PCs and inexpensive mobile phones flood the global market, usability and user experience professionals will encounter more and more questions like these. Questions that challenge not only our research tools and methodologies, but our fundamental assumptions about how people engage with technology.

In this keynote, Rachel will share her thoughts on the challenges and opportunities the current cultural watershed will present to our industry as well as the metamorphosis our field must undergo in order to create great experience across different cultures.

Published in: Design, Technology, Business
  • Thank you very much, Rachel. That was a fantastic presentation. I enjoyed very much your talk and was inspired by your thoughts.
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  • Nice Slides. Good intro. But not sure if it gave any good insight. I felt it was just a usual presentation. But there were lots of presentations in the conference which gave us good food for thought. In fact, that's why it was such a successful conference!
    For a keynote, her presentation style was boring. She was almost stuck on the table and it looked as if she was reading her notes.. Also, I wonder how people can call themselves a scientist? She is just an artist and now going around places and doing some mock ups, design, etc.. Shouldn't she call herself 'Senior Design and User Experience Researcher' rather than 'Senior Research Scientist'?
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  • Thanks for posting this, Rachel!

    One suggestion: if you add 'upa2010' to your tags, a page that has been set up to collect all conference presentations will include this one in the list.

    Great presentation. Thanks again for kicking off the conference in grand style.
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  • Good morning! My name…I’d like to thank the organizers of UPA for inviting me to give this talk and open up this conference. It’s really an honor to be here in Munich and to be part of this event. The invitation to give this talk has come at an interesting time for me as a designer and a researcher. The last year has been a bit of a reflective time for me as a practitioner of user experience. I used to be a consultant – and consultants are often brought in by an organization to solve a problem. And as a problem solver, you sort of develop this set of tools and methods that can be used in almost any situation. So as a consultant, I spent a lot of time thinking about tools and methods – I went to a graduate school (the institute of design in chicago) that focuses on tools and methods for design thinking and problem solving – I worked at Adaptive Path, which as a consultancy spends a lot of time evangelizing user experience through UX seminars, and events. So this ethos of UX and tools and methods was something that was engrained in me for a long time as a practioner… but in the last few years… … something was missing for me.
  • Almost 2 years ago now, this sense of things being kind of “a miss” for me as a designer came to a head. I had been really focused on mobile. Mobile research, mobile interaction design. And I found myself mourning a lot of the ideas that I had to let go of as consultants do. At the suggestion of some friends, I started this side project – called 90 mobiles in 90 days…. It reconnected me to my creativity and the connection of my creative thought to the world around me. And it brought me back to my past…
  • • reminded me of a defining experience when I was in college. * NOT USER Experience - rather PAINTER/FINE Artist started out in this world not as a designer • First 2 years as of my undergraduate education I learned I guess the tools and methods of being an artist… • how to draw in perspective, how to draw human form, how to paint with oil paint, how to sculpt with clay and make forms out of metal. And during my third year of college, I traveled to Italy to study art…
  • I remember studying in Italy as being a really magical time. Because up until that point, I had be couped up in a studio in the rural midwest of the US, painting radiators, and tea cups – and then I moved to this vibrant amazing city where everyone was so attractive and well dressed
  • And people had this joy and zest for life that was infectious. There was this amazing energy to Rome that was a joy to be swept away in…
  • Outside of the cute Italian boys on motorbikes, what I remember about Italy was the art. The effect the art had on me… Up until that point, I had viewed art either in a dark theater style classroom at 9am on a Friday morning or in a museum – but in Italy, you could see the art in context - michaelangilo carvagio, titian… and I remember fondly this sense of wonderment that I would get while experiencing the artwork
  • I could see how they used the tools and techniques that I had learned about perspective, shadow, and form making to create these masterpieces Sense that the work was a reflection or that time… of italian culture…
  • But the work was more than these amazing examples of artmaking - Sense that the work was a reflection or that time… of italian culture…
  • Returned… I was a different creative person… I realized that I wanted to create work that connected to the world like those paintings did – create things that reflected the magic and the beauty of life …
  • Why am I not an artist today? Well, a girl’s gotta eat. And what quickly I realized once I entered the job force was that a lot of the discipline around form making and giving structure ideas I had learned as a fine artist applied to the new and emergent discipline of interaction design and user experience.
  • While we think of art as a form of human expression, there is actually a lot of form-making principles, methods, techniques, strucutres – like composition, and sometimes even math involved in the art making process. There’s problem solving in the art-making process – and a lot of UX and Design has been framed to date as problem solving.
  • A lot of the people in this room identify themselves ourselves as “problem solvers” and a lot of the discourse in our field focuses on this shared idea of problem solving… and that is what a lot of people do very well and feel very comfortable doing…feel comfortable writing books about and having conferences about… tools, methods, problem solving…
  • Interaction design, usability, UX – we break and issue down into all it’s components and pieces and then we reconstruct it into something usable and useful that people can use with some sense of ease. What we create – it’s a solution. If there is a technical problem, we think of solutions…
  • It’s the puzzle to solve…focus on problem solving runs counter to my own beliefs about the contribution design and user experience can make to the world.
  • I think this “Tim Gunn” – make it work mentality that runs pretty rampant in our field prevents us from seeing the bigger picture. And as our industry’s visibility grows, and the products and services we create find their way to new markets and different cultures, this problem solving mindset will cause us to miss something that is much bigger and important.
  • At this point you may be wondering… what’s the big deal? What’s wrong with using the term problem solving to describe what we do?
  • Problems are funny constructs – and we’re not the only profession or entity in the world that uses that term to describe an activity – problem solving traverses politics, environmental policy, and technology – and they have fallen victim to some of the predicaments I fear we are in danger of falling victim to…… here are three of my favorite parables…
  • For Example: The Puritans – forefathers of my country – they were a funny “problem solving” people. They believed they were God’s new chosen people, came to America escape religious persecution. What was their problem? These were people who were so firm in their beliefs about God and religion that they came to the conclusion it would be easier to voyage across the Atlantic Ocean and create a new colony in the Wilderness than to work out their differences in England. The only problem was this “wilderness” was actually inhabited by other people – Indians. But – this was an easy problem to solve. – Seal of the Massachusetts Bay colony – Help took the form of the plague brought over from England and wars such as the Pequot war of 1634 that wiped out many of the tribes along what would become the northeast region of the united states.
  • Here is another parable of problem solving… the cane toad - native to Central and South America, but released into Australia in the 1930s to solve a simple pest problem - beetles that were threatening the success of sugar cane plantations. Only 102 toads were initially released and was generally unsuccessful in reducing the targeted beetles Instead of going after the beetles the cane toads began going after everything else in sight--insects, bird's eggs and even native frogs.. The toll on native species has been immense. Another one to sort of add to the ash heap of daft problem solving.
  • I don’t want to flog OLP too much because this one has gotten it’s due in the press. Despite there being some interesting product and UI design moment on this product – the idea that a cheap laptop could solve problems of poverty in emerging markets was – just kinda dumb.
  • What can we learn from these parables? What is it that we are missing when we frame what we do as problem solving….
  • The frame of problem solving allows us to act as though we have blinders on… it allows us to focus on the aspects of what we do that is neater, more rational, and easier to control….
  • Viewing ourselves and our profession as problem solvers enables us to shape our tools… but it doesn’t provide us with the opportunity to be reflective and to see how those decisions are shaping ourselves, and shaping the world around us. How the activity of design and UX actually shapes culture…
  • So the central idea of this talk and the idea that I have been ruminating over for the last year is that Technology is a cultural practice….
  • Take you on a journey as to what has made me think this. We are making, moving and expressing culture… and I’d
  • What do I mean by cultural expression or cultural practice….
  • Courtship, dating, friendship, marriage, divorce
  • Birth, sickness, illness, aging and death…
  • Personal and Social, professional, international
  • I think that if you reflect on how people throughout the world are engaging with technology today, you will see that it has infultrated culture
  • As cheap electronics, computers, mobile phones, cellular and ad-driven networks get driven into every crevice of society throughout the world – they not only touch on culture… they reflect it, they inform it, they can shape it, and they can even change it…. In ways we can and can’t predict.
  • Technology has become a part of the fabric of society… and while we may want to think of people’s experiences with technology having a universality –it doesn’t. Just like culture, the ways that people experience technology is distinct and presents itself in profoundly local ways.
  • How do I know this to be true?
  • Other people are saying so, too.
  • Robert Fabricant – Behavior is our Medium
  • As computers, mobile phones, cellular and ad-driven networks get driven into every crevice of society throughout the world – they not only touch on culture… they reflect it, they inform it, they can shape it, and they can even change it…. In ways we can predict… and ways we cannot.
  • Our profession has reached a level of maturity – less about tools, methods… and problem solving, and more about capturing and reflecting the magic and mysteries culture and human values. Recognizing the work we do is less about problem solving and more about expressing a of a point of view about the world.
  • Signals that I have been seeing in my own work that I would like to share….
  • Mobile is my thing – it’s what I am passionate about and people kept telling me if I wanted to see the exciting stuff that was going on in mobile, I needed to go to africa and see it for myself. So I did – last July, I traveled to Africa by myself for three weeks
  • Admittedly, it was a trips that was partly a vacation – I saw myself some safari – but what I was really interested in was finding out about this mobile money thing. I has heard about the success of MPESA in Kenya… traveling alone as a woman in Kenya – so my research lead me to Uganda as another promising place to explore.
  • So I was really interested in how people were using mobile money. As soon as I arrived, I saw advertisements everywhere for the service – billboards, service providers on the streets signing people up…
  • In the newspaper
  • Even as I made my way out to rural villages I saw marketing for mobile money. Rural areas was where I chose to focus my research – Most impact - majority of the population of Uganda live in rural areas, livelihoods are based on mainly on subsistence agriculture. - Highest rate of “unbankable” population
  • Spoke to around 18 people who resided in rural villages around lake victoria…COMMON– they had heard of the system, but none had used it. – they didn’t understand how it worked.
  • Western union transfer without the paperwork – mediated by the mobile phone…. System that allows you to push money around…it’s a transferring system
  • People didn’t get it… Why?
  • Further questions into people’s relationship to money and financial services gave insight into why. People bury money in the ground Bank branches weren’t represented in rural villages Few people had bank accounts. Service accounts of any type. Few people had personal documentation - People didn’t trust banks People would save money by burying money in the ground. “ I am poor – banks aren’t for me.” Strong Affinity for fixed Assets
  • Technology and media theory from marshall - gestalt and the figure ground relationship
  • Figure and the ground rely on each other to form the picture – or the meaning. You couldn’t perceive one without the other… this idea that you cannot understand the figure (technology) without the ground (context or the culture)
  • Example of an emergent technology in our sphere… we collectively “grok” the iPad….
  • Historically – the technology that has definied it: Desktop computers The internet Touchscreen interfaces from banks and ticket machines for public transportation iphone
  • Culturally, the context makes sense Big business computers the size of a room Computers making their way into the home through games Home computers Laptops out in public space
  • Ipad has gestalt – the figure and the ground are in place
  • Mobile money in Uganda No experience with banks or creating account Very little experience with other technologies: radio, motorcycle, minimal mobile phone usage No relationship with a service provider (level of trust isn’t there)
  • Gestalt is not at play. The service has little coherence for people. The idea of creating this account, and a money transfer – there was not experiential or cultural reference point
  • the people who understood it understood it as selling airtime. The mental model of trade made sense to them….
  • The next project I want to talk about is one based in India – the goal of the project was to understand how literacy in rural india affected people’s ability to use mobile phones. Research team traveled to the Kutch region in India to gather research data.
  • Whenever I think of people present work about illiteracy around the world, there is always the token staggering statisitc slide… According to the most recent UIS data, there are an estimated 774 million illiterate adults in the world, about 64% of whom are women. (1 in 5)
  • Big numbers = big problem to solve… right.? Baked into this big number is an assumption. Every time you see this big number, underneath it is the assumption that there is a strong relationship between illiteracy, information asymetry, and poverty. Everybody uses mobile phones – and iIf you can’t read, it’s really hard to use a mobile phone. And the idea at play here or the “problem to be solved” is that if you make a phone that a person who can’t read can use, you might have a chance at making an impact on the fight against poverty.
  • So I was part of team that sent researchers to rural India to interview people in the field about mobile usage in order to understand how this problem could be solved…. What we realized was that literacy is really a work around for a poorly designed phone. Mobile phones are not easy to use – for literate or illiterate people. People who can read can simply work around poor design choices with greater ease.
  • On button, one action
  • Beyond icons - Metaphors didn’t make sense -
  • Phones are not a disposable object in India… strong culture of repair
  • Colorful, vibrant culture
  • Means by which people make data tangible – sometimes symbolic… sometimes visual cues
  • As computers, mobile phones, cellular and ad-driven networks get driven into every crevice of society throughout the world – they not only touch on culture… they reflect it, they inform it, they can shape it, and they can even change it…. In ways we can predict… and ways we cannot.
  • As computers, mobile phones, cellular and ad-driven networks get driven into every crevice of society throughout the world – they not only touch on culture… they reflect it, they inform it, they can shape it, and they can even change it…. In ways we can predict… and ways we cannot.
  • As computers, mobile phones, cellular and ad-driven networks get driven into every crevice of society throughout the world – they not only touch on culture… they reflect it, they inform it, they can shape it, and they can even change it…. In ways we can predict… and ways we cannot.
  • Correlation – poverty/illiteracy/information asymetry. There is a nuance to these numbers and a story behind them that we rarely hear…. That is that for a lot of people throughout the world, illiteracy is not as big a problem as we make it. There is not the same level of social shame and economic hardship associated with illiteracy as we think in the western world.
  • Joseph – entrepreneur I met in Uganda. He describes himself as primarily a fisherman….
  • Owns 100 head of cattle, real estate in the local village that he rents out, three fishing boats, grows coffee
  • Pineapple, banana, 3 boda bodas and 2 markets where he sells supplies like household goods and charges phones…. Joseph is 44 years old and by all measures of Ugandan society, he is successful. In Ugandan society, he would be considered more successful than the Phd candidate from the university in Kampala who accompanied me and translated interviews during this research study. Joseph is illiterate.
  • This last topic I wanted to speak about is in reference to another McCluen theory – the review miror.
  • One of the things that has long held my imagination about mobile and mobile UX is that it presents the opportunity for people – for designers to invent new ways of interacting information.
  • And this is not an easy task. Phones have come a long way – bt for the most parts most mobile phones are what I lide to call Frakenphones… they ‘re these cluged together pieces of technology that attempt to repurpose old experiences on a small device – with little success…
  • And I think a lot of what gets in our way isn’t our clients, or our boss, or the organizational disfunction we sometimes have to work in. What often gets in our way is ourselves. – our cognitive habits about how experiences should be are so engrained that it’s difficult for us to see outside of what we know and have experienced.
  • I was reminded of this when I visited Uganda last summer: Information - news Not a work for information in lugandan
  • And there is not really a culture of books and knowledge emobodied in print. Which got me thinking about that that word “information” and how easily it rolls off my tongue and how in my culture, that word has a great deal of utility. Maybe it’s because of the internet or just how we get stuff done – but western culture has succeeded in separating content (information) from it’s form or it’s embodiment.
  • But our history is still evidenced in our interaction models and metaphors…
  • Dektop computing was built on the metaphor of the desktop and file folders
  • desktops
  • But then I think of the experiences my neice is having or the images I see on Youtube of children playing with ipads. What are the models they will use and what will they disgard?
  • I think there is a frontier that lies ahead – a frontier that offering UX professionals the opportunity to invent new and more human ways for people to interact with information. Invention requires the casting off of many anchors and conventions we’ve inherited from the last 50 years of computer science and traditional design and jumping head first into a new, dynamic, and unfamiliar world that contains few familiar guideposts.
  • I think instead of focusing on being problem solvers, we need to start thinking about how we want people to experience technology – the cultural practices it can reinforce, shift and change. And to think about how we can create experiences for people on their terms, instead of ours – how we can enable people to be more of who they are in the world.
  • How can I apply this idea to my daily work?... Stop viewing what you do as problem solving and starting engaging with your work and viewing it as a cultural expression… I’d like to invite you all on Friday to think of how you can go on a Roman Holiday of sorts…
  • Ethnography and fieldwork…
  • Invite you to get out of the UX echo chamber. Start getting clear on the issue and topics in the world that matter to you and resonate with you and your values. Look for how what you do can overlap with those topics… How you can be inspired by fellow artists, politicians, business people, urban planners and scientists.
  • Approaching your work – to keep ehtnocentrism in check and really embrace a stance of cultural relativism. Cultural relativism is the principle that an individual human's beliefs and activities should be understood in terms of his or her own culture. Remember that no culture is more or less advanced when it comes to technology – but rather each society comes to accept and use technology on their own terms and in their own time
  • Methods and tools problems solving… expressive quality to our work. Its not that one is more important than the other – because we need them both
  • Two different ways to approach art and they are both true. One of them is that the world is a beautiful place and it’s full of highlights, and sparkles, and dawns and dusks and human mystery. The other one is that there is a structure behind it. There is a math, and a science, and an architecture to it. The difference between them is sort of two different ways of looking at the world.  It’s sort of the difference between whether you are reaching out to touch the world, or whether you are allowing the world to touch you.
  • Technology as a Cultural Practice

    1. Title Technology as a Cultural Practice Rachel Hinman Senior Research Scientist - Nokia Research Center
    2. Title 90 Mobiles in 90 Days
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    14. NPR slide UX as Problem Solving
    15. Hypothesis vs. Agenda Make it Work!
    16. Hypothesis vs. Agenda What are we missing when we frame our work as problem solving?
    17. Hypothesis vs. Agenda Parables of the “ Problem Solving” approach
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    21. Hypothesis vs. Agenda NPR slide What are we missing?
    22. Hypothesis vs. Agenda NPR slide What are we missing?
    23. Hypothesis vs. Agenda We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us. Marshall McLuhan
    24. Hypothesis vs. Agenda Central Idea: Technology is a cultural practice
    25. Hypothesis vs. Agenda Central Idea: The time has come to stop thinking of our work solely as “ problem-solving” and start thinking of it is as a form of cultural expression.
    26. Hypothesis vs. Agenda Cultural practice?
    27. Hypothesis vs. Agenda Everyday life rituals
    28. Hypothesis vs. Agenda Social practices
    29. Hypothesis vs. Agenda Medical treatment
    30. Hypothesis vs. Agenda Forms of artistic expression
    31. Hypothesis vs. Agenda Governance, leadership, and conflict resolution
    32. Hypothesis vs. Agenda Power Relationships
    33. Hypothesis vs. Agenda Cultural Institutions
    34. Hypothesis vs. Agenda Housing
    35. Hypothesis vs. Agenda Religion
    36. Hypothesis vs. Agenda <ul><li>Cultural Practices: </li></ul><ul><li>Everyday life practices </li></ul><ul><li>Social practices </li></ul><ul><li>Medical treatment practices </li></ul><ul><li>Forms of artistic expression </li></ul><ul><li>Religious and spiritual practices </li></ul><ul><li>Governance and leadership, conflict resolution </li></ul><ul><li>Cultural institutions </li></ul><ul><li>Power relationships </li></ul><ul><li>Housing and construction </li></ul>
    37. Hypothesis vs. Agenda What does technology and user experience have to do with cultural practices?
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    41. Hypothesis vs. Agenda Edges worth tracking
    42. Hypothesis vs. Agenda New technology makes its way almost everywhere within two years. ~ Jan Chipchase
    43. Hypothesis vs. Agenda
    44. Hypothesis vs. Agenda <ul><li>CHI 2010 Themes: </li></ul><ul><li>Feminism in HCI </li></ul><ul><li>HCI and Politics </li></ul><ul><li>Inclusive Design </li></ul><ul><li>Design for Emerging Markets </li></ul><ul><li>Designing for Social Impact </li></ul><ul><li>HCI and the Environment </li></ul>
    45. Hypothesis vs. Agenda
    46. Hypothesis vs. Agenda Signals
    47. Hypothesis vs. Agenda Uganda: Mobile Money
    48. Hypothesis vs. Agenda
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    51. Hypothesis vs. Agenda
    52. Hypothesis vs. Agenda “ How does it work?”
    53. Hypothesis vs. Agenda 1. Create an account with authorized dealer
    54. Hypothesis vs. Agenda 1. Create an account with authorized dealer 2. Download Mobile Money application to mobile
    55. Hypothesis vs. Agenda 1. Create an account with authorized dealer 2. Download Mobile Money application to mobile 3. Transfer funds – Passcode, recipient’s phone #
    56. Hypothesis vs. Agenda 1. Create an account with authorized dealer 2. Download Mobile Money application to mobile 3. Transfer funds – Passcode, recipient’s phone # 4. Recipient retrieves funds from authorized dealer (if they have the cash)
    57. Hypothesis vs. Agenda
    58. Hypothesis vs. Agenda ?
    59. Hypothesis vs. Agenda
    60. Hypothesis vs. Agenda Gestalt: Figure Ground
    61. Hypothesis vs. Agenda McLuhan believed that to fully grasp the effect of a new technology, one must examine figure (medium) and ground (context) together, since neither is completely intelligible without the other. McLuhan argued that we must study media in their historical context, particularly in relation to the technologies that preceded them.
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    70. Hypothesis vs. Agenda India: Mobile Literacy
    71. Hypothesis vs. Agenda 774 Million* *UNESCO Institute for Illiteracy
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    83. Hypothesis vs. Agenda
    84. Hypothesis vs. Agenda 774 Million* *UNESCO Institute for Illiteracy
    85. Hypothesis vs. Agenda Literacy
    86. Hypothesis vs. Agenda
    88. Hypothesis vs. Agenda Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society.
    89. Hypothesis vs. Agenda The Rearview Mirror
    90. Hypothesis vs. Agenda Mobile presents an opportunity to invent new ways for users to interact with information and each other. Opinion!
    91. Hypothesis vs. Agenda Opinion!
    92. Hypothesis vs. Agenda Even in situations in which a spirit of exploration and freedom exist, where faculty are free to experiment to work beyond physical and social constraints, our cognitive habits often get in the way. Marshall McLuhan called it “the rear-view mirror effect,” noting that “We see the world through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”
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    101. Hypothesis vs. Agenda How can I apply this idea to my daily work?
    102. Hypothesis vs. Agenda Less of this, more of that
    103. Hypothesis vs. Agenda Get out of the UX Echo Chamber
    104. Hypothesis vs. Agenda Cultural Relativism
    105. Hypothesis vs. Agenda
    106. Hypothesis vs. Agenda Reaching out and touching and shaping the world… allowing the world to touch and reshape us. Reuben Margolin
    107. Hypothesis vs. Agenda Thanks!