HCI4D: The Emerging Discipline of Human Computer Interaction For Development

The practice of Information and Communication Technology for Development enjoys a host of disciplines within the sector (m4d, health informatics, e-governance, etc), some enjoying more popularity then others. Although, a discipline that is making a more commanding presence in the ICT4D arena, is Human Computer Interaction for Development also referred to has HCI4D.

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The significance with HCI4D is that it investigates ways of appropriately designing ICT’s so that they are conducive to the unique user and infrastructural requirements met in multicultural environments. The importance with HCI4D is that it emphasizes the user rather than any other entity. Melissa Ho, Thomas Smyth, Matthew Kam and Andy Deadren best define HCI4D as:
A subfield of ICT4D that focuses on understanding how people and computers interact in developing regions and on designing systems and products specifically for these contexts.”
I remember one day, in a class I was taking on HCI, my professor was talking about a dvd player sold at Best Buy, top of the line, ornate and beautiful....to look at. Surprise to no one, this product sold very well for Best Buy. Although while it sold very well it also yielded one of the highest return rates in Best Buy’s history. Why? Because while the product was beautiful, people could not operate the DVD player.
The confusing interface of the product made it extremely difficult for people to understand how to use. While the design was aesthetically pleasing, user centered design principles were not employed. Now if this philosophy is applied in an ICT4D context, what is to be said of all the technologies brought to the third world designed for people in the western world?
That being said, the question becomes how can ICT’s properly be designed with the customs of third world users in mind? How can ICT’s be properly designed that take into account local technical, economic, cultural and financial aspects and what other socio-technical constraints should be addressed?
Low literacy rates is a factor that is increasingly taken into consideration when ICT’s are designed for third world users. Other areas taken into account in HCI4D research according to Dearden, Light, Dray, Thomas, Best, Buckhalter, Breenblatt, Krishnan and Sambasivan in ‘User Centered Design and International Development’ include:

  1. Interaction Metaphors: Exploring beyond the Western-centric Windows, Icons, Menus and Pointers (WIMP) metaphor to other interaction metaphors that are more culturally and socially relevant to the intended user groups.
  2. User Analysis: Developing methods to most effectively understand the users and their context, practices, and wants, by understanding SocioCultural and Economic differences unique to them.
  3. Interaction Methods: Localization and customization / alternatives to traditional input output methods.
  4. Evaluation Methods: Thinking outside traditional methods by making evaluation more appropriate to the target user audience to elicit accurate and actionable feedback.

ICT4D is a highly contextual field that is built upon empowering the rural poor with ICT’s. The needs and wants of the user are key to the success and sustainability of ICT4D projects. HCI4D is a practice that transcends all disciplines of ICT4D, it is also a discipline that addresses these contextual issues and is an integral part to any ICT4D project.

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