ICTworks Interview with Tapan Parikh on Human-Computer Interaction and Design

I am very interested in HIC4D, the emerging discipline of human computer interaction for development, and recently interviewed Tapan Parikh.

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Tapan is an assistant professor of at the University of California, Berkeley. His research interests include HCI, ICT4D, information systems supporting microfinance, smallholder agriculture and public health and his research focuses on research focuses on the use of computing to support sustainable economic development across the World.
1) First of all, can you tell me a little about the work you do at the University of California-Berkeley ?
Well we employ easier to learn user interfaces that could empower all kinds of users around the world to be both more active producers of information and more informed consumers of information. So there are a bunch of projects in that space that we do.
Some themes that we pursue in this work are leveraging existing media formats and capabilities to more quickly and effectively moderate people towards online information services. This includes using stuff like paper maps and leveraging peoples ability and familiarity with voice communications as a way of proving basic services.
2) So, what is Human Computer Interaction for Development (HCI4D) in your words?
I think there are a number of ways to interpret that. I don’t know if I necessarily identify with that term. I tend to see HCI4D as not being any different from HCI in general. HCI in general is concerned with understanding new types of user content and constraints and that opportunity that exists in the real world. ICT4D or HCI4D just happen to present a new set of the constraints and opportunities of how to create knowledge that helps other people work with these kinds of groups.
3) HCI4D is a discipline that transcends almost all disciplines of ICT4D and is crucial for the sustainability of projects yet is rarely mentioned in ICT4D debate, why do you think that is?
I would say it is mentioned even more than anything else. It’s really the first thing people think about and the last thing people think about when they think about ICT4D and are these really sustainable solutions or are they really the most effective and long term ways of addressing issues?
I think there are some success and some failures and I think all of these products could mean something are either inclusively or exclusively being evaluated in terms of sustainability and more broadly on the impact they are having. I really think the most important thing to consider is the impact, the impact of your project relative to the resources they consume. That really seems to be the more precise thing to think about when you’re thinking about sustainability.
4) What contributions for you foresee HCI making to the ICT4D practice and what kind of impact do you see HCI having in the internationalization of ICT’s?
I think broadly this kind of research is providing methods that could be useful for designing and evaluating any kind of developmental intervention, not even necessarily a technological one and so I think making use of principles such as user centered design, participatory design and iteration and evaluation have a long tradition in HCI.
5) An issue that seems to weigh heavy in the use context of ICT’s in developing regions is linguistic variation. How do you foresee ICT4D practitioners, researchers and implementers overcoming the challenges of illiteracy, multilingualism and dialectal variation?
Well I think you have a number of separate points there. So one is the linguistic variation and that has a number of ramifications. One is the question of the technology or how the system or the interface itself has been localized to the appropriate language. In general that is fairly straightforward for most languages that have good fonts and input methods and good operating system support with those. So I think open source has some advantages there because it is easy to localize technology, even when the company may not have any marketing reasons to do that.
Maybe there is a question of is there a business case for localization and the second is, if there is not, are there opportunities for doing it yourself. Then there is a whole separate question of getting content that supports the local language and I think that is a much bigger question and not as well suited for top down approaches and I think content generation becomes crucial. Finally there is illiteracy and that creates a whole other set of challenges related to the content generation question because it is very difficult for illiterate people to generate content, specifically text content and that comes back to what we do [at UC-Berkeley] in trying to leverage more acceptable and familiar types of media including voice content.

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