Harvesting Knowledge

A group of GIEP fellows working in India for Summer 2014

Foundational Research

Designing for a Wide Range of Users

Working with Digital Green will provide an opportunity for us all to explore User Interface and User Experience design in a much different way than we’re typically accustomed to with different user groups in the United States. The system we’re designing will be utilized by several different kinds of users with varying levels of technological and verbal/written literacy. While some will have regular access to computers and Internet connections, others will have less regular access to these things, and some will have little to none at all. Part of the platform will be used by farmers with a wide range of education levels and differing exposure to technology.  Many are illiterate or semi-literate and many have never used a computer before.

Having to accommodate for such an array of users presents a unique set of challenges for interface designers. It also necessitates extensive user research as a necessary part of the design process to ensure that methods employed to communicate with users through a system like ours are effective in the contexts where they’ll be used and that the system is designed in the most intuitive way for everybody accessing it. Because there aren’t standardized ways to represent concepts and objects visually in the same way one can “standardize” representation of concepts or objects with words in a language, different communities and different types of people (both within and outside of communities) will perceive visual and graphical representations differently in many cases depending heavily on their culture and society. Part of our project will involve doing some of this user research to delve much further into the minds of the people we hope to serve so that we can build an effective platform for learning and empowerment.

Considering the specific context in which we’ll be working, there are several points that will be useful to keep in mind as we do further research on our users and their needs. In doing projects like ours, pairing up with local people and organizations that already work within a community is vital in establishing trust and comfort levels, leading to higher quality data and access to information that would otherwise be unavailable. If users feel more comfortable interacting with us as researchers, they’ll be much more likely to share their honest opinions and insights regarding designs. In addition, conducting studies in an open environment or some sort of public space may provide unique opportunities for qualitative data analysis. Several studies have found that groups of people are much more interactive with researchers and more readily offer information and their opinions than single users might give in a one-on-one style interview. Because we’re working in India, an additional factor in gathering data and user feedback for our project will be consideration of social norms. Groups of women in India generally will provide significant information and be more interactive participants only when female facilitators are present. This is something we’ll have to accommodate in our endeavors.

In addition to the way we’ll interact with users in our design process, we’ve identified several guiding principles that will support our organization and design of the system based on the user demographics. To accommodate people with limited exposure to technology as well as verbally semi-literate and illiterate users, there are many different features we’re exploring in our designs:

  • Graphical support using icons, pictures, etc. is key. Studies have shown that illiterate users cannot navigate fully text-based systems independently, even with a great deal of prompting and assistance.
  • Voice/audio support (especially when combined with appropriate graphics) can provide a very effective way to communicate large amounts of organized information to these types of users.
  • Prominent help functions can increase comfort and enthusiasm for participants, and provide reassurance when they get stuck or don’t understand a function.
  • Navigation should be streamlined as much as possible to mitigate confusion and decrease the complexity of the system for users.
  • An Introductory video can increase the quality of a user’s experience. Explaining how a program can help a user directly, how to actually navigate the system, and in some cases, what computers are capable of, can bolster enthusiasm for the product or service.
  • Social status may be something that users feel strongly about integrating. In a forum, some users may feel that their high social status in real life should be reflected to give legitimacy to their answers or accurately reflect their position in society. Divisions in India span religion, caste, class, gender, and beyond, so this element will need careful consideration.
  • A human touch can be especially effective. Associating a help function with the picture of a leader in a community, or providing audio instructions with the voice of a familiar community member can make participants more at ease and boost their confidence in the system’s capabilities and their abilities to use the system.

As we move forward with designing the system, we look forward to exploring new and perhaps innovative ways to accommodate our users. We’re excited about exploring certain aspects of the system in relation to how they can promote empowerment and education or assess learning in different ways. For example, our system will contain different courses that farmers will take, each of which will include several different sessions, or lessons. These lessons will include video components and often assessments as well. While we’ll be integrating common methods of assessment in MOOC-style systems, such as multiple-choice or short fill-in-the-blank questions, we’ll also be exploring the use of pictures, audio, and other resources in them. We’re initially considering things as simple as rearranging a series of pictures into linear steps and grouping pictures into particular categories, and are looking forward to examining other ways to assess knowledge in this context and how we might provide innovative solutions as we move ahead with the project.

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