Avoiding the seduction of technology

This article has been co-written with Tracy Pilar Johnson, PhD, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Senior Program Officer, User Experience and Innovation.

In technology innovation, there typically isn’t much hesitation or doubt about whether we should promote or even push technology. And why not? Sure, there will be some resistance among those who “don’t get it yet”; but why wouldn’t someone rather have a mobile phone than a fixed landline, or on-demand television?
In the narrow view of technology, who wouldn’t want better WiFi or faster delivery services?
To disseminate technology solutions as fast as possible, the world of technology innovation and product / service development has adopted methodologies like lean innovation, rapid development, and the concept of “fail fast”. Although not perfect—and certainly not for every situation—these approaches are understandable in the business to consumer (B2C) world. But there are situations where we need to think much more broadly and carefully before diving into technology implementation.

Let’s consider global development. In a world where the mantra is “do no harm”, the idea of experimentation and failing fast and early are difficult, if not impossible, to adopt. People are vulnerable, and trust can be lost and difficult to regain if the ´fail fast´ attitude has a real impact on someone´s life. Also difficult is the notion that someone (or something, as in an organization) from the outside is going to come in and create solutions that make everything better. When you’re dealing with deep cultural beliefs and behaviors, assuming you know what’s best for the end beneficiary is a pretty dangerous game. Tech does not, automatically and in every case, provide the best solution to the problem at hand.

In countries where global development NGOs operate, the definitions of “technology” and “usable” are very different. Technology is not always the best solution for these complex problems. Before blindly deploying technology, we, as well intended actors in this context, need to first understand the needs and the context, and ask ourselves two key questions.

1. Will users in the ecosystem accept and use this solution?

Cover your ears if you’re a techie, but it’s entirely possible that the “best” solution—the one that people will accept and use—may not even employ technology. Believe it or not, if a digital alternative is doomed to be rejected, sticking to a paper-based solution is better. And no, the answer isn’t “we just need to convince them that it’s better” or “we just need to train them to use it”. Somewhere in the system of users, a tech solution simply might not work. Period.

Tech enthusiasts need to shift their mindset from one where the latest technology is celebrated above all else, to one where unbiased forces have a voice and where new is controversial, versus automatically better.

The answer to the question of adoptability and usability can only be unlocked through a deep understanding of all the players in the system, their environment, behaviors, cultural and emotional needs, and how they interact with each other.
Take the example of the automated technology developed to provide faster and better results for diagnosing tuberculosis compared with traditional diagnostic methods. Despite the advanced technology, it didn’t fully deliver on the intended promise because, in the end, it wasn’t developed with a thorough understanding of the end users. In this specific case, the failure to recognize the cultural expectations embedded in provider- patient relationships caused the solution to be underutilized and unsupported. Solutions must speak to people’s social and cultural needs as well as functional ones.

Another complication is that while understanding if all users can accept a solution is a reasonable goal, we can’t assume that all will, and certainly not at the same time. In those cases, with a true understanding of your target users’ behaviors and needs, you can identify where to start and iterate from. You want the benefit to accrue to everyone; but realistically in many cases, the steps to getting there involve understanding the motivations of different types of people, and targeting different users in a variety of ways.

2. Is it technically feasible within this context?

Technical feasibility has two parts, as the “context” could mean the social dynamic or the technology infrastructure.
Technology fails when it changes the rules for any social setting without helping people create or understand intuitively what the new rules will be. Ownership of the technology ultimately needs to belong to the locals, as tech deployed by an outsider and not successfully transferred to locals is a classic failure case. The best way to determine how best to transfer ownership, or to help people understand or contribute in the creation of new rules, is to engage the locals early on and meet them where they are, both figuratively and literally.

A good way to involve locals in the creation of solutions is to invest in infrastructure. Often in the developing world, tech is best used not as an end solution, but as the platform that enables new value propositions and allows for new business models to emerge organically. An example is Ushahidi, a web platform that allows the mapping of vital information in catastrophe or conflict zones. It was initially developed in Kenya to allow the reporting of violence through mobile phones during the post electoral crisis after the country’s 2007 elections, but has since evolved into an open API platform and has enabled the building of many other solutions suitable to different local situations. In the end, it’s not about parachuting high-tech discrete solutions into communities; but about creating a holistic ecosystem that brings together technology and human capabilities to addresses user needs and create real value for business.

There are often situations where including technology is indeed the best solution from a user standpoint. Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D), defined as “the application of information and communication technologies (ICTs) toward social, economic, and political development”, has saved many lives and moved many countries out of poverty over the last 25 years. But for the technology solution to be successful, it must be possible within the given context. Going back to our previous example, in a country where connectivity is unreliable, a better solution might be to use paper-based records, even if digitization would be perceived as being more efficient.

The more things change or are different, the more they are the same. Many strongly believe that a human-centered approach is the best way to solve most problems. That’s no different in the developed or developing world. It’s what surrounds it that is very different. User-centered, need-driven approaches in the developing world are often overlooked due to tight budgets or timelines—but the truth is that investing in this understanding early on will actually save valuable time and resources later.
Whether it’s due to the complex relationships between the users of the system, or the decades (and sometimes centuries) of behavior and culture, the assumption that more tech—or even any tech—is always the best answer, is very risky and sometimes even foolish. Tech can be very useful, usable and even powerful; but only when it’s delivered in the right way and the right context.


Mar 2, 2017