Designing for Different Tech Realities
Photo — Anna Pla-Narbona
Written by Oliver Fruergaard
Attention to the diverse realities of the many people around the globe is lacking in tech development. How can we design solutions specific to people and place? To close this gap, we need to consider context.
Necessity is the mother of invention. The people of Mexico City experienced this first-hand early in the COVID-19 pandemic. In April 2020 alone, 12.5 million people across the country lost their jobs, with the most vulnerable workers disproportionately affected. Mexico City experienced a surge of restaurant closures. The usually bustling fondas — family-run restaurants and lunch counters serving homely eats — were now unusually quiet.
With a need for customers, restaurant owners had to get creative. Through WhatsApp and Facebook, people began selling food online, slowly gaining a clientele that would sustain them throughout the recession. While this was a new way of using these apps for people in Mexico City, local designer José Rodrigo de la O Campos says this hacking of technology is common for people in Mexico.
‘Our context in Mexico is often different from the one in which new tech is developed, so we tend to use it in ways that it perhaps was not intended for, to better serve our needs.’
José Rodrigo de la O Campos
Principal, delaO design studio
Developers in a bubble
While cultural and socio-economic backgrounds sculpt different technological needs across the globe, de la O argues that many tech developers today live in a bubble where only one specific reality — one that consists of being western and wealthy — is taken into account at the ideation stage. Considering different contexts is problematically overlooked in design and development.
‘Most tech is designed in select places by a select type of people who respond to their own culture and context,’ de la O says. ‘A lot of them are in Silicon Valley or Europe, and the contexts of developing economies, which make up a significant part of the world, are not at the forefront of their minds.’
Nancy Douyon is a design ethicist working with some of these large tech companies, like Google, Twitter, and Uber, to humanise user experience and shift privileged perspectives. ‘I’ve worked with a lot of very large corporations who tend to have a lot of westernised thoughts about what it means to build for the world. But what does it mean to really be considerate of other folks who have different experiences of design?’
She says humility can overcome bias.
‘There are people in positions of power, that don’t recognise their own implicit bias. That means they don’t know what they don’t know. If you can recognise that you don’t know everything, you can be a better designer. There’s so much more to people’s stories than the limited information that you know.’
People in Mexico transacting through WhatsApp in a moment of crisis is perhaps a symptom of a too-narrow lens. But it also should be celebrated. Is there a reality where tech developers recognise this grassroots behaviour and adopt it as standard functionality? ‘These are very basic needs that take a really long time to be met by the market,’ de la O says.
Finding better ways
What approaches can designers take to better address marginalised people’s needs and find the relevant problems to solve? SPACE10 lead design producer Georgina McDonald argues that it starts with understanding why this awareness is lacking in the first place.
‘Silicon Valley is becoming increasingly obsessed with newness — the promise of future technologies, the promise of new, frictionless worlds like the Metaverse,’ McDonald says. ‘Everyone loves a ‘We’re going to the Moon!’ story, but no virtual world is going to help prevent the inevitability of climate stressors or address fundamental human needs.’
That needs to change. Tech developers can be so preoccupied with pushing forward what is technologically possible that they forget to consider the human and environmental aspects.
Head of concept at SPACE10 Ryan Sherman says we need to be aware that advanced technologies have different meanings in different contexts. ‘We tend to forget that technology is essentially a tool to address our most immediate needs,’ Sherman says. ‘From one vantage point, that can be social media or AI. From another, it could be the creation of fire. It simply depends on the context of the person.’
Good design is on-ground
Having worked with Uber to adapt its service to 77 countries, Douyon knows that when businesses tailor their offering to fit a certain culture, patterns emerge that can provide opportunities in other places. ‘If we can intentionally make sure that underrepresentation is, and marginalised communities are, considered from day one, you’ll actually scale.’
‘If you can learn to include more people, you actually create accessibility for more. You’ll forge connections. Your ideas and your opportunities will improve equality and improve inclusion.’
So how can designers broaden their perspectives to develop inclusive tools that address the complexity of humanity? ‘Working with IKEA whose mission statement is to create a better everyday life for the many, one of our main objectives at SPACE10 is to go and figure out how to make that happen in new ways,’ Sherman says. ‘The longer we work in a vacuum, the more likely we are to fail. This is why, at SPACE10, we actively foster an inclusive and collaborative approach to innovation — from running various residencies and pop-ups, sharing our work openly with the public, to working with an ever-growing network of people from all over the world.’
When designers engage a plurality of people with diverse backgrounds, experiences and income levels, we can better meet the needs of all people who might wish to use a solution. Research, ideation and prototyping need to happen on-ground.
‘A dominant concern that arose from conversations with people at our Mexico City Pop-Up was to do with living in a city that is prone to earthquakes and has several unstable buildings,’ Sherman says. ‘Some of the participants at our interdisciplinary hackathon came up with tech-based solutions to identify weak areas of buildings so that they can be strengthened.’
Developing tools and infrastructure — such as a hackathon — can support people in coming up with their own solutions. ‘When we launch events like this, it is with the intention to figure out how we can design more inclusive tech. It’s really important that designers and developers go out and interact with people in order to assess their needs.’
Assessing people’s needs is a skill
What does it look like, then, when modern tech developers design for people? de la O immediately highlights the work of Isla Urbana. The nonprofit organisation has gained a lot of traction in Mexico City after developing a system that enables residents to harvest and filter rainwater in their own homes. ‘They are a prime example of a company that has let go of this obsession with “shiny things” in order to create something that is first and foremost practically useful,’ he says.
‘These big water filters that people can install in their homes are in no way aesthetically pleasing, yet they are a godsend for the many people in Mexico for whom obtaining water is an issue. Isla Urbana is now receiving funding from the Mexican government to install their systems.’
The point, de la O says, is that ‘good tech does not have to be flashy to be useful’.
‘What I often tell my students is that while it can be fine to look to Silicon Valley for inspiration, we often do not need to. Looking at what is right in front of you and analysing it to assess the needs — that’s a real skill and it takes learning. But it will help us access new opportunities and ideas for technology that can have a real impact.’
And let’s be intentional about it.
‘Let’s not wait until we eff up the world,’ Douyon adds. ‘Let’s believe that there may be some ignorance behind us and get insights earlier on in the process. Let’s directly inform the trajectory of our project with those insights.’
José Rodrigo de la O Campos is principal at delaO design studio and regional director at the design department at Tec de Monterrey in Mexico City. He takes an epistemological approach to design, studying its role in society and visualising future possibilities of how technology could impact society.
Nancy Douyon is a design ethicist, technology executive, and entrepreneur. As CEO of Douyon Signature, a global user experience consultancy, Nancy empowers leading Fortune 500 companies to embrace responsible innovation and create accessible, equitable, and inclusive products and services. She spent two decades in the tech industry helping Google, IBM, Intel and Uber incorporate human experience in their product design. She leads the Bay Area Blacks in Tech group, a growing organisation of over 3,000 Black technology professionals.
Ryan Sherman is a creative director exploring the intersection of design, storytelling and speculative futures. He is head of concept development at SPACE10.
Georgina McDonald is lead design producer at SPACE10. She heads up Everyday Experiments, an ongoing series of digital experiments by SPACE10 and IKEA, exploring ways to enhance our interactions with space and improve our everyday lives.