Guest post by Nancy Mwakaba
I remember once asking a developer about the research that had gone into an application that he was working on meant for self-help group members. The look of bafflement on his face was all the answer I needed. Having worked in the research field for several years I am still surprised when little or no research goes into making a ‘solution’ for one the myriad of problems that are combating our continent. I mean let’s face it; we all know our problems and can discuss them till the cows come home. However is knowing the problem enough to sit down and code your way to the appropriate solution?
I just met someone who gave me a concise description of what R&D is and how iHub Research is seeking to provide the much needed link between research and engineering towards developing meaningful, appropriate technology and I add, sustainable solutions. For the last four years I have worked as a researcher for such a multi-disciplinary team that sought to work towards achieving this goal and I would like to share a few thoughts on the matter.
Who is the researcher?
Over and above knowledge of research methods and the dreaded Statistics 101, I have learned that some of the traits a researcher needs cannot be taught in the classroom. One of these is the ability to listen well. Of course, you must ask the right question! I have found that even with years of experience and piloting a questionnaire you may still miss the mark. I find it helpful when developing a questionnaire to try and imagine what some of the likely responses will be and hence what the follow up questions will be. Also try it on your colleagues and you’d be surprised how people understand or respond to seemingly simple questions such as ‘how old are you?’ differently. The mantra for researchers should be ‘probe, probe, probe’.
‘The parallels between good research and good detective work are striking… in the spirit of all the best detective stories, we draw an important conclusion: if you want to become a better researcher you should learn to think like a detective’ – except from Bright Ideas for UX Researchers (Userfocus)Another important trait, and here I admit to failing the most, is the ability to have no preconceived notions about people and situations. I think I will dwell on this point as it brings to mind the questions; at what point of the development process should the research begin? How iterative should the development process be? A more controversial one: should the respondent’s (read user) every whine and whim be taken into account? These are questions that sometimes have the team at loggerheads J as the engineers stubbornly hold on to what they want and the researchers seek to be the voice of the users. Be the voice!
I remember conducting a usability study on a phone solar charger system and you would think that this would be a winner in our power-challenged Africa. However the product had not taken into account the existing competition, user preferences and what users were willing to pay vis vis the completion. Perhaps if we had sat down with the intended users before beginning to develop the chargers? Turned out the users thought the product was too expensive, preferred to have multiple-use chargers and also pointed out other usability issues that made sense to them if not the product designers.
In another instance, we were working on a prototype for Merry-go round groups and while piloting it in rural Kenya we found that phrases that those used to the internet are familiar with like ‘browse’ ‘return’ and ‘back’ aroused a lot of debate amongst the users with some of them requesting for similar terms. The icons that we thought were self-explanatory apparently were not. For example an icon depicting the figures of people elicited the question ‘what are those dolls?’ Hmm, what would you do next?
While piloting a pre-loaded e-reader device in Nyanza Kenya to rural families we found that one of the unexpected positive outcomes was that the many men had stopped lingering at the village centre and went home early ( to the delight of their wives?) and one women actually admitted that to curtailing her gossiping.
In essence, one can never understand their target users too much. So whatever you chose to call it, whatever methodology or approach to the process. I salute iHub and all other similar research labs that have recognized the long neglected role of the researcher in the technology space and look forward to seeing their results.