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UX / Cellphones & world poverty

Jan Chipchase seems to be the "it" guy1 of user expe­ri­ence these days. He lives in Tokyo, works at Nokia, and plays this kind of swash­buck­ling, Indi­ana-Jones-ish role in research­ing mobile tech­nolo­gies in devel­op­ing cul­tures. He keeps an intrigu­ing blog called Future Per­fect, where he doc­u­ments UX-relat­ed nuggets from the shan­ty­towns of Lagos, the mar­kets of Accra, the Sin­ga­pore air­port, and so on. This week's NYT Sun­day mag has an arti­cle about him — "Can the Cell­phone End World Pover­ty" — which, aside from hav­ing a some­what puz­zling title, pro­vides an inter­est­ing per­spec­tive on the field of UX in gen­er­al.

Indian bike ride
My own per­son Jan Chipchase expe­ri­ence: Walk­ing through a back alley in Bom­bay, from my trip there to deliv­er design train­ing to GE engi­neers.


First, what's the title all about?

It's called "Can the Cell­phone End World Pover­ty," but it's real­ly a pro­file of a researcher rather than an eco­nom­ic analy­sis of the effect of mobile tech­nolo­gies. And Jan's research — if his blog and con­fer­ence keynotes are any indi­ca­tion — focus­es on the ways in which peo­ple in devel­op­ing cul­tures *use* and *adapt* the tech­nol­o­gy, not about the ways in mobile tech­nol­o­gy can effect macro­eco­nom­ic change. It's a quib­ble, real­ly, but it seems strange to describe mar­ket research as an effort to "end world pover­ty," and to cast Nokia in an altru­is­tic light when what they're doing is real­ly iden­ti­fy­ing and under­stand­ing a unserved mar­ket and poten­tial cus­tomers:

… No com­pa­ny churns out phones like Nokia, which man­u­fac­tures 1.3 mil­lion prod­ucts dai­ly. Forty per­cent of the mobile phones sold last year were made by Nokia, and the company's $8.4 bil­lion prof­it in 2007 reflects as much. Chipchase seems dis­tinct­ly uncom­fort­able talk­ing about his part as a cor­po­rate rain­mak­er, pre­fer­ring to see him­self as a most­ly dis­pas­sion­ate ethno­g­ra­ph­er …

I also sym­pa­thize with Jan. It would be impos­si­ble to do the kind of research he does with­out a high­er pur­pose, and I know I've spent a lot of time ratio­nal­iz­ing some our client work (which is always about the ben­jamins) with what I imag­ine the greater good to be. It's easy to say that Nokia's stock will ben­e­fit from tap­ping the bil­lions of peo­ple below the pover­ty line, but it also seems pos­si­ble that mobile tech­nolo­gies and con­nect­ed­ness in gen­er­al could effect pos­i­tive change. Nev­er­the­less, I real­ly think that the arti­cle should be called some­thing like, "How the devel­op­ing world sees tech­nol­o­gy," or "What the devel­op­ing world tells us about tech­nol­o­gy," or some­thing way less catchy than end­ing world pover­ty.

What methods are used to gather input from folks in developing nations?

I was most curi­ous to hear anec­dotes of what exact­ly he was ask­ing peo­ple, how exact­ly he was gath­er­ing infor­ma­tion, whether he was sim­ply observ­ing or con­duct­ing sur­veys, or what. (He has a num­ber of inter­est­ing entries on "field research" on his blog, but none that give much insight into his meth­ods). The arti­cle has an inter­est­ing descrip­tion of the out­come of an exer­cise in which peo­ple around the world were asked to draw their ide­al mobile phone:

[Jan's research­ing cohorts] said they'd found … [that] the phone rep­re­sents what peo­ple are aspir­ing to. "It's an easy way to see what's impor­tant to them, what their chal­lenges are," [a cohort] said. One Liber­ian refugee want­ed to out­fit a phone with a land-mine detec­tor so that he could more safe­ly return to his home vil­lage. In the Dhar­avi slum of Mum­bai, peo­ple sketched phones that could fore­cast the weath­er since they had no access to TV or radio. Mus­lims want­ed G.P.S. devices to ori­ent their prayers toward Mec­ca. Some­one else drew a phone shaped like a water bot­tle, explain­ing that it could store pre­cious drink­ing water and also float on the mon­soon waters. In Jacarèzinho, a bustling favela in Rio, one design­er drew a phone with an air-qual­i­ty mon­i­tor. Sev­er­al women sketched phones that would mon­i­tor cheat­ing boyfriends and hus­bands. Anoth­er designed a "peace but­ton" that would halt gun­fire in the neigh­bor­hood with a sin­gle touch.

Hmm. I can see how some of this stuff could be help­ful in aggre­gate. Peo­ple see the phone as a plat­form — and per­haps there's a sense that it's some­what mag­i­cal — a "peace" but­ton, a land­mine detec­tor, a cheat­ing boyfriend mon­i­tor, etc. (Maybe?) But does the per­son in Liberia real­ly want a phone, or does he want a land-mine detec­tor? I won­der about this.1 Not I.T. guy. It guy, like it girl. It's sort of amus­ing to me that it's total­ly clear what is meant by the words "it girl" but that the words "it guy" just seem to relate to the guy who fix­es your inter­nets.

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