Your User Experience problem is a luxury

A rural Laos school

Like most UX/UI (whatever is trendy to call yourself these days) designers these days I bury my head in technical readings, writings, blogs and try to pay as much attention as possible to how others are solving problems and reading human behaviour changes and applications in the tech world. It is indeed exciting times and can be an all consuming rabbit hole that leaves one thinking can you ever actually have the feeling of being on top of all the changes in processes and technology? Admittedly after a hard days ignoring the task at hand to be consumed by article after article one can feel a little overwhelmed by the pace of it all.

To overcome this feeling one can then open the door, go out of the office/house and walk on the footpath, down the street, get to the coffee shop and decompress. Things are a little different where I live, there is no footpath, the road is still predominantly a dirt track, and navigating across the road is an illogical game of luck plus skill at the best of times. Smack bang in the middle of South East Asia, seemingly frozen in time, is the land-locked country of Laos, where unlike your local coffee shop, the society and the way things work is not reflectant or representational of what you can see or read online.

In a country where the pursuit of people is not solely financial gain, and the rate of change is slow, it can be a refreshing change to disconnect and get a first hand view of ‘the way things used to be’. Laos is a small country with a fast growing economy (apparent growth rate of over 7% per year since early 2000’s) but the struggles of being a remote land-locked, developing country that most people have never heard of are real. Issues such as the minimum wage just now reaching a record high US$111 a month, quality and access of education, healthcare, cultural barriers, trade and buying powers, skills development, reliance on foreign input and all manner of issues make up this great place.

Being a long term visitor / or short term resident from a first worldit becomes tempting to view the way things work through the lense of a practitioner and applying such logic, favourite phrases raise weekly “Why can’t the traffic work like this?”, “why don’t stalls setup and process things like that?” but in the end these are all trivial selfish personal pursuits. The other side of being a long term visitor is the opportunity to realise that lessons learnt come easy in the first world where schools teach you not only content of what you should know, but moreseo how to think to search for knowldge on your own.

When I first arrived in this small great peaceful land I set to work to try and balance my life of remote work back to Australia and the US for my main commercial practice but also be able to use some of the skills I’ve been lucky enough to learn over my career to apply to some local projects and people to try and “help” (<- total common white man philosophy). Another story for another time but realising some cold truths about both the inner working of the development world, and the levels of digital engagement (outside of facebook) and competency it became pretty clear that my skillset would be better spent somewhat ‘not on the ground’ so to speak, but looking a bit more practically at real life in a uniquely positioned developing country. A country where ‘user experience design’ as a trade is about as primarily needed and useful as a Fine wine Sommelier for people with an average income of $111 a month. Namely a complete luxury that has a few things needed to fix first before getting to.

Upon this realisaton that my ‘help’ was crap I needed to find a better way to possibly contribute to this country that would be my new home for half a decade. Having seen on the ground the way the ‘development’ world works (another story altogether) I thought it best to try and cut out the middle man and use the advantage I did have, actually being present.

People talk alot about networking and the importance of face to face meeting opportunities. This rarely comes my way down here in my field but seeing and meeting the people on the ground from the international aid organisations that I saw growing up on television (you know the ads) I get the unique opportunity to see just how things get implemented on the ground. Without naming any names or getting into the mindgame of aid and development, there are some parts of the process that could be improved to get better end results.

The designer and problem soliver in me asked how can I go the other way that can skip the beauracracy and go straight to the source. As I mentioned the benefit of being on the ground is that you are there and present and can see the problem first hand, and can then extend that hand directly in return, cutting out the middle man. Alot of my work as UX designer looks at improving processes to either do exactly that, optimise for best usage and efficiency for both the business, and the people that the products hand then goes in, the end “user” (only business except drugs that has users).

All of this is well and good to understand but then how could I use my skillset to actually help people, if as mentioned my skillset wasn’t useful in this part of the world? Well sometimes you just have to look up, there are so many sectors of this country with opportunities to help, education, health, forestry, the list goes on. With a problem so big, what can I do? Hence your UX problem is a luxury, “increasing engagement of a CTA to buy stuff” is a bit different to getting kids to be able to go to school. But this is what I wanted to do, help kids go to school. Being lucky enough to know some people in the field who were involved in remote communities that were trying to get kids to go to school, it was a place where I could help.

So putting on the work hat, and connecting it to the simplist way possible. Problem = kids find it hard to get to school when its wet and is hard to stay clean and healthy when do attend. Translated into a user story; As a user I want to be able to go to school when its wet and stay healthy and clean when I get there.

As you can see from the image above, remote schools are basic structures with a roof over a dirt floor with some log chairs and tables. Theres alot that could be done but what could I do that was the simplest thing that could be done to start to hit the problem on the head.

The simplest solution for me. Concrete the floor. Literally just put concrete down on the dirt floor that turns to mud that then prevents children from staying dry and clean when in class.

Concrete pad installed

It sounds simple. And often the best solutions are. Without the need for total over regulation and deep consultant over-analysis we were able to do the things I love to do in my work, test and learn, move fast and get things done. Real artists ship as they say, and as I don’t profess concreting a floor to be painting the Sistene Chapel, nor the methodology of just doing something and walking off, the effects were monitored and beyond any of our imagined expectations. School attendance for the whole term post concrete floor went up from 25 kids on average a day to 42. More kids came, stayed healthier and learned. The link from the concreted floor to toilets and handbasins made then cleaner, more accessible and more utilised with an average of 17 more kids per day going to school to get and education. To me this was one of the most satisfying results to a user experience problem I’ve helped to solve to date.