[Part 1] Understanding the mental models around the savings culture and aspirations of women in rural Bukavu

Jean-Paul Sartre was a French existentialist philosopher and pioneer, dramatist and screenwriter, novelist and critic. He stands alongside Richard Kuhn, Adolf Butenandt, Gerhard Domagk, Boris Leonidovich Pasternak, and Le Duc Tho as a Nobel Prize winner that has rejected the award. Jean-Paul Sartre is quite the character but for the purpose of this story, I will only focus on one of his quotes.

“When the rich wage war, it’s the poor who die” — Jean-Paul Sartre

It doesn’t happen very often but once or twice you take on a project that dramatically changes how you view different situations. This happened to our UX team last year in March.

Women for Women International is a non-profit humanitarian organization that provides practical and moral support to women survivors of war. In countries affected by conflict and war, they support the most marginalized women to earn and save money to improve health and well-being, influence decisions in their home and community and connect to networks for support.

In November 2014, Women for Women International received a grant from Intel to conduct research with women in the Democratic Republic of Congo (commonly abbreviated as DRC). The objective of the study was to achieve a greater understanding of the technology literacy of the women and potential impact of mobile technology on the women.

A representative from Women for Women contacted our then Research Lead Angela with the intention of getting iHub Research to take on the project. Angela quickly realized that a significant part of the study would be UX research and so she looped in our then UX Lab lead Samantha. After several meetings we were able to agree on the scope of the project and developed a work plan.

Background to the project

The Democratic Republic of Congo has faced its fair share of wars. Women and children, in particular, are adversely affected by wars. This is even worse when a war drags on forever. As a young woman, you might find yourself living with the rebels in the forest. You don’t get to go to school anymore. When the war is over it is also difficult integrating back into society. This is the context under which Women for Women International was operating in when they commissioned the study.

The project hypothesis was that women in rural DRC (specifically Nyangezi) are keen to use mobile phones but do not have the capability to purchase and own one. A further hypothesis assumed that the literacy levels of these women might or might not capture their interest in the use of mobile handsets. The study was designed to develop an understanding of the above hypotheses. The research was divided into two phases and conducted through interviews, ethnographic observations and focus groups, to answer the following questions:

  1. What do women in low-income communities in DRC currently understand by financial savings?
  2. What are their current technology capabilities?
  3. What are the needs, wants, and future aspirations of this particular community?
  4. What technology solutions might be implemented in the DRC to encourage financial saving behavior and distribute content and/ or information relevant to this community?

In March 2015, Women for Women International commissioned a research to develop an understanding of the above hypothesis. The research was conducted in two phases in DRC- Southern Kivu — in the rural area of Nyangezi.

Phase one — understanding technological capabilities & financial savings

The first phase of the project sought to understand two key things:

  1. What do women in low-income communities in DRC currently understand by financial savings?
  2. What are their current technology capabilities?

To this end, Abigael, the current UX Lead at iHub, traveled to Bukavu for two weeks to carry out the research. Back then, she was a senior UX researcher at the iHub UX Lab. Luckily as a Kenyan getting a visa to DRC isn’t a big challenge.

To get to Bukavu she had to take a flight to Kigali. From Kigali, she took a 5-hour taxi ride to the Rwanda-DRC border. On the DRC side, she had to hop on a 4*4 as the road to Bukavu from the Rwanda-DRC border is really bad. Luckily it only takes about 30 minutes. Once in Bukavu, the first item on the agenda was a security briefing. DRC was relatively safe but they had to exercise caution. As per their classification, it was amber — it is safe but anything can happen so be careful. As a result, every time Abigael and the Women for Women team went out to the field they had to start the journey back by 3pm.

For the next two weeks, Abigael would wake up early each day. She would then travel for two hours to the rural area of Nyangezi. There, she would find her research participants. Participants in this research were rural women already working with Women for Women International. These women were in a program where they learned about social empowerment, life skills, and economic empowerment. There were 250 women working in ten groups of twenty-five women. Through the grant from Intel, each group of twenty-five women was provided with a mobile phone so that researchers could analyze a baseline of their mobile literacy and identify technologies that would be best suited for them. These two weeks of primary research built-in depth knowledge which would then lead to the second phase.

Some of the women who participated in the study

The two weeks in DRC were spent carrying out in-depth interviews, ethnographic studies and focus group discussions.

In-depth interviews

The one-on-one interviews conducted with some of the women helped to give a better understanding of their human psychology. These were women who had been affected by war and had their lives turned upside down.

From these interviews, Abigael got insights on the women’s individual opinions and experiences during the peaceful period, the war, their activities as they tried rebuilding their lives as well as their future aspirations.

Ethnographic studies

First, what is an ethnographic study? Traditional market research is based on highly practical questions presented to the target population and conclusions drawn from the same. Ethnography, the method most famously used by anthropologists, requires a different, more holistic approach. It involves visiting the study participants in their homes or offices to observe, listen, and sometimes even participate, in a non-directed way. With this approach, you see people’s behavior on their own terms and not the terms you define. Why include this in design research? Whatever product you are developing will be used in a person’s natural environment, and how people answer survey questions is not always a true reflection of how they actually behave. For this reason, ethnography is often a good complement to more traditional market research. It allows you to better understand the broader environment around what people say in interviews and surveys.

As part of an earlier intervention in the same area where the study was carried out, Women for Women International had built a place where the women could meet. At this location, they learned crafts like soap making, cooking, and how to run a business. Fundamental items like how to dispense change when transacting were also taught at this center. Women for Women had also introduced table banking to promote a saving culture among the women.

While she was there, Abigael observed the women in their weekly group meetings at the center built by Women for Women. We also sat in on a form of table banking activity they had. This allowed us to observe and listen to them in their natural environment in a non-directed way.

Abigael, the iHub UX Lead, taking the some of the study participants through basic smartphone usage

Out of the 250 women involved in the study, only 11 had mobile phones. Only one actually owned the phone, the other 10 were borrowed from family members. All the 11 phones were feature phones. As part of the study, we introduced smartphones to the women and left them to interact with the phones. Each group (250 women in groups of 25) was left with one smartphone. We didn’t teach the women how to use the smartphones. Barring the basics, we left it to them to figure out how to use the phones. After three days, we went back to them to see what they had learned. Besides calling, the women now knew how to use the calculator on the phone, take videos and photos, record using the phone recorder and put the radio on. One group had even figured out how to use the Bluetooth to send photos. A few women asked about the internet. They really didn’t know what it was but they were curious as to how it works.

Focus group discussions

Abigael facilitated focus group discussions around mobile phones, money, mobile money and savings. After the discussions, she trained the women on mobile money and how it works. She also answered questions around the covered topics. The questions were answered after the discussions so as not to bias their answers.

Design thinking tools

The primary tools used in this study were discussion guides (interview and focus group discussion guides).

Abigael also used pen and paper to sketch out scenarios and games aimed at interaction with the participants.

Dry beans were also part of the tools we used for an activity aimed at getting to know how women use their money.

Dry beans were also part of the tools we used for an activity aimed at getting to know how women use their money. Instead of directly asking the women how much they earn and how they spend their money Abigael used beans to query that process. This reduced shyness or embarrassment among the women and they also found the activity fun.

— -

For the conclusion of this story and how this project really transformed our thinking…tune in next week!

Interested in learning what more the iHub UX Lab does? Don’t hesitate to reach out to us using uxlab[at]ihub[.]co[.]ke


Originally published at ihub.co.ke. Words by Kirui K. Kennedy