Post-Dignity Design and how to avoid it in international development UX

A great piece of longform writing was published at Real Life last week, coining a term I think is incredibly important to tech companies working in international development: post-dignity design.

In the context of the article, it’s used as a wry, the-way-we-live-now analysis of apps like Yelp and Pokemon Go, which talk to their users like children in order to make some very grown-up sums of money from them.

It’s a fantastic, albeit wince-inducing, point, and it made me think about the way we design user experience (UX) in our international development programming. Because while it’s certainly distasteful to treat rich-world consumers like children, it’s downright destructive to treat users in developing contexts in the same way.

User Experience for International Development

User experience is vital to international development programming. It’s a term that’s come out of the tech world, and a good explanation of it might be to say that user experience is why your Mum finds it easier to use a Mac than to use a PC; but the implications of it are felt wherever any person interacts with any system. Including (and especially) international development projects.

At my agency, Glean, we’re the ones creating the resources that end-users experience (like the Srey Sros Khmer website or the Oxfam Mekong Region Inclusion Project communications strategy), so we think about this a lot.

User experience is a problem that can be found at the bottom of most, if not all, development projects where impact hasn’t been as big as people might have hoped.

Wherever someone struggles to attend their new school because it’s too far from their house, or because social norms mean they can’t leave their home without male accompaniment; and wherever a technically superb water-filter becomes unusable because it can’t stand to be left in the sun for longer than 20 minutes, that’s a UX problem. It’s a UX problem when someone creates a great resourcing strategy (buy a pair, send a pair!) which further breaks the impoverished economy of the place it was trying to help.

Someone has created a system, and the user isn’t benefitting from it in the way they could. Sometimes the impact is merely disappointing; sometimes it’s terrible. Sometimes it’s money that’s wasted, and sometimes it’s far, far worse than that.

In international development, we have to be aware that we are dealing with absurdly high stakes. Lives, not Pokemon, are at stake.

Ethics and UX for international development

International development is an ethically tricky sector to work in. On one hand, it is unarguably a good thing that money and resources are made available to meet the problems that are faced in developing countries around the world. On the other hand, there’s a long and recent history of rich nations using their money to control and define what people in poorer nations do and become. Money comes with power attached.

And most of the time, this power is practiced in an unconscious way. Even for a well-meaning international development pro like me.

When I design UX, I start with what I know, and that’s appropriate. But I need to take my users’ needs into account as quickly as possible, otherwise I’m designing products for people who are on some level like me.

Assume dignity.

But I’m not anything like most international development project participants. I’m white, male, Anglophone and have a master’s degree. None of those things are bad (necessarily) but I need to work hard to let my users’ influence my design as soon as possible in the design process.

Because we don’t create UX out of some sublime and original genius. We’re pretty smart, but we’re part of an ecosystem of human-centred design thinking, and so what Silicon Valley does with its apps gets into the air that UX designers around the world breathe. It’s part, whether we know it or not, of the ideas we have and the approaches we take.

And no-one — no-one — needs a project that talks to users in the developing world the same way Seamless talks to users in New York. In New York, it’s impolite. In Cambodia it becomes the very strutting, condescending, moustache-twirling image of the arrogant Westerner abroad. And there’s been more than enough of that already.

Of course (I hope) I’m very unlikely to pull the sort of directly infantilising stuff that the Real Life article identifies in such cringeworthy detail. But if its in the air, it might be in my designs. It’s another part of my unconscious assumptions, and I need to get conscious of it, quick.

Because if I’m missing that, what else am I missing?

Human-centred design for international development

Put that question a different way.

What does a woman in rural Cambodia know about living in rural Cambodia that I don’t?

Everything.

And that’s the point.

It’s vital not to lose sight of the fact that the people we’re helping need our help mostly because of systemic inequalities and abuses of power, not because I’m fundamentally more able or intelligent or skilled than they are. Quite the opposite, in fact: they are powerful, able individuals who deal daily with situations that would probably have prevented me from making it to my 20th birthday.

I have to recognise that I don’t know what they need; but I do know how to work out how they can get it. That’s the partnership we want to enter into.

When we help people to design projects, we do a lot of work to make our designs as human-centred as possible. We design things simply, and get them in front of users as quickly as possible, so we can work out what works and what doesn’t, and then we design again.

The process is iterative: like writing a serial story, not like building an ocean liner. Make one; launch one; test one; repeat.

Post-dignity design and international development

This article isn’t an angry expose. It’s just a reflection, prompted by the Real Life article, on the fact that we need to always be humble in our UX design.

We don’t know people’s needs better than they do. We probably know more about how those needs can be met — we know what is technically possible, what tools exist or can be built, how long things take, how to find out what people need. But finding out how specifically to meet those needs without creating new needs is a process that needs to be humble, open and service-oriented.

We need to listen. Because we’re useful, not right.

At the end of an article like this it’s very tempting to finish with a list of tips to avoid insensitive or damaging UX design in international development. I’m going to resist the almighty listicle, and just suggest one thing; we need to add a question to the top of the list of things we do when we design projects, and it’s this:

What am I assuming because I’m powerful?

For me, that means checking my massive bag of privileges and then seeking opportunities, as early as possible and as often as possible, to expose my assumptions to the people whose experience is the most important — users. And then to be clear with myself and everyone who works with me that their views are more important than anyone else’s.

My job is to hear what they need and work out how our systems can help them to meet those needs, and to do it in a way that places their needs higher than my bright ideas. Or, more accurately, to bring my bright ideas to the service of people who are far, far more capable than I am of making what they need out of the resources they get.

If I can serve the end-users of my product by making my experience available to them rather than just my privilege, I’ll make a better product, and a bigger difference.