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4 Lessons on Mobile User Testing in Africa: Stories From the Top of a Hill

This past July, Jacqui Watson, part of’s service design team, led user experience testing (UET) for a maternal health project in Uganda. UET is an essential part of our service design process at Praekelt. Drawn from the world of Human-centered Design, UET helps us understand how and why users interact with our services. In a typical UET session, participants are asked to complete a set of tasks based on a series of scenarios. Below is Jacqui’s lessons from the field:

As we design, we make assumptions (based on the knowns and unknowns). During UET, we receive feedback on the decisions we made, and observe behavior we couldn’t have predicted. How do we open ourselves to these responses which help us make better decisions for the future?

Let go of your plan

Kabale, Uganda: When we arrived at the clinic, there wasn’t a space where we could quietly and comfortably conduct the UET. Instead, we sat on benches under a tree in a busy, communal space. When we had originally planned our sessions, we imagined a private, enclosed space: a non-threatening environment where we could get honest feedback without the participants feeling watched. But this was based on our own perceptions of privacy. The notion of privacy and public spaces is different for different communities. Child rearing in these communities, to take just one example, is a publicly shared responsibility. Being in an open space actually made our participants feel more comfortable than if we had we sat alone in a closed room.

Yes, a good plan is always important, but you have to be willing to throw it out the window when something unexpected happens. Sometimes there’s a technical glitch, or people don’t arrive, or, despite any pre-arrival confirmation that everyone speaks English, you do actually need a translator. That is the nature of our work. Being opportunistic and flexible is essential to making sure you get what you need from the experience. And, more often than not, a flexible approach yields better insights than plan A.

Lose your ego

The people we design for often have low literacy and mobile tech skills. It can be painful to watch as someone struggles to complete (what is to you) a basic action on your service. But this teaches us, or rather, reminds us, to create even more intuitive services. But you have to choose not to deflect the inability to complete the task to the user, and instead see it as a resource for improvement: a use case for your design.

Choosing not to defend and fight against feedback hinges on your ability to receive feedback wholeheartedly, without taking it personally. When we design solutions, we inevitably give a piece of ourselves to the service. If we protect our design decisions when getting feedback from our users, we quash the pursuit of different (and often better) solutions.

Surround yourself with opportunities

By chance, we discovered a challenge to seeking maternal health care is that women don’t talk about being pregnant “until they are bulging” (as one health worker noted). While I only learned this after reading the paper pregnancy registry, it had a fundamental impact on how we designed the registration aspect of our service.

The actual UET sessions are just a single component to getting feedback. Every experience you have as you navigate through the UET process presents an opportunity to learn. From the drive to the clinic, to reading the posters on the wall, to an aside comment from a health worker. All of this contributes to understanding the context within which your design lives.

Value Reciprocity

One participant walked 10 kilometers to join us. She then waited for her slot, spent an hour with us, and then walked the 10 kilometers back home. You have to find ways to give back to those who help you build and improve your tools and products. And that does not just mean financially.

Reciprocity in this sense is difficult to describe because it’s so nuanced. It lies in creating positive experiences — a shared joke, holding the woman’s baby while she uses the service, being honest about the scope of your work, or teaching them something new on their device. These small acts convey gratitude.

. . .

These lessons are all incredibly important for a service designer if we want to continue to design meaningful mobile experiences. Given the unpredictable nature of human centered design, I’m sure there are still many more to come — from the top of a different hill. And we’ll be open to sharing them.

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