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Artificial Intelligence: Why Should Human-Centered Designers Care About AI?

Proportion Global Community | Live Session #10 | AI meets HCD

Written by Munyala Mwalo and Thomas Schuurmans

“Ekitela lives in Kaeris, a village in the far north of Kenya. I listened silently to her as she mumbled about her aspirations of an ideal life. Her idea of prosperity was a good marriage and a good husband who provides, with providence in this case being enough goats to milk, and to provide meat. She cared less about education and the promise of what a ‘modern’ life gives. Her thoughts were localized and constrained by the context she lived in. Beyond her thoughts, however, I missed the jokes and seemingly interesting things she shared. My partner and translator kept talking about how Ekitela was just amusing and warm. I could see her laugh through her cracks yet in her translation I clearly missed the jokes,” says Munyala Mwalo, a product and behavior designer, after returning from a field trip in which he conducted design research.

This and many other encounters in either ethnographic research or prototype validation engagements with users, got Munyala questioning the impact of conversational nuances in the quality of research data and as such the outcome of the design work built upon it. Call it, skewed empathy building.

“Does this impact the work we do as designers? Could it be that the researchers we either train or engage make up their own translation of feedback in order to drive their own agenda based on experience and the consistently repetitive nature of ethnographics in marginalized regions? Do we actually listen to people (I find it hard to refer to them as users), or do we adopt less empathic engagements to make our research work easier?”

On the other hand, taking Ekitela’s perspective, it is undisputed that urbanization and travel have made the world one. Connectivity, on the other hand, has made it a village and today, unlike a decade ago, communication is a basic need for many. However, despite the immense informational benefits of the digital age, and with countries like Kenya having over 96% mobile internet network coverage, the impact on marginalized communities is yet to be felt. The 2016 USF (Universal Service Fund) report, recommended that more efforts should be directed towards deepening the use of digital services to realize the benefits for the underserved and unserved areas. This raises the question: “How might we capitalize on already existing structures to deepen the use of digital services, and as such use the same to positively impact the lives of the unserved and underserved users, especially in Africa?” Forgive me, but this problem statement had to be that long in order to serve purpose.

Conversation AI and the future of learning

With a little exposure to the benefits of digitalization, Ekitela and many other young girls and boys in marginalized areas could possibly make different life choices. The availability of basic connectivity and access to digital devices for most young people provides an opportunity to innovate informational access and sharing. A recent study we conducted, supported through a consortium of partners, exposed the need for contextualization of information and communication channels and content in order to ensure that the needs and aspirations of people are met. These, while adopting the principle of advanced simplicity to manage cost, accommodate varying levels of digital and accessibility literacy, and they enhance and deepen usage.

Conversational AI (C-AI), and the advancement in its machine capabilities is one technology that has the potential for a major impact in Sub-Saharan Africa. Despite being around since the 1960s, C-AI has seen a re-birth in recent years. Despite being in its early stages of design and development, Google quite rightly announced that we were moving from a mobile-first to an AI- first world, where we expect technology to be naturally conversational, thoughtfully contextual, and evolutionarily competent. In other words, we expect technology to learn and evolve. And this will become a platform to drive change and impact development.

Where do we start?

Let’s get a little practical. I have, in the recent past, been intrigued by two interesting projects In Sub-Saharan Africa:

Chat with Big Sis, a semi-structured chatbot created by Girl Effect

Screenshot taken from Springster (

The social constructs and norms in the global south have constrained young girls from making choices when it comes to sexual and reproductive health. set to adopt the power of C-AI in solving this problem through facilitating conversations among young girls with a virtual ‘Big Sis’. Through chatting with Big Sis, girls can get trusted, non-judgmental advice about sex and relationships. From the basics of sex, through to details about sexually transmitted infections, contraception and pregnancy, girls can chat to Big Sis about their curiosities and concerns via WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. Through the chats with Big Sis, girls make more informed decisions around sexual reproductive health.

A walk in the shoes of Yeshi, Ethiopia (a structured bot by Lokai)

In a quest to spread awareness and possibly drive fundraising to help solve the challenge of clean water in Ethiopia, “Walk with Yeshi” a Facebook messenger bot was created to provide a multi -sensory experience to the world. The bot-Yeshi provides a friendly, charming yet resilient voice representing millions of young African women who walk for hours each day to collect water. The result is a platform on which the world can build empathy with issues faced by locals in the most remote parts of the world. Yeshi opens up opportunities for the charity and development world to restructure their approach to development and fundraising from having somber images and films and conversation-driven engagements.


These projects, among many others across Sub-Saharan Africa are evidence that the AI revolution in Africa will be driven by conversations. Education and transformation for humanity — and certainly for Africa — is, and has been since ancient times, driven by conversations and story-telling. Harnessing this already existing platform provides a great opportunity to advance education, raise awareness on issues and possibly enhance transparency in development activities.

The main design challenge, however, is how do we advance the use of C-AI in the region?

The hard nut to crack…

C-AI is immensely dependent on the ability of machines to learn contextual communication nuances and possibly mimic the same to ensure there is a natural flow during any engagements. To achieve this we need, as designers, to focus our energy on three key areas:

  1. Keep yourself up to date when it comes to new tech trends. Read about interesting Ai-solutions designed for accelerating sustainable development goals. Become more aware of how AI (or any other tech trend) can potentially impact communities. Of course, as designers, we should never be pushing for a specific technology or be biased during our design research. However, it will definitely help you during the ideation phase to come up with ideas that you would not have imagined before.
  2. When working on an AI project, your energy should focus on empathizing with the users that your client aims to impact. Your role is to feed these user insights into the team before they start ideation and prototyping. It is a mistake to start coding and building a prototype bot without deeply understanding the problem the team is trying to solve. Designers need to create frameworks that will build contextual yet universal personalities. There is a need to design data and driven personas that are dynamic enough to evolve with social changes.
  3. Help the machine in learning and improving. The development and success of C-AI is largely dependent on the quality and diversity of data it consumes and learns from. Sub-Saharan Africa presents unique complexities that limit access to quality and unbiased data on a lot of topics. It will require humans to ensure that machines evolve into a meaningful direction that is serving the initial purpose from the onset.

This Medium article is the outcome of a live session held with human-centered design professionals from Latin America, Africa, and South Asia, who are all members of the Proportion Global Community. This community makes Proportion Global the most fine-mazed design agency in the world. Proportion Global offers clients the best teams for tackling complex design challenges across the global south, with professionals in nearly every country, powered by an immense collective track record. If you would like to join our community and bi-weekly live sessions, please visit




Proportion is a global human-centered design agency that innovates for social impact. We offer innovation services to companies, NGOs, and social businesses. Enjoy the stories by our community of HCD experts across the globe!

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Proportion Global

Proportion Global

Proportion is a global human-centered design agency that innovates for social impact. We offer innovation services to companies, NGOs, and social businesses.

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