We all want WhatsApp...

A chicken walks by the door.

I’m sitting in a room in the back of a health center in rural Uganda, about an hour’s drive outside the capital Kampala.

A hand-written noticeboard featuring a map covers the back wall. Notebooks are scattered across our table: the words NAME, CONTACT, VILLAGE printed in the lefthand corner.

The smell of Rolex — a Ugandan street food made of chapati, onions, pepper, and eggs — tempts my nostrils.

I’m slightly hungry. We’ve been here for a few hours.

We’ve just finished a site visit and interviews with a group of female community health workers.

The research is on mobile health applications: I’m working with Medic Mobile [1], a not-for-profit technology company, to investigate a local health system and evaluate the design of a digital tool. More specifically, our objective is to map the stakeholder ecosystem, uncover existing processes, and identify opportunities for improvement.

Everything went well, according to the discussion guide. Many learnings to share with the remote team.

But, as I’m collecting my notes to leave, excited for lunch, I hear the discussion begin to intensify between a smaller group of the health workers and their manager.

I stop.

I listen.

And I ask two basic questions to my translator:

What are they all talking about?
They want WhatsApp and Facebook on the phone.
Why can’t they have WhatsApp and Facebook on the phone?
Because it’ll use up all the data.

I sit back and think.


Makes sense.

Probably would also drain the battery.

But there’s something curious about this short, inconsequential conversation.

It’s surprising to think female health workers, many of whom are older and never owned a smartphone before, will request a specific social media app.

Moreover, it’s interesting in light of a conversation I had the day prior: a manager had been telling me there are certain “phone restrictions”, but that some health workers had been bypassing the rules.

On the drive home, I start to realize there’s more to this conversation than appears at face value.

A bit later, a rough reflection written on my personal research blog:

What will happen to the battery life if using the phone for 2 hours straight (on a walkaround)? Thinking about my phone, that it basically dies after 45 minutes of constant use. Imagine that while going house to house, maybe also doing a bit of WhatsApp if you crack the phone. If it dies, and they don’t have electricity at their home, where will they charge it? Will they have to go to a charging station? If so: who pays for that charging?

As I begin to scratch beneath the surface of this simple exchange — I start to see this request for WhatsApp as representative of the complexity of this health ecosystem. It speaks to the challenge of designing and deploying a digital tool in a resource-constrained environment, especially one where the nearest plug could be 10 miles down a dirt road.

With this in mind, I start to reflect on other short, seemingly inconsequential conversations I had recorded.

And I realize I have a lot more analysis to do before I truly understand.

This seemingly uncomplicated conversation represents everything I value about fieldwork. Namely, it underlines the plain yet powerful usefulness of always listening and asking why.

More importantly, it reminds me that — even as researchers continue to embrace “big data” and analytics for investigatory purposes — there’s nothing like empirical closeness as a means to engender understanding.

[1] If you want to learn more about Medic Mobile and their human-centered design approach, I encourage you to visit their website.