My dearest friends in Albania, using a lens from his broken glasses to look at a website on my iPhone

Benefits of design thinking for ICT4D

On the walk to my first day of work in Vanuatu I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. When I went to meet my future coworkers, no one was in the office. I had been assigned to work in the Ministry of Youth and Sports Development as a web design and development consultant through the Peace Corps Response Program, assisting in the project planning, implementation phase and being the technical liaison between my office and the Office of the Chief of Information.

Information Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) is the leverage of communication technologies in aim to bridge the digital divide. ICT4D is remarkable in it’s definition, meant to serve as the great equalizer, giving a voice to people across the world, despite geographical location or monetary status, creating communication by finding solutions for issues of accessibility and affordability.

Design thinking is a type of problem solving for projects brings a flexible, iterative approach to clients needs, with the end result being a user focused solution. Design thinking is essential in the ICT4D world while leveraging initiatives and developing useful products, for people who would benefit from it the most.

Imagine giving primary school children on a remote island in the South Pacific access to online courses to learn English, or how having access to accurate weather forecasts could benefit a fisherman’s business in Albania. Imagine a classroom full of girls being mentored by local professionals and international specialists, learning to code and design, bridging the gender gap in the tech field because of the necessity for a web presence for foreign aid. So often we take for granted the amount of information we have at our finger tips, as our mobile devices have essentially become extensions of our bodies.

Having people on your team with different backgrounds can only make the product stronger

Fishermen in Shkoder, Albania

As an American, I have been raised in an extremely technoligically and socioeconomically advanced society. I grew up with privileges like running water inside of my home, reliable transportation and medical care, a microwave, internet access, electricity, public schools; honestly without thinking about life without them. Most of my coworkers grew up on small, remote islands, only accessible by boat or plane. They had limited access to drinking water, a drop toilet or no toilet at all, outside living spaces, and access to public education only through the 8th grade.

My third day of work, we had a finalized site map and requirements document near finalized in two days, for not one website, but for three. The board members and stake holders were all eager to give their input in an activity that could loosely be described as card sorting. While my technical skills helped frame the process of the website, what was even more important was the content that we were going to be providing the user. Most people accessing these sites will be doing so through their smart phones, on islands similar to where my coworkers grew up. What would someone accessing the website from a 3G network on their smartphone want to find out? This is the point in which I realized how our backgrounds were going to in fact produce a stronger product than if an entire team of outside consultants were hired. This is one of the biggest benefits in my mind that the Peace Corps helps facilitate with goal one: To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women, allowing for cross cultural coexisting in the workplace.

Mobile first isn’t an option, it’s a necessity

My coworkers at a Youth Council initiative project on the island of Santo

Mobile design in ICT4D should never be treated as an option. It is estimated there will be 6.2 billion smartphone users world wide by 2020. This is 70% of the world’s population using internet ready devices in less than 5 years. It is also estimated that mobile traffic will account for 80% of all internet access by this time, making the necessity for mobile products undeniable. While laptop or desktop computers are expensive and usually just in offices in Vanuatu, most families have access to at least one smart device, making the need for a mobile-friendly design a high priority.

This isn’t a new revolution in the ICT4D world. Mark Zuckerburg launched Internet.org or Facebook’s ‘free basics’ package last year with the goal of “bringing internet access and the benefits of connectivity to the two-thirds of the world that doesn‘t have them.” Your phone now comes with the Facebook app and Facebook Message app in 37 countries across the world, you can then message and surf these apps with no data charge on whatever network you’re accessing.

I’ve personally benefitted from this while living in Vanuatu, which is one of the countries that currently are involved with this program. I keep a phone with the specific service provider only for free, direct access to my friends and family across the world. This is quite literally making the world more accessible to the ni-Vanuatu people and visitors of their beautiful country, making global communication not only a reality, but free of expense.

Not a user, but a human

Two of my coworkers girls watching Netflix in the hotel while their parents were working

Too often it is easy to throw around the widely accepted idea of user-focused design and taking away the humanistic aspect of who is going to be using the product. The word user to me makes it seem like the person only exists to use the product we’re creating and doesn’t take in to consideration the millions of other factors of their humanity. When designing a website or app, in the back of my head I always am thinking “would my mom be able to figure this out?” Too often we lose sight of the ones creating the experiences as the experts and how most of the users of the products will not necessarily understand what a hamburger menu on a mobile device would be used for or why it is so important to have intuitive interaction touch points.

This is even more important in ICT4D, taking in to consideration the limitations and environmental differences for the people using your launched product. While wifi is available in businesses and private residences in developed countries, most people accessing the internet in developing countries will typically use it from a 3G network.

Large hero images, while trendy and visually appealing, have a longer load time and will use more precious data, making them more of a nascence than benefit. Making the customer journey more than 2 or 3 clicks could again take up the more data, making the person using the product less likely to finish the journey, as well as speed through battery life, which on an island of only 80 people and 1 generator, is extremely valuable. Considering the person who is using your product more than just a statistical metric and instead of a human will only benefit your ICT4D endeavors.

When I brought up the idea that the websites we were building needed to work well on mobile phones it was like I saw a light bulb go off in my counterparts head. While this is a very small ICT4D initiative, it’s been a very eye opening experience so far about the benefits of design thinking being essential during the process of project development.

I will post on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, hopefully different content but no promises. These thoughts and pictures are mine and in no way reflect the views or opinions of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.