First inscribed into Magna Carta in 1215, it is a legal requirement for all ICT4D project evaluations to conclude that more user participation would be a good thing. But would it?
I’ve written earlier in general on the problems of participation in “The Tyranny of Participation in Information Systems: Learning from Development Projects“.
Here, though, I want to reflect on the more specific idea that norms of user feedback do not always apply well in ICT4D contexts.
This was prompted when I reviewed research (which will be presented at the ICTD2009 Qatar conference) on an ICT4D project to help women from poor communities get better access to health information. As per participative norms, a prototype system was built and women were brought in to use the system and provide feedback on design improvements. However, it was difficult to get any useful feedback from the women.
Further investigation found a key underlying issue. When the ICT4D system did not work well, the women tended to blame themselves rather than either the system or the designers. Therefore they had little or no design improvement feedback to offer.
That sounds like a classic problem of low self-efficacy (“the belief that one is capable of performing in a certain manner to attain certain goals”) and/or low self-esteem (“a person’s sense of self-worth”).
Put simply and in stark form, some users in ICT4D projects see themselves as either useless with ICT systems and/or generally worthless, and so offer little input in conventional participative design/prototyping situations. This may be particularly true of the more marginalised groups that ICT4D often targets. (And, yes, also true of some groups/individuals in the global North, so this is not necessarily a North-South difference issue.)
Some spin-off points:
– Problems with ICT4D participatory design are sometimes put down to cultural differences (e.g. Winschiers’ work; see also Straub on global market usability testing). Prescriptions of reducing the perceived status-differentials between users and designers may work. But they may work for efficacy and esteem reasons, as much as the claimed cultural reasons. (See also Kam et al’s work in India showing the importance of relationship building between users and designers.)
– The “Bollywood method” of engaging users through film plot-style exercises may, again, be less about the presented issue of user motivation and more about overcoming efficacy barriers (users feel capable of talking about films, not about ICT systems).
– Drawing on Bandura’s theorisation of self-efficacy, we would want more attention being paid with ICT4D user-participants to issues of a) past ICT experience; b) modelling and other peer/social influences; c) physiological factors.
Generally, this suggests ICT4D needs to dip more of a toe in the waters of psychology than it has so far done. Negative psychological constructs like low self-efficacy and low self-esteem may be hampering ICT4D participation, and will continue to do so unless we understand them more.
I’d be grateful for comments pointing to other evidence (or counter-evidence) on this issue.
(Thanks to Andy Dearden for helping develop these ideas and pointing to sources.)