Thursday, January 19, 2017

A Volunteer Journey to Cambodia: Beyond a Single story

On the first day of our ICT workshop in Ban Lung, a remote town in northern Cambodia, during the second phase of our Adobe volunteer project, we met with a group of very smart and friendly secondary school teachersparticipants of our training. In the process of getting to know them better, we started out with a few ice-breakers and some quick in-person and informal “surveys" in which we asked the teachers to align themselves in groups of Yes, No, Unsure… corresponding to the questions asked or the statements made as we also did ourselves, moving along with them.
Pretty soon it got interesting (to me) with statements like "I have done a search on the internet in the last few days”, "I have used a desktop computer in the last week” or "I have sent an email in the last week” which led to realignments of teachers into all three groups indicating that they were somewhat heterogenous in their level of exposure to technology and/or devices. But here’s when it got very interesting for me…  

“I have used a mobile phone for in the last day” said the moderator, referring to the general purpose of "mobile activities"...

The entire group almost instantly shifted to the Yes section without a hint of hesitation and I felt like I was physically in this graph below, experiencing the mobile moment perhaps retroactively, in this remote Cambodian town... or was it the mobile-only moment? Although this was somewhat expected based on our prior knowledge, experiencing it in-person felt very exciting and surreal! It could've also been the excitement of encountering fellow mobile geeks on the other side of the planet.

For the benefit of readers from other backgrounds, mobile moment is typically defined as the time when companies encounter that the majority of their usage and traffic shifts from desktop to mobile devices or more recently, mobile-only, paraphrasing Luke Wroblewski, whose name is now synonymous with mobile focused experiences and technologies.

But, you may ask... this is so 2013! Does this need to be discussed again? and I say yes, as this also correlated with my observations and UX affirmations I have come across in this project and elsewhere, seeing mobile users subject to experiences predominantly optimized for or a remnant of desktop oriented model. I specifically refer to it as affirmations, as these patterns, behaviors and technology issues have been observed and recorded world-wide and my fellow volunteers and I just got to see it first-hand!

It is indeed getting to be an increasingly mobile-first world, the "computer" is getting tinier by the day and it is about time we change our UX models to correlate with that.

Here are some more of my observations in the course of our volunteer project:

Internet connectivity was a big show staller 

Despite the penetration of mobile to the remotest corners of the world, the lack of internet connectivity keeping up with it made using internet based apps very difficult! Teachers quickly adapted to this by creating hot spots from their own cellular connection for use on laptop and tablets which ended up to be unreliable, not to mention economically taxing! Making some functionality of the app available without the need for internet, or considering of some form of implementation of Progressive Web Apps for your website becomes highly relevant now.

And, if you're thinking, oh my users will be so and so or have such and such, and of course will have unlimited internet and data, "you ain't seen nothing yet..." This reality of internet connectivity not being on par with the technology revolution across the world have been consistent with observations like the ones in the above video and from prior volunteers experiences across many parts of the world. Even if you didn't intend to, the entire world has become your users and it would only make sense to take advantage of it!

Even though we had picked apps that could offer some or most of their functionality without an internet connection for our training, we still had to climb through the big hurdle of getting the teachers to sign into those apps that wouldn’t let them use otherwise, which segways into my next observation.

Make sign-ups easy on your apps or better yet, no sign ups upfront!

Faced with internet connectivity issues, we almost had to spend more than half of our allotted time for some workshops in just getting the users to sign up for their apps although we at least tried to overcome the first hurdle of downloading the apps by pre-loading them into their tablets. Given the language and cultural barriers it was unsurprising to see people getting confused with sign up forms and getting stuck on things we take for granted that users will instinctively know about.  

Here are some simple things we can do to move along users with the dreaded sign-up forms if you must have them upfront, even if at the risk of losing half your users! 
  • Use example placeholders in input fields for clarity and give hints on possible issues with input. The word "user name" to a non-english speaker seems like "name of the user" especially when shown as the first field in the form without any hints, and it is also not "obvious" for the user to not include spaces or certain characters in user name or what to do when a certain user name is already taken. 
  • Provide hints on a strong password for safe user data. We figured the "national password" of Cambodia was perhaps 12345678 as we came across that everywhere!! This definitely made us realize we can't cut on the topic of internet security in our ICT workshop and now our teachers know better!

  • Provide sample inputs of date of birth and similar, as the format will not be obvious or the same worldwide. 
  • Make mandatory fields obvious and better yet, remove the optional fields for a short and sweet form!
  • Provide tool-tips or hints along the way to help with input entry and have input masks where necessary. 
  • Pre-fill fields when possible and also make it obvious that it is pre-filled!
  • Avoid using regional words, references or icons that may not be understood globally. 
This is by no means an exhaustive list but just some that struck me during my observations. There are of course books and articles written on this important topic! 

Since retention is the biggest hurdle that needs to be overcome by mobile apps the sooner and easier you can get the users to start using the app, the better!

Even after we got past the hurdle of downloads and sign-up forms and got teachers to the point of actually using the apps, there was the question of how does this app help me do things that I am already doing, better? and also making this obvious thus reducing abandonment, yet another challenge for apps. When there are so many logistical challenges to using an app it is hard to imagine that users are going to try out an app just for fun or curiosity. In fact this question was asked by one of the teachers how does the quiz app help him do things better in his classroom? Obviously that wasn't quite obvious. Also there won’t always be a team of volunteers “selling" the use case for an app if it isn’t already obvious.

Adding on to the list...
  • Most likely due to the mobile-first background and touch screen experiences, they don’t seem to notice the mouse pointer on links much, which points to the need for making hyperlinks more obvious and consistent.
  • Good to capitalize on mobile messaging platforms and social media as most of these users are natives in mobile forms of communication, and email was new and quite often non-existent until our initiation! 
  • Be mindful of language and cultural barriers in content and iconography.
  • I rejoiced as a front-end developer when I saw that they were aware of and used multiple browsers, and did not equate internet with IE and the fact that Chrome seemed to be their browser of choice! Well, that doesn't mean much if y/our analytics indicates otherwise, although it offers hope for the future. 
  • I found them to be distributed over a range when it came to familiarity with technology. While some had barely ever gotten their hands on a laptop computer there were others who were proficient in hardware or had advanced photoshop skills with a very discerning use of it. This seemed to be the results of the opportunities they had come come across.  A self-described auto didact who learnt it all from YouTube, proudly shared with me his beautiful before and after photos of elegant use of photo retouching with Photoshop!! 
  • Geekdom is universal! They love geeky stuff just as you and I. They love their powerpoint animations but discerning enough to not over-do it!  
  • They were especially keen on getting deeper knowledge and understanding of concepts or hardcore tricks and tips that would help them along their way.
  • Just like a developer focused on getting in harmony with the IDE and their core programming languages, they preferred to learn their "tools of trade” first... internet research, translation tools, word processors to help with lesson plans and presentational software to convey all this goodness to their students. 
  • They were more keen on educational apps and very aptly noted that tablets would help them the best in teaching skills more interactively to their students.
  • I loved their enthusiasm for exchange of knowledge asking and thinking about cloud sharing to share larger files, between each other and their new laptops and devices, due to the limited physical proximity of their group. Although time constraints limited us from teaching everything we wanted to in our proposed curriculum, I was thrilled to share more information in my one on one interactions and set up cloud sharing with these eager and dedicated learners. 
  • They were also quick to learn and adapt new technologies and foreign concepts to their own needs, very evident in the Chemistry teacher's thoughts on creating a Bingo game that he had come across for the first time, to teach elements of periodic table to his students or the ways in which all the teachers made the presentations based on our training, their very own, adding on to it being mindful of their necessities to teach their peers. They were the fastest learners I have come across in spite of all the challenges they had to face!
  • They did seem to be somewhat addicted to their mobile devices, although polite enough to not let it interfere during our common lunches or conversations as much. 
Above everything else, I found our Cambodian partners in this journey to be genuinely warm and friendly, super smart and inspirational!

Beyond a single story

Besides all this talk of UX and technology, what struck me most about this lovely group of people was that they were an antithesis to many of the pre-conceptions we see towards the "developing world" or the "third-world", two words that I detest using except when making this point. I am sure this is true of folks in many other parts of the "third-world".  As history tells us, all these countries had already developed way before the current "developed" countries had. 

As it may already be obvious from many of my observations above, they were no different from most of us in other parts of the world, although much nicer and friendlier. Lack of exposure or access to technology, economic conditions and a tumultuous history of struggles and exploitations seem to be the predominant reasons for many of these countries not being able to take advantage of current technologies. 

I was also happy to notice that women and girls raised beyond the societal and biological constraints and excelled in using and adapting to technology. Kudos to one of the teachers who pulled off a great presentation, while having to attend the workshop with her little toddler and taking care of her all along! She was a master multi-tasker! Women also seemed to be very entrepreneurial, working most of the businesses and shops efficiently and single-handedly, but unfortunately I came to know, in-spite of their hard work and lead, the societal norms didn't allow them equal rights with men!

It was a sad state of affairs on the environmental front with the usual problems of deforestation for palm oil, cashew nuts or rubber... any new trend that gets the cash flowing. The unbearable heat which locals said have gotten worse over the years doesn't seem surprising with the little flora that is left. The ubiquitous trash in towns and cities resulting from their inability to handle the omnipotent plastic that replaces sustainable local habits was also disconcerting. 

Although our encounter with students was limited, I cherished a few that we had. It was great to see school girls taking the initiative in getting to know us, taking selfies with us with their mobile phones and perhaps even ahead of adults in their familiarity with mobile. I feel the world seems to be getting more homogenous especially with the younger generation, those we refer to as Gen Z in the US. It now seems to be very ethnocentric to think our digital-native or digital savvy user is mostly a millennial when they could very well be a school girl or a school teacher in a remote village in Cambodia or a retired official or a farmer in India, orphans in Vietnam or school kids in South Africa, who have had their first encounter with the internet through their first mobile device! As Donna Morris, Executive VP, Adobe aptly notes in her article the millennials myth, it is increasingly important to focus on delivering globally inclusive experiences.

If you've made it this far, congrats and enjoy this inspirational TED talk by the eloquent Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Related Links:

A Volunteer Journey to Cambodia: Prelude

Destination Ban Lung: Vignettes of a Volunteer Journey

Recipients of my volunteer grants in 2016

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