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Analysis & Design

Inclusive design and human-centred tech solutions – the future of software

date: 25 May 2022
reading time: 5 min

Have you ever looked at tech solutions from an anthropological point of view? It’s what digital anthropology is all about: examining the way people use digital media and IT solutions all over the world.


Reforming tech

Digital anthropology means studying how people use and make sense of technology in everyday life, always considering the context of a particular social group and their environments. A boy in Namibia may have completely different digital experiences than a woman in Brazil, yet there may be some universal qualities that bring them together.


Digital anthropology and the designing of software solutions

The anthropological study of relationship between humans and digital-era technology has a growing importance in terms of designing software solutions.

Trends like human-centred, inclusive, and responsible design became incredibly important – they are a response to the problem that generic applications don’t quite fit.

In an ironic way, the more advanced the technology gets, the more we realise that we have the capacity to finally do something right – to tailor make and personalise technology. In this context, diversity shouldn’t be looked upon as an obstacle but rather as a market opportunity.


Implementation of human-centred technology in business

Creating human-centred technology is a truly buzzing concept and there are several attempts of implementing it in business.

But there are some obstacles, the main one being the fact that we still go by the default normative, which is typically male, white, middle class, living in the Anglo-Saxon context. Looking East, at the audiences that are outside of those circles, seems alien and extremely risky.

Staying in this saturated market and ignoring the majority of the world’s users who are now online seems even riskier.

After all, it’s them who have become the new normative.


Is universal cross-culture design possible?

There is a typical point of view according to which if we go universal, it will come at the cost of personalisation. When you look at culture as practice, you may find that the two of them may come in sync.

A good example is the phenomenon of battery life: people living in Africa and South Asia typically don’t have regular access to electricity, so this was an essential criterion for mobile companies to make it in these contexts by creating long lasting batteries. This served other groups as well including commuter groups, teens on the go, and soon this became a universal demand across borders.

A lot of investment and innovation was needed but finally they came up with a good solution. And everybody benefited from it.

If we can shift from identity focus to process focus, we can bring the universal in a way that works. Localization doesn’t have to contradict universal design principles but rather, through this cross-cultural approach, can instil resiliency in design.


The Next Billion Users

In my book The Next Billion Users I write about our assumptions regarding the users of the Internet in some regions, stating they are simply wrong. For decades, we’ve been designing for a very tiny part of the human population, leaving two-thirds of the world’s population totally neglected.

Many Europeans and Americans are surprised to discover that people who live in poor, authoritarian countries use the Internet for similar reasons we do – to socialise, to entertain, to find their place in the world.

Yet we are used to the fact that it’s us who decide what’s better for them, designing “good” things, for example healthcare and education apps, with little focus on the leisurely end that are often the key motivators for adopting new tech. Those are very instrumental ways, which mean we’re constraining the market and the user practise.


The future of the Internet

So, what about the future of the internet? The romance days of the earlier years are over. Today there is much dystopia about its future, filled with rising distrust, fragmentation, censorship, and manipulation. How do we rethink and reimagine a digital space that is inclusive, safe, fulfilling, meaningful, joyful – basically good for our social well-being? How do we ensure that the internet is truly for everyone?

There are some things that will stay universal, like the need for leisure or the beauty of storytelling. We all aspire for freedoms, self-actualization, and meaningful connectivity and our digital behaviour generally reflects these aspirations. But there are some aspects like regulations that are different in different countries, and they will shape the way the Internet is used.


Approaching creative design in technology from an anthropological point of view

If you are a designer, you need to be embedded in the context within which you’re designing.

To be successful, you need to understand the needs and possibilities you have.

Alternatively, you seek for local partners and diverse teams to inform you on the cultural behaviours. Design is intrinsically a social process.

Another aspect you should take into consideration is the simplicity of apps you are designing and their financial and security sides. Being a designer doesn’t mean just taking care of aesthetics and usability. You need to think far beyond it – otherwise, your app may not survive, no matter how beautiful it is.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Payal Arora is a digital anthropologist, and an award-winning author of several books, including ‘The Next Billion Users’ with Harvard Press. She is a Professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam, and Co-Founder of FemLab.co, a global future of work initiative. Her expertise lies global media cultures, user-experiences, and inclusive design.

Several international media outlets have covered her work including the BBC, The Economist, Quartz, Tech Crunch, The Boston Globe, F.A.Z, The Nation and CBC. Forbes named her the “next billion champion.”  She sits on several boards such as Columbia University Earth Institute and World Women Global Council in New York. She currently lives in Amsterdam. 

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