Research in Nairobi

By David

I visited Nairobi recently to do research and usability testing. Besides being my first visit to Kenya, two things excited me about going. Firstly, putting websites in front of people to find out what they think about them. And secondly, to get a better understanding of what mobile first, or mobile only, means in a country like Kenya, described as the epicenter of mobile innovation.

The battle is fierce for the hands and minds of Nairobi’s mobile phone users.

Doing research

I was going to Kenya because there were things we didn’t know – and talking to people firsthand is the best way to find out. In Nairobi we teamed up with a research company who provided space where I setup two laptops, a smart phone, and a mobile testing sled, and armed with a modicum of background knowledge, I interviewed ten people and tested two websites.

Usability testing on the move: two laptops, a smartphone, and a mobile testing sled.

Before starting a research project I sometimes worry that I won’t find useful information, either because I don’t have the right questions, or that I’m looking in the wrong place. I then remind myself that the only predictable thing about doing research is that you can’t predict what you’ll find. You have to get stuck in and do it, and be prepared to, as Erica Hall writes: Joyfully release all of your preconceived plans and ideas. In time I’ve learnt that this sense of apprehension comes from the fact that preconceived plans create a kind of comfort, whereas what you discover in research can change the entire trajectory of a project. And that is what design is all about.

The trip reminded me of three things

  • The global village is mediated by technology, it provides a universal language of sorts, the result is that on the surface we all appear quite similar, but it is a trap that can hide local knowledge and insight from us.
  • Africa is described as a mobile first continent. But it does not mean that mobile is the solution to all problems. Talking to people is the best way to avoid generalisations.
  • When we look at interfaces we interpret meaning, putting things on screen entails taking responsibility for how we assume others think, testing means owning up to that responsibility.

Reflecting on what to do next I’m reminded of Rebekah Cox’s definition of design:

Design is a set of decisions about a product. It’s not an interface or an aesthetic, it’s not a brand or a color. Design is the actual decisions. 1

Finding out what you don’t know is not a guarantee that things will be easier – the opposite often happens – but you’ll have information to base your decisions on.

And that is why we do research.