I did a PhD in the early 1970s at Birmingham University. My first degree was in chemistry - actually in stereochemistry, which involved analysing 3D structures with magnetic resonance imaging.
After I got my PhD I went into computers, originally with the police national computer system, as we had it then, and then various local government institutions. I used databases to do forecasting, corporate strategy, and so on.
|I'm interested in how different cultures perceive multimedia and respond to images and audio and so on.|
I decided to go back into academia, to the University of Bedfordshire and later the Open University. Then I came here in 2001, as Professor of Information Technology. I'm interested in rich media databases, and have written Multimedia Databases: An Object-Relational Approach in 2003 and another book with Larry Guros of Oracle on Developing Media Rich Applications in 2007.
At the University of Befordshire, we weren't rich in resources but we had a lot of students from many different cultures and ethnic backgrounds. And about the same there was a recognition of the need for design for different cultural groups, and internationalisation.
I started working with two Americans, Donald Day and Elisa del Galdo. Elisa is still part of our research group here; she had been involved from the beginning in cross-cultural design - she co-edited International User Interfaces with Jakob Nielsen, which is the book you have to read if you want to work in this area.
Donald and Elisa started the IWIPS internationalisation workshops for practitioners and researchers on the prompting from Vanessa Evers who was then a research student at the Open University. These workshops are still going. I've been involved with that group and chaired one of the conferences.
That's been quite a big part of my research work. And it fitted together with the database work, because I'm interested in how different cultures perceive multimedia and respond to images and audio and so on.
It's through the internationalisation work that I got involved with VeSeL.
When I started working on cross-cultural design, and on usability evaluation and prototyping, having been a physical scientist at one point, the natural thing for me was to use quantitative methods, and spent quite a bit of time working on usability metrics. But gradually through cross-cultural issues, I got more interested in socio-technical and qualitative methods.
|With cross-cultural research, it's very difficult to pinpoint what is down to the individual differences, and what is due to social learning|
Jose was my research student at the OU, and his background is social anthropology, and that uses much more qualitative research methods than we use. And that's been quite interesting.
But now I'm probably moving back to quantitative, or at least thinking in terms of triangulating. Because with cross-cultural research, it's very difficult to pinpoint what is down to the individual differences, and what is due to social learning, cultural learning and so on. So I think there is merit in using metrics as well - because the metrics tell you there is a difference, then you can use the qualitative research to find out what it is.
When you are evaluating particular technologies, there is a trade-off - because usually quantitative methods require putting users into an artificial environment, measuring their efficiency, or effectiveness. Some methods use data that's very difficult to interpret. So you have to design an experiment that's focused on certain aspects, and do some measurements.
I've done this, and I'm sure there are cultural differences. But then you're faced with the problem of what they are, what is causing them.
Understanding HCI internationally
There are cultural models like Hofstedte, and it would interesting to check them in Africa, because I think very little has been done there. When that original research was done, it was done through IBM in South Africa, and I think only with white South Africans.
|In the part of Africa where we are working, the cultural model theories suggest that it's a much more collectivist society than ours.|
In the part of Africa where we are working, the cultural model theories suggest that it's a much more collectivist society than ours. In Western Europe and the US, we're supposed to be becoming more and more individualistic. Partly because our environment allows this.
Africa is collectivist - the community is very important, gives support, gives the power structures, norms that you need to conform to. So showing respect and being concerned about the well-being of the whole community is typical of a collectivist society. I know you get instances in African society where maybe the richer members have a TV or something, but they will put it in a position where the whole community can watch.
I also know from talking to Africans that there is a lot of respect for age and knowledge. The elders are the people with the wisdom, and that's very important.
In our visit in November 2006, we went to three sites in the north, and one site south of Nairobi. The three in the north are all Kikuyu, a slightly different ethnic group to the Kamba in the south.
Reflecting on it, I can see that there were differences. The Kamba I think are very concerned with art - expressing their history and their culture through their carvings, their art. So when we went to the seed bank, the outside walls were decorated, they told a story. And there were carvings inside - really beautiful.
It's different in the north. There they have beadwork, which is decoratively worn. And I think for all the people, what they wear is important to them for expressing themselves. They are much less uniform than we are. I think the way that you dress is quite important there. You could see that professionals signify their professionalism through wearing jackets and ties. The women mostly had their heads covered - a respectful thing, not necessarily Muslim; even in very traditional Christian cultures, women cover their heads.
|The important thing, I think, is to get out of Nairobi and walk the fields, walk around the villages.|
It's great having collaborators in the University of Nairobi - the local experts. The important thing, I think, is to get out of Nairobi and walk the fields, walk around the villages. Only by doing that can you see that there are not large fields, monocultured; they're mixed - bananas, baby corn, green beans, all grown in small market gardens. In fact there is some similarity to the village I live in, which is up in Berkshire and has lots of market gardens.
We could also see things, like the green bean plants were going mouldy. Ngugi would explain that they're not the best varieties for Kenya - they've been given Western seeds to plant, and they're not necessarily the best ones for Kenya.
We felt that irrigation was a key thing - even in the north where it is damp. Some of them had to use petrol pumps to pump water for irrigation, and they were talking about bore holes and things. If you read Wangari Maathai, she is very concerned about deforestation. Even in the north, I think, they haven't got as much water as they used to have.
So I think we can do something in that regard - help them with crop varieties, pest management. In terms of technology, I'm particularly interested in sensor networks. I know mobile phones will be good for capturing data, but I think that might be limited. Sensor networks, and the interfaces to them - the fact that you could use that information to help the whole community, to develop a knowledge bank, a knowledge management system. I think we should be ambitious.
We spent only about two hours with each group during our November 2006 visit. We took notes and recordings and pictures, but it would be awfully high risk to base our development on a two-hour session.
HCI in local contexts
You can't bring people into a usability lab obviously - but you might be able to take the lab to them. You can do low-tech things like paper prototypes. One technique has developers and users using sticky notes and pictures of icons. But the snag for us is, whenever I've used it or seen it used, it's always been in Western environments where people already know what a browser looks like, what an icon and a window look like.
In my research group we've been working with China and India. So there's a background of research results that we already know - which is that a lot of Western methods do not work. It quite upsets people at HCI conferences when you tell them that a standard method that everybody knows isn't going to work in a non-Western culture. So you need to develop new things.
|If anything comes out of VeSeL, it should be some methods that will apply to Africa.|
Besides collectivist cultures, another thing that is typical in India and China is that it's not polite to criticise someone's work. So what's called the verbal protocol or the thinking aloud protocol doesn't work very well at all in those cultures.
Various ideas have been put forward. One is sort of like Bollywood; it was suggested by Apala Chavan. What she does is she develops a life or death scenario, and the users get caught up in it and say, 'This web site is no use! I need to get a plane to Calcutta!' That kind of thing.
We just don't know in terms of Africa whether something like this will work. So if anything comes out of VeSeL, it should be some methods that will apply to that region.
Sorting is one other method I would like to try. You can have people sort words or ideas - it's an elicitation technique. Or you can use pictures. And you can get through a lot of ideas just by sorting pictures. That's also where cross-cultural comparisons are interesting. For example there are theories that the Chinese, for example, don't sort in the same ways we do.
A lot of work on internationalisation/globalisation is being driven by companies. They've often done very good research, but they haven't focused on developing countries in the past, but on emerging markets.
There are also political issues. Microsoft developed interfaces for the Faroes - a very small region with very few people. Yet in East Africa there are so many more people who speak Kiswahili, for example.
Kiswahili, at least, uses the English alphabet, for historical reasons. So we don't have to get into different alphabets and directionality.
By the end of the project, I would like whatever we develop to be usable, and adopted, and sustainable. Usability theory will be interesting, but it's got to be linked to usefulness. That is actually Jose's area - the usefulness of systems.
|I think of myself as a kind of link between the users and the technical experts.|
I think of myself as a kind of link between the users and the technical experts. So I'm focused on making technical systems usable. But also being user-centred in the sense of finding things out about the users, eliciting knowledge about them. Which would be of interest to anyone else working in that Sub-Saharan area.
There's a relatively small network of people working in cross-cultural interface design. I think partly because it is quite challenging; it's not a psychological approach, it's much more sociological in that you're talking about communities and social learning. And if you want to do any kind of research - qualitative or quantitative - you've got to separate the psychological/individual traits from the cultural traits.
I was rather taken with the Jatropha curcas idea. When we went to the south, to Kambu - they've got a water shortage. They can go for a year without rain. They were mainly growing indigenous crops and selling to the local community. Titus, who is one of the young agricultural advisors had come across this idea of growing Jatropha. They took us around and showed us the people who are growing them already, and they grow very quickly, and they'll grow in that kind of climate. They originally come from South America, but they can grow in hot, dry climates. The oil is not edible, but you can use it for bio-diesel.
That might mean we need some chemical engineers on our team. Which would take me right back to my original degree work.