Tutaleni I. Asino
Blog Post


27/08/2013 on design

A reaction to “User centered design and international development.” Dearden, et al (2007)

The concept of User Centred Design (UCD) is predicated upon the idea that the needs of the end user are not only critical but must be considered throughout the whole design process. In a good design, “(1.) the user can figure out what to do, and (2) the user can tell what is going on” (Norman 1988, pg. 188). More specifically, Norman argues that design should:

  • Make it easy to determine what actions are possible at any moment (make use of constraints).
  • Make things visible, including the conceptual model of the system, the alternative actions, and the results of actions.
  • Make it easy to evaluate the current state of the system.
  • Follow natural mappings between intentions and the required actions; between actions and the resulting effect; and between the information that is visible and the interpretation of the system state. (Norman 1988, pg. 188).

The design principles espoused by Norman and others are often spoken about in a manner that implies that they are globally applicable. I’ve been questioning this assumption and have developed an interest in looking at the global applicability of design principles and the use of technology related metaphors across cultures.

An emerging Field?
In User Centered Design and International Development, Dearden, Best, Dray, Light, & Thomas, (2007) examine how existing User Centred designed principles can be “adapted and modified, and how new practices [can] be developed, to deal with the unique challenges” posed by the usage of technology by those it was not intended or designed for. Most computing technology are designed by affluent communities in a few rich countries and adopted by many all over the world.

The authors called the sum of their argument User Centred Design for Development (UCD4D) and argue that in the international context, UCD should go beyond the tenet of “know thy user” and begin to consider and question some of the assumptions that are implicit in design decisions. More specifically designers in an interconnected world must carefully look at established and widely accepted areas of design and human computer interaction field, such as:

  • Interaction Metaphors: are the icons, menus, and pointers used in the US appropriate in Namibia?
  • User Analysis: the understanding of socio-cultural and economic differences and contexts must also be involved in the analyses of users.
  • Interaction methods: locals should be included in the “design of everyday things” and designers should be ready to accept “alternatives to traditional input output methods.”
  • Evaluation methods: designers should think outside the box when evaluating design. The methods should be appropriate for the target users and should move beyond the accepted paper/computer/observation methods.

The authors argue that a questioning of deeply held beliefs and assumption is necessary especially for researchers interested in cross cultural and international projects.

Questions generated from reading the article.
As a designer, the issues raised in this article are of significant importance to me, especially being from a country that consumes more technology than it generates. Amongst the questions that I am left with are:

  • How would the computer physically look like if it was invented in an Afrikan country?
  • If we could not use the icons that are common (e.g. folders) what would we use?
  • What is the relationship between the rate of technological diffusion/ adoption in one culture and the metaphor used to describe the technology?
  • Do the metaphors used by adults to describe learning tools/technologies “put off” the younger learns and inhibit learning?
  • Is a “good design” a “good design” no matter the cultural context?
  • What design principles, metaphors and artefacts do I use or have used that have not considered different cultural understanding?

Word count: 615


  1. Abras, C., Maloney-Krichmar, D., Preece, J. (2004) User-Centered Design. In Bainbridge, W. Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
  2. 1. Dearden, A., Light, A., Dray, S., Thomas, J., Best, M. L., Buckhalter, C., Greenblatt, D., Krishnan, G. and Sambasivan, N. (2007). User centered design and international development. Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems, April 28-May 03, 2007, ACM Press, 2825–2828. San Jose, CA, USA [doi>10.1145/1240866.1241087]
  3. Norman, D. A., & Draper, S. W. (Eds.) (1986). User centered system design: New perspectives on human-computer interaction. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  4. Norman, D.A. (2002). The Design of Everyday Things. Basic Books, New York, reprint paperback edn.