Serendipity. Impossible to predict by nature. I had an encounter with it this month in a way I never could have predicted. I saw a tweet August 12th, right around 8:30 in the morning.
Fast forward a month later, and I’m sitting in my home office desk chair. My iMac in front of me. It’s 12:30am, and I am sitting in silence in front of a webcam and fancy “broadcaster’s” microphone.
I’ve been sitting here like this for about 45 minutes, the lone participant in a GoToMeeting video conference. I couldn’t really leave my station, I wasn’t quite sure when I’d get the signal. So I sorta fiddled with things on my desk, a sharpie, my headphone cable, a single Aspirin that I would balance on the side of my Leap motion controller.
“12:28:59 AM Mark : Hi, We are good to go. Please send the link”
There it was. I pasted the link to my GoToMeeting in an email to Mark, and just waited. A minute or two later, I heard the “ping” sound and Mark say “Hello Erik!” He turned his laptop around the room so I could see the audience gathered, set it back down, and that was when I started my keynote talk at TajRiba 2013.
Reaching Across the World
I was contacted on August 12th, through Twitter (of all places), by Shikoh Gitau, a UX researcher with Google living out of Nairobi, Kenya. She was involved with the iHub UX Lab, organized by the Mark I mention above, Mark Kamau, and his colleague Kagonya Awori. The tweet looked like this:
Such an unexpected invitation, I had no context of what was being discussed. But I am not one to turn down the chance to get involved and contribute. So we got in touch over email to talk things over, so I could learn what I was getting in to.
In the meantime, I went to the iHub UX Lab website. I was looking it over, seeing who was who, and I read this mission statement about the UX Lab:
The iHub UX Lab is the first of her kind in sub Saharan Africa with a simple mission. To develop a user experience and design thinking culture Africa; to find and fill the UX gap in Africa.
There is virtually no design or user experience thinking involved in the development of products in sub Saharan Africa. As a result, the impact of these products is often minimal and way below their potential. The UX Lab is here to help change this. Startups, social entrepreneurs and corporates will have access to the lab.
We believe that smart, user centric design has the power to change Africa, both economically and socially. Lets harness this immense power!
Talk about a positive message. There are plenty of meetups, organizations, bookclubs, conferences in the U.S., but nothing with such a stated purpose like this. There was one part that just stood out to me, I read it over a few times, letting it sink in:
There is virtually no design or user experience thinking involved in the development of products in sub Saharan Africa. As a result, the impact of these products is often minimal and way below their potential.
I got charged up with some sort of, purpose. Maybe I had been lacking that in my life recently. I love what I do, I love making a difference, and I love building things that matter. So in my head, I created this personal mission about the TajRiba, which I still knew very little about. I was going to be a volunteer, just someone who wants to contribute. And I was going to build as good of an experience for the people on the other end of the line, 9000 miles away, in hopes that I could do something that mattered.
For the next month, I’d end up spending almost all my free time at night and on the weekends preparing a pair of hour-long talks with the singular purpose of inspiring whomever I could, and conveying the meaning I find in my work and life.
I started instant messaging and texting my UX friends “You gotta hear about this, go to this website,” while at the same time Googling around the names of these people who had invited me. I didn’t know who they were, what the iHub was, but I was about to find out. There were three people who invited me and I corresponded with. Shikoh Gitau, Kagonya Awori, and Mark Kamau. A Google UX researcher. The first African to graduate from Carnegie Mellon with an HCI Graduate degree. And the Slumdog Manager himself.
Shikoh is a PhD in Computer Science from the University of Cape Town, and in 2010 became the first Google UX researcher in Africa. Back up a sentence and read that again. First. She is still working at Google for their Emerging Markets division out of Nairobi.
Kagonya is the first African to graduate from Carnegie Mellon University with a Masters in Human-Computer Interaction. Go back and read that again. Kagonya is one of the founders of the iHub UX Lab also the lead for the Nairobi IxDA chapter, the first in sub Saharan Africa.
The person I interacted with most was Mark Kamau. In 2000, Mark was one of the first web-design students in eastern Africa, at the NairoBits design school. He was 20 years old and had never touch a keyboard before. 10 years later and he has built countless websites, became a trainer at Nairobits, managed the Kilamanjaro Film Institute, and has now set up the iHub UX Lab back in Nairobi. He has been pushing “intelligent engagement over aid” and technology design for over a decade. Raised in the slums of Kenya, he told his story at TEDx Amsterdam as the “Slumdog Manager”. After watching I just said “damn.”
I have to try and convey the feeling I had after Googling around, finding things out. Most people never really do anything of note. You could argue that I’m one of them. So getting to know these people, virtually, gave me cause to try and step my game up and do something great. Sure, it was going to be a virtual keynote over webcam, alone in my home office at 1am. But this is a connected world; on the other end of that line was going to be a room full of people in Nairobi at the first UX conference on that part of the continent, waiting to see just who the hell I was. It was an experiment in itself, to see if this concept would work, and we intended for my involvement in TajRiba to prove it.
I started to get the impression that TajRiba was going to be a pretty big deal.
On September 11th and 17th, I delivered two talks at “TajRiba”, the UX month in Nairobi, Kenya. TajRiba:
“TajRiba is the Swahili word for Experience. It is the first user experience month in Africa that brings world class User Centered Design experts to Nairobi to give a series of practical, hands-on training sessions that help Africans develop products that solve African problems.
TajRiba helps university students, software developers, designers and entrepreneurs learn practical methods of developing ideas and solutions from a user’s perspective. It is a yearly event that brings world class Human Centered Design skills to the local community, allow us to network with fellow doers and have fun designing for Africa!”
Since this was the first TajRiba, I had no insight into the level of knowledge or enthusiasm for UX and design in Kenya and the region of the sub Sahara. Africa is a big, big place. I won’t even pretend to say that I had an inkling into where the centers of technology and design would be. It was a big unknown to me.
What I found was that the people I had the chance to talk to over the video conference and through Twitter and my blog were super excited to be learning and discussing things that mattered to them. Skills and knowledge they were using to make experiences and people’s lives better. There was this unspoken understanding that even though we were talking and discussing all the great things UX can do and the ways you can do it, when the TajRiba was over, myself and the attendees in Nairobi were going to return to very, very different worlds.
Africa and the regions around Kenya have much different problems that we do here in the United States. There are the easy ones to recognize or presume; things having to do with solving problems for the people who live outside of major cities and population centers, where basic “first world” technology and services are rare or non-existent.
The other aspect is that despite being a “connected world” through the Internet, the fact is that there just isn’t as much access to hands-on, local education on UX and technology design, and also you don’t have the pollination of people and interaction like we do in the U.S. between San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, New York, Salt Lake City (kidding). Any of those cities is a maximum of 5 hours on a plane and right now, I can get a ticket from Las Angeles to New York City for $357 dollars. I am no economist, but Google tells me the average monthly “Information Technology” salary in Nairobi is $2200 American, and that’s in a major city and with probably the highest density of information and educational resources. Cape Town and Johannesburg aren’t a lot different. You can’t just fly around to conferences, or move easily to join new companies or agencies. And you certainly aren’t going to the U.S. or Europe without significant cost.
That is the part that was the most hidden, but then obvious once I took the time to think about it. We have access to the same online material (even that is questionable), but without that local, human connection it’s just not the same. There aren’t as many business, not as many agencies, and just a fraction of the number of people with access to computers, smartphones, tablets. There’s a whole segment of African design, technology, and startups centered around making things for “dumb-phones” or “feature phones” that may only have SMS connectivity or basic Internet browser capability. In fact, some think that Africa will become the first “post-PC” region where mobile is the primary focus and means of technology.
It is easy to think about the first part – just look at this map of Africa at night. The second isn’t as obvious. I took for granted the information resources I have access to here. I was at an attendee at a conference in March in San Francisco, and another in October. That’s 2 in a year and I’m only 90 minutes away by plane. By contrast, TajRiba was the first UX and design conference in the whole region. Such an incredible thing to have started. We’re not talking about a local meetup, this is the first event of its kind in an entire subcontinent.
Mark talked about “intelligent engagement over aid” in his TEDx Amsterdam talk, with regards to outsiders helping Africa through tha “intelligent engagement”. TajRiba was a phenomenal example of this. By sharing information, education, and ideas across the world, the people who attended can add new skills and knowledge. And then they will share it with others locally as well. As the TajRiba mission statement said, this intelligent engagement allows “Africans to develop products that solve African problems.” And as they say over there, “If it works in Africa, it will work anywhere!”
It felt awesome to share my thoughts and experience with people who wanted to listen. I’m no public figure, I have no O’Reilly books published or my name headlining UX Week. I am just a passionate person who jumped at the chance to provide “intelligent engagement” to people who wanted to connect. The best part about all this, is that no one was there for me, they came to TajRiba for themselves. I just happened to be someone with some ideas to share and experience that the audience might not have had the chance to have for themselves yet. But now, I’ve imparted everything I could in the time I had, and everyone that was there gets to take that with them and keep it forever. We all went our separate ways with new knowledge that we didn’t have before. I know that this event changed me and how I see everything about UX, my work, and our modern technological world in general.
Neither me or Mark had ever quite done this before. Connecting Salt Lake to Nairobi for a live broadcast was an interesting challenge. We tried Skype and Google Hangouts, but they weren’t quite right. This was going to be more complicated that I would have assumed.
The main concern was that I would be projected up on a screen there in Nairobi, and the audience had to be able to see me and what was going on. It was too impersonal to just do a screenshare of my slides and be a voice floating in the room – there had to be a human connection. I got myself a pretty decent HD camera and a pretty awesome podcasting boom mic, some cheap Ikea lights to brighten up the room.
The thing is, I was there to talk about experience. I was going to do everything I could to make it a good experience for my audience. It’s an example of how designing for an experience can go well beyond just software or interface. It was the design of a video broadcast. This was about presenting something to people a world away, and I wanted my message to be as clear as it could be. Here is how it looked from Kenya:
All in all, it turned out surprisingly well. I think we all were mostly happy with it. I’d say this was a great success, and a great prototype for the next time.
The Human Connection
The TajRiba was something I would never have heard of had Shikoh not tweeted at me that day. I would have gone on with my life, ignorant to the growth and enthusiasm of design and experience in that faraway part of the world. Now, there’s a connection made. I’ve talked to people over twitter, my blog, through email and chat that I never would have had the opportunity to meet and engage with. That’s the point of what we try to do, all of us who build things that people experience. We design things with the intent of creating something greater.
Our goal is to bring humanity to technology, so we can share humanity through technology.