Tanya Rabourn

User Participation: The Secret to Successful Prototyping

This is the final post in a three-part series by Grameen Foundation that has discussed designing products and services for poor people – the first and second posts can be read here. In this post we review how to involve the user in the prototyping process to ensure a financial product that will truly serve their needs.

When designing new products and services, exploratory research provides a deep understanding of current practices. However, developing technology for a new mobile financial service for poor people requires that we go beyond what we know about the present environment. As part of an innovation process, it is necessary to imagine a future where behaviors and needs might be slightly altered due to adoption of that very same new mobile technology being developed. In a way, you are required to predict the future in order to design for it – it’s a mind-bending problem. Fortunately, there are human-centered design methods that can help us anticipate new behaviors and needs.

Experience prototyping

Experience prototyping is a design method that involves role-playing to better understand how a proposed service might work. Pioneered by companies like IDEO, this method involves enacting likely scenarios to better design experiential aspects of new services, as well as thinking about any artifacts the service will require (such as mobile phones). It allows us to both evaluate early design ideas as well as generate new ones. It also reveals dynamic contextual factors, such as the environment in which users operate or other objects and information they use, as we consider each touch point of the proposed service.

For example, when developing a mobile application for Village Savings and Loan Association members to use during their weekly meetings, we involved potential users by acting out a “meeting” scenario with them, along with a mock-up of the proposed mobile application. The exercise helped us discover information they expected to see at certain points in the meeting. And as they scratched calculations in the dirt or typed figures into a feature phone’s calculator, we learned what totals might be useful and when to display them.

Paper prototypes

A mobile application and other tangible touch points in experience prototyping can be roughly sketched out or mocked-up for use in acting out a scenario. This is known as a “low-fidelity prototype,” and it is not just intended to demonstrate a proposed design. Instead, it’s meant to be manipulated and modified, and should be something that everyone feels comfortable tinkering with.

We’ve tried several approaches to early prototyping that range from simple screenshots on a tablet that simulate a phone to simple sketches on paper. In our experience, using paper to create a prototype is less intimidating for our participants than digital devices. The rural poor, who often have little experience with digital technology, are more comfortable working with a familiar medium and are more likely to appropriate materials they encounter every day.

When using paper to simulate an application’s interface, text entry can be performed with a pencil while a facilitator presents the appropriate next screen when images of buttons are “pushed” or selections made from menus. Participants also may be asked to draw anything that might be missing in the application, or redraw anything they think does not suit their purpose.

Asking users to modify the prototype allows them to engage in participatory design – participating in the creation of a new product or service to meet their needs. Jointly working with a prototype empowers the users, and provides a common language between designers and users so that designers can more easily discover unarticulated expectations and needs. It is a way for users and designers to collaboratively uncover problems and quickly try potential solutions in an iterative manner.

Power dynamics

Some users are more likely to eagerly take part in a participatory experience design exercise than others. Frequently these users are outspoken leaders and hold positions of power; they are accustomed to speaking for others and making decisions for them. Care needs to be taken to be sure that the needs of less powerful users are also met. Engaging with less powerful users apart from other users who occupy positions of authority is an effective way to reduce their inhibitions and help them realize that their contributions are just as valuable.

In Uganda, the other challenge we encounter is that many rural Ugandans are accustomed to teachers and trainers visiting their villages to give instruction. At the beginning of every session, we have to explain that we are not there to teach them, but instead we want to learn from them. Often we need to remind them of this throughout the session when they look to us to tell them what to do. Usually a few prompts like “Tell us how you would want it to work” or “Do you know of something similar? How does it work and what do you like and dislike about it?” will get them back on track.

In designing a mobile financial service to promote financial inclusion, not every user experience can be anticipated and planned for, but experience prototyping allows us to make more informed design choices. Involving users in these choices is not only a great way to give them a voice, but it can also generate new knowledge about their needs and expectations that was not available through exploratory research alone. Experience prototyping with mockups of mobile applications is an especially effective means of collaborating with users and involving them as active participants in a human-centered design process.

Tanya Rabourn is a user experience designer, researcher, and doctoral candidate in the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin.

Education, Technology
financial inclusion, product design, research