Failure of Design

One of the most interesting components of my time here in Kenya has been watching as people simply interact with technology. Kenya is a very different place to grow up than the US, particularly when it comes to regular, daily interaction with electronic devices. Few schools have computers, and even fewer that are functioning; households are not awash with washing machines or microwaves or other appliances though most people do have daily access to mobile phones. The result of all this has been a significantly decreased level of reinforced learning on how to interact with said electronic devices.

When someone sits down in front of a computer, do they even know where to being? Not really. At least not for my students. Is this wrong or incorrect behavior? Of course not. If you have never utilized an electronic device in any capacity at all, why should you be expected to know how to use one all of a sudden. Should I expect everyone I meet to speak French if I speak it to them, effectively placing French in front of them? Is that fair?

This is a big topic of conversation in the field of Human Computer Interaction (HCI), and is of particular interest to the One Laptop per Child people who used to make claims that their laptop is more intuitive than other conventional computer solutions. I would disagree based on my (admittedly limited) first hand experience of people using these devices vs. other devices. No matter how much the HCI guys might argue otherwise, I want to state that there is nothing natural about pushing buttons, using trackpads or mice, or even looking at a screen that constantly changes colors and shapes based on your interacting with it. Almost every interaction with a computer is a learned behavior, and unlike in the US and other western nations where it is a constantly reinforced learned behavior, from childhood on up, here in Kenya it’s not. Heck, most of the time we don’t even know if the electricity has gone out until we try to turn a computer on and it doesn’t turn on.

Nothing I have said is new or groundbreaking in any capacity (is it ever anyways?), but it’s just a point reiterated in my life daily as my students struggle to remember to turn on and off the Un-interruptible Power Supply (UPS) devices. These devices are critical for maintaining a clean current to the computer and protecting them when the electricity starts to go haywire. When there is an issue, these devices make a high-pitched screeching noise and repeat it until they die (in about 20 minutes) or until you turn off the UPS. UPS are not common in the States due to our relatively stable electricity, with one exception: computers with critical services or information are often protected by a UPS. The high pitched noise is designed to get the attention and priority of a system admin, who then rushes to the computer and ensures a proper shutdown without damaging the services or information stored within.

Here, UPS are far more common, but at least in my situation, the high pitched noise has no effect on my students. Either that or they are really, really good at ignoring things. My fellow teachers also ignore it. When it occurs, nobody, teacher or student, asks me a question about why there is a horrible high pitched noise emanating from a small black plastic box (though there is also the point of: would they ask me anyways, the precedented answer for which is, “no.”). Is this a failing on any of their parts: maybe not so much. Maybe this high pitched noise is a learned sign of danger, a learned cause of annoyance, a learned way to get attention. Is there something natural that triggers high pitched noises heard by a completely new and unexposed brain to cause distress or alarm? Or is this a habit we have picked up after living for years surrounded by beeping and booping and all manner of electronic notification. It’s just another thing we have to think about as we start to bring this world of electronic devices to other places on the planet.

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4 responses to “Failure of Design

  1. Andrew Carroll

    So what if you were to replace the high pitched sound with a lion roar? or a message that said “please get help, the computer is in trouble.” Would those messages work any better, and is it even possible to do. I am but a humble Latin teacher who is a tech guru because I can use excel efficiently (in other peoples eyes). So I don’t have the answer. But it is interesting to note that when the power goes out here students panic and get worried that they can’t play XBox. This, to me, is a sign that we have learned technology too much (and possible bad parenting, but that is another long issue). What happens in Kenya when the power goes out?

  2. Andrew Carroll

    Is there a big brother lurking in this blog? I thought there were two comments in the entry?

  3. there were two comments, but believe it or not the other was spam. Spammers are getting really good at masking their comments to seem human, but they all have the same trend: extremely positive towards you and your blog, a mention that your blog had, “just the right information,” or something to that effect, and finally bizarre emails and web addresses. The whole point is that a reader assumes this is an intelligent person with a blog of their own who may be interesting to read, you click the link, and then depending on if it’s malacious spam or not, you are either directed to a phishing scam, or maybe just some advertisement site. The internet is a cruel cruel place.

    As for your other question about electricity: for the most part, outside of Nairobi, Kenyans won’t notice. A majority of the country lives without electricity as is, and places like restaurants and whatnot all cook using gas and charcoal, so they don’t need power. The only time I could see it being a problem in the village is if a big English Premiere League football match is on, but many times, there will be a generator on hand. Can’t get generators for hospitals, but we can get ’em to watch football!

  4. Andrew Carroll

    I wish I could say I was surprised it was a spammer. Ok ok, so big brother has not taken over in Kenya…..yet.

    And of course you can find a generator for a football game, World Cup is coming you need to keep up on these things. Sick people aren’t going anywhere.