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How ‘designing with the end user’ can undermine ICT4D best practice

In this article Ken Banks, Ashoka fellow and ICT4D (Information Communication Technologies for Development) specialist, argues for going beyond just designing with users by enabling local communities to design for themselves.

This post was originally published on Read the original blog.



After years of near-invisible end users, it’s promising to see the beginnings of ‘end-user recognition’ in much of ICT4D‘s emerging best practice. It looks like we’ve made a big stride forward, but we’re not where we need to be yet, despite making all the right noises. To a great extent, we’re still saying one thing and doing another.


The international development sector, which includes the ICT4D community, is famously uncoordinated. That’s no surprise to many of the people who work in it. You would hope that, at least if the wrong things were being done they’d be being done in a coordinated way, but that’s rarely the case. Haiti is a great case in point, where “a confused aid effort” has only added to the difficulties. You’d be right to ask why so many people continue to live in tents nearly five years after the earthquake.


Very recently, the Narrative Project – which I blogged about here – included a call for “a co-ordinated development sector”. It also made the point that independence and self-reliance, i.e. people in the developing world solving order tramadol hcl 50 mg their own problems, should be key development objectives. And that people need to believe they can make a difference. This is good to hear, but they’re empty words if ‘best’ practice continues to undermine it.


You could argue that ‘designing with the end user’ is a sensible approach – it’s certainly better than designing without them – but is it taking us closer to an end-game of ‘people in the developing world solving their own problems’? It may if you’re working with them to build a tool or platform which they, and other communities elsewhere, can then take and subsequently deploy on their own terms to solve whatever problem they see fit, in whatever way they decide, without the ‘solution’ provider needing to be involved.


To me, ‘design with the end user’ makes more sense to a local solutions developer, who can simply jump on a bus to go and work with them. But it doesn’t for the overseas solutions developer, for example the student group designing an ICT4D intervention as part of their design thinking course. Local empowerment can only genuinely happen if it’s local people helping local people. So what we need to do is work towards a place where that can happen. ‘Allowing the user to design’ is that place.


The truth of the matter is that far too many ICT4D projects are still initiated from the outside. When I initially launched FrontlineSMS in 2005, the platform was squarely designed to allow local people to conceive, design and run their own projects. The only outside help they needed was for someone to provide something that allowed them to do that. It really isn’t rocket science.


Yet, despite its successes, it still seems to be a model, and an approach, in the minority.

I worry that people who read, study and follow the ‘design with the end user’ mantra might feel more than ever that they’re doing the right thing, but they’ll simply be reinforcing the outside-in, top down approach without realising it. ‘Design with the end user’ is a step in the right direction, but it’s not the end of the journey, and we shouldn’t kid ourselves that it is.


Image courtesy of Ken Banks,

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  1. Tony Roberts

    ICT4D Centre, Royal Holloway University of London

    I enthusiastically share Ken’s intent to support independent and self-reliance in and through ICT4D. We both share the objective of a world in which the people facing disadvantage are themselves the authors, architects and arbiters of development initiatives. However there are challenges with Ken’s model of dropping SMS platforms and retiring from the field. Negroponte has similarly advocated dropping laptops from helicopters and Sugata Mitra has advocated a ‘Hole in the Wall’ model of ICT4D. Yet as Kentaro Toyama argues in his new book Geek Heresy, providing technology without also developing the human capacity of disadvantaged people actually only widens the gap between rich and poor. In unequal societies provision of technology alone further advantages the already privileged as they have the necessary skills, resources and social capital to exploit them. For this reason – if the objective of provision is human development based on social justice – it is necessary for all ICT4D initiatives to also provide training and capacity building. Technology is only 10% of the overall solution. 90% in human and organisational capacity building. I have written more on this subject on my blog


    • kiwanja

      Hi Tony

      Thanks for taking the time to share your comments on this. I’ll keep my response brief.

      1. I have never engaged in ‘dropping SMS platforms’, or any tech for that matter. My model was always one of pull, not push. Every user of FrontlineSMS in those early days (when I was running it, at least) downloaded it on their own initiative, based on their own understanding and belief of how it might help them (which, in most cases, they got from other users like them).

      2. Software is very different to hardware, too. Although I understand why you’d want to use the OLPC comparison.

      3. As for the human capacity, how did that ever develop in the ‘West’ at a time when there was no-one from the outside to plan, model and deliver it for us? Although the global development sector might consider it their job to create, manage and deliver human capacity in developing countries, in my experience it’s the people in those very countries who see it as their job. We just need to figure out how we can support them. Developing a tech tool that gave them the ability to do that, to some degree, was all that I try to do in my work – in my FrontlineSMS days, and today.