Investigating Resource-Constrained Populations: Developing Design Approaches to Support Agency and Reciprocity
Designing for information and communication technologies (ICTs) in developing countries and for poor communities in developed countries presents unique challenges. In these settings, people have limited access to a variety of resources which result in challenges in daily life. Constraints in these settings include infrastructure, technology, and economics. Traditional inclusionary design approaches, such as user-centered design, have not adequately addressed the problem of resource constraints. The purpose of this qualitative study was to explore ways to investigate resource-constrained settings with a view to identifying design implications that are both specific and appropriate to the context and also instructive for other communities or settings. This study presents the results of two design ethnographies from two resource-constrained environments: one in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and the other in Seattle, Washington, in the United States. Methods included ethnographic observations, semi-structured group interviews and participatory activities such as video diaries. The two design ethnographies were analyzed to develop a set of considerations for researching and designing for resource-constrained environments. Using Giddens' theory of structuration and the concept of social capital, developed by Bourdieu and Putnam, the resulting themes of agency and reciprocity emerged as findings. The theme of agency describes the potential to act and is both enabled and constrained by the structures of society. Across the case studies, three categories of agency were identified: resourcefulness, resiliency, and powerlessness. Resourcefulness refers to the ability of people to deploy their expert knowledge either to overcome or to exploit structural constraints in ways that are sanctioned and productive. Resiliency differs from resourcefulness in that the behaviors people deploy to bring about desired results are often unsanctioned or out of the bounds of existing structures. Powerlessness, captures the instances when people have little or no recourse to overcome constraints. Their agency is thwarted, intentionally or otherwise, by a system that removes the ability for action. The second theme from the design ethnographies was reciprocity, a component of social networks that represents the mutualistic exchange of tangible and abstract outcomes of social interactions. Agency and reciprocity are used as an analytic lens to inform research and design of information and communication technologies that can lead to more appropriate design for resource-constrained environments.