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My Africa Diaries: The Final Sprint

Kenyans are renowned for their sprinting abilities… in stark contrast to my own physical proclivities. But I did my own form of sprinting today, with a back to back day on the heels of a successful Thursday.

The first half of the day was brainstorming a plan for the iHub UX lab to become self-sustaining in a reliable way. Their opportunities are many and their point of view is strong, but it’s still a challenge to keep the doors open at times. It’s really exciting to imagine the potential impact they could have – after all, how many other chances do you have to get in at the start of a UX movement for an entire continent? But there’s still much evangelizing to be done – not unlike the drum Design has been beating inside Microsoft for years.

Thursday’s chapter in my “modern design intensive” class was probably the most fun for me to teach, as it draws on subjects I’m fascinated by (gaming, psychology, human motivation.) Perhaps these were odd choices for a class series intended for folks developing on Microsoft platforms, but my thinking was that we certainly want the apps in our universe to be well thought out and delightful – and the best road to those moments is a deeper understanding of how humans function.

The biggest surprise was that most of my students were gamers – as it turns out, all across the board. Candy Crush to League of Legends and Black Ops. There were some great questions about the irrational nature of human behavior (why do we prefer slot machines to guaranteed returns?) And some interesting insights about issues like accessibility – when I talked about the importance of designing with colorblindness in mind, a student pointed out that last year’s Kenyan election ballots were color-coded as their primary distinguishing characteristic. A great example of the danger of using a single signal to communicate important information.

Today began at the Microsoft offices in Nairobi. They have a floor and a half of an office tower – it does not feel as much like corporate Microsoft as I thought, but there are some telltale posters. And how strange for my devices to auto-connect to the corporate WiFi network halfway across the world!

(Technically, of course, today started in the cab ride to the office. It was just like my normal rainy commute to Microsoft at home, except on the wrong side of the road, listening to “We Are The World” on a local radio station.)

I sat for two 2-hour consulting sessions with two of the startups that Microsoft4Afrika has invested in – Ukall and Africa 118. Both are in different stages of product development, and I found the discussions fun and energizing. I was a tad worried at first, for two hours is really not a lot of time to meet new people, see their product and make impactful recommendations. But the impact came much more naturally than I initially thought.

Ukall is far enough along that they exist as a service with customers, but are continuing to build their offering to scale. The product is attempting to solve the challenge many employers face in Kenya – verifying that a mobile employee is actually at their post when expected. And how great to see a woman-led technology startup (with a technically proficient programmer lady at the helm!) We looked at their existing content and identified some key areas for additional investment, plus some fixes to adapt better to touch screens.

The second session, with Africa 118, was at a much higher level since they’re still in early ideation. They did have some really early wireframes, and that was very helpful in giving us a common ground to jumpstart discussions. Much of my advice was emphasizing goal completion over read-only information, and there was some deep discussion about designing for touch, small screens, and social engagement.

I look forward to seeing whether any of my recommendations have a positive impact, but it was a great look at some of the work going on in the tech sector here (and a much better chance for me to learn, since my classes are mostly information going out, not in.)

The Microsoft office in Nairobi has catered lunches, so it was a very familial atmosphere where I got to meet quite a few people before heading out with my main Microsoft4Afrika contact (who I finally met in person!) to the iHub for my final class. We were not prepared for the insane traffic we encountered (Well, I wasn’t!) but with patience and many aggressive moves we finally got to our destination.

At this point, it was a Friday afternoon and life was slowing down – along with my brain. It’s been a long week and I’m overstimulated. But we got through my original material on visual design quickly (we had less beginner folks today, so much of the content was breezy for them.) Word about yesterday’s talk had gotten around, and I honored a request to fill the remaining time with a speed recap of the Day 3 content for 5 folks who weren’t able to attend.

I’m just so excited for the folks getting in on the ground floor of UX in this country, on this continent. They will be the thought leaders for a new generation, even though many are just beginning their journey. The iHub’s community mission fits well with the innate desire of the UX community to have a positive, measurable impact on the lives around us. They have a lot of work ahead, but keep an eye on them!

While my official time at the iHub is done, the trip is far from over. Tomorrow another adventure starts, when my colleague and I head out with our Maasai guide to the Mara for a 3 night safari. I’ve never camped, and I’ve never been on safari (though it was fun, I’m pretty sure Wild Africa Trek at Disney’s Animal Kingdom doesn’t actually count.) I’m told there will be many hours of storytelling around the bonfire with our food at camp. I’m also told I’ll learn how to use a Maasai sword. If these things do occur, you’ll surely hear about them here.

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