African UX user research study throws light on the continuing challenges for digital transformation

15 October 2021

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A recent study from a Pan-African research and design agency throws some interesting light on how companies with digital products and services investigate their users. Russell Southwood spoke to Yann Le Beux, YUX co-founder and its UX Analytics Manager Elizabeth Akpan about what the study shows.

UX (User experience) is the door through which users pass to make use of digital products and services. No matter how good the idea, badly designed interfaces and processes will lead to failure. UX in Africa has its own set of challenges including language and literacy levels; how well users understand their device’s capabilities; data use behaviors; and bandwidth reliability. As one Rwandan respondent to the survey noted: ““People’s engagement with technology varies greatly. There are inequalities in tech savviness across different income brackets.”

The report set out to discover where and how there were UX designers and how they used research to tackle these kinds of challenges. The study survey had 100 responses from across 18 countries:”We wanted to share this information with the decision-makers (in potential client-companies). There’s a movement going on and in a year’s time it will be possible to see if this is reflected in how clients do UX and the research needed for it to be successful.”

In terms of countries, the survey identified a “critical mass” of skills, talent and activity in five or six countries. These varied from places like Lagos and Nairobi where there have been community groups operating for over three years to the Kampala design community, which is “very nascent.”

This part of the research was carried out using social media, emails and Slack and WhatsApp groups: “We had a lot of connections on LinkedIn and social media.” It then carried out in-depth, qualitative conversations with 22 of the survey respondents.

They were drawn from both the designer/agency side of the line as well as start-ups and companies using UX in their business. These included UX/UI designers, researchers, product managers and product and service designers. According to Le Beux: “We wanted to understand the industry better. Research for UX seemed like a good place to start, to understand what the pain points are.”

Companies find it difficult to get buy-in at a senior level from budget-holders. According to Akpan, “UX practitioners didn’t feel they had buy-in from the CEOs.” The very newness of the idea of research in the African context makes it harder according to one respondent: “Research is new to the company and a big challenge is mapping out and defining what the research process should look like exactly.” More senior staff mistrust the methodology: “The quantity of interviews poses a problem when we do research: the internal stakeholders don't trust small numbers because they are not at ease with the qualitative approach.”

Much of the focus of interest on products and services are with ‘digital natives” but as one respondent noted: ““There are not many resources online that includes the view of older Africans and the design conventions they follow interacting with online products.” Also as another respondent noted: “There are no tools like Otter.AI for instance, that can transcribe voices with African accents into text.”

In the absence of good product and service research, the survey found that: “Often, the customers (especially from lower-income communities) are already comfortable speaking to the sales team and readily open up. This allows them to share their feedback unreservedly with the sales team member they are already familiar with. However, the challenge this poses is that there is no way to verify insights gotten from the sales team.” As always, sales staff often see what they want to see, do not always pick up on things and sometimes have their own agendas.

Recruiting research participants creates its own difficulties: ““A few participants (not more than 20% usually) give unreliable answers because their only motivation for showing up is the incentives.”

Certain companies are more likely to do UX research than others. Companies that are strong in marketing (and telcos are a good example) understand how to make good use of both UX skills and the need for research to inform the UX design process. Other companies – like banks in many African countries – have operations that are protected from the need to innovate by regulation: “Banks are non-clients. Only in Nigeria are they mature enough” In others, says Le Beux “The companies involved don’t need to invest too much in UX research for products because maybe their strength is in distribution.” However, he sees potential for more work in B2B solutions, education and agriculture.

For African users to make better use of their phones, those providing new digital products and services need to have a much better understanding of what their users want and are able to do using their device. Telcos have a self-interest in evangelizing and demonstrating to their enterprise users the value of UX research.

To download a copy of the report:

https://yux.design/studies/state-ux-research-africa-2021

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