Experiences in Co-Design Series: Communities as your Participants

As a researcher in the ICT for Development space, I have engaged with two different NGO organisation where I’ve gained useful lessons that can be shared with those planning to embark on a similar journey. I work with two organisation in Cape town to understand the challenges of employment finding in South Africa, Alarmingly South Africa’s unemployment rate is higher than a quarter of the labour force. In a society where jobs are scarce and skills are scarce, individuals make an effort to go to NGO’s where they can find employers or learn to start their own business. In such cases, what is my role as a technologist? 

Knowing your Audience

As a researcher, one has to study his/her environment to know what works and what doesn’t. If one gets this wrong in the first few interactions, the entire research can be affected by the perception of the researcher by his/her research subjects. In an extreme case, the NGO will terminate their work with you, or perhaps you will be the last researcher allowed into the organisations and you become the cause for research not to progress in those environments. A gesture that is considered appropriate where the researcher comes from can cause a hype of raised eyebrows. 


Identify the Helper

Asking a champion in an environment, a champion who understands both your viewpoint and that of your potential participants can substantially bridge some cultural and attitude difference gaps. This individual may give you some initial information that can sway your research direction but hopefully useful enough to help you become set-up for a smooth research journey. One’s reliance on the champion fades fast or slowly depending on how fast one fits in the environment. A foreign research moves from being very dependent on the champion to needing less and even less help as he/she becomes frequently engaged in the environment. But it takes persistence and it certainly takes time. 



Learn to be a Learner

At different points on one’s life, one’s year or even just one’s day we put on different hats. Sometimes we put on the humour hat, the professional hat,  the relaxation hat or even the academic hat. As a researcher, lecturer or a presenter one may get the chance to put on the leader hat, or even the power hat. When one comes to a new research area, a new environment, a new culture one has to put on the learner hat. Yes, the learner hat, that is the hat that will allow you to ask questions, learn quickly without forcing your perspective on others and even allows one to climb down the ladder of being that renown expert in what they do. This does not mean one should throw all of one’s skills into a trash can, but being willing to change from not knowing how your skills can be compatible with the needs/wants set of a certain people. Very importantly don’t say, “I know everything”, because you simply don’t!