Shikoh Gitau is a pioneer in User Experience (UX) design in Africa. A Google Anita Borg scholar, she was one of the first African women to win the prestigious scholarship. Shikoh currently works as a UX researcher/designer for emerging markets at Google. She is also an innovator and social entrepreneur, being the founder of a mobile jobs and community portal:

Ummeli – the Nguni word for mediator – is a mobile jobs and community portal hosted on Vodafone Live! and accessible through Young Africa Live. Originally conceived as ‘LinkedIn for the BoP (Bottom of the Pyramid)’, it creates a gateway for young people to enter the mainstream economy through a network of connections to community jobs.

Shikoh shares some insights on the state of UX in Kenya (and across Africa) based on her research and experience:

1. Design-wise there’s been a big improvement from say 5 years ago

The level of design, in terms of graphic design and look & feel, has greatly improved. There’s a big difference looking at new websites coming up these days versus what we would see a few years ago. This can be attributed to for example greater exposure for local startups to global design trends as well as the effect of the hubs and innovation & incubation centers. These hubs have concentrated design talent and exposed them significantly thus helping raise the bar. Another factor for up coming startups is that with the entry of foreign investors the bar has been raised to a new level, given that these investors are looking for world class stuff.

2. UX is still not appreciated or as developed as it should be

On the other hand, there’s still a lack of appreciation for User Experience design. I’m not talking about how a website or an application ‘looks’ or the ‘visual’ aspect of the app, but much more than that – usability, the interaction experience etc. In some cases the issue is that developers/startups do not see the connection in terms of what value proper UX brings and how it can affect their bottom line.

This is something I’m working actively to remedy. I’ve done some work with the iHub where they’re setting up a UX lab where we’ve held workshops for startups to enlighten them about the importance of UX and how to go about ensuring their apps are well designed, holistically.

3. We have highly skilled developers, but many times lack a connection between real life and code

We have great developers and in my interaction with most of them I find that they like challenging tasks. Many times, developers will want to fire up their laptop and start coding something at the earliest opportunity. Startups need to invest time, effort and even money to do a lot of ground research – especially talking directly to their customer – to understand the real needs of their intended customer base.

Before launching Ummeli, we did a lot of research, we got into the community of people we wanted to serve, we talked to all the relevant stakeholders and tried as much as possible to understand what their pain-points were and how best to solve them. The fact is that sometimes technology may not be the best way to solve some problem and that’s something you have to realize.

Without doing this, you can find that you have a brilliantly coded piece of software that no one wants to use, thereby wasting a lot of time, effort and energy that could otherwise have been better spent with a deeper, broader and clearer understanding of the consumer and their needs at the beginning.

4. Technology curricula in Kenya are largely lacking in proper UX courses

Unfortunately, as far as I know, technology curricula in local universities do not include proper courses in user experience design. The challenge has a lot to do with the fact that the curricula are in most cases outdated and inflexible. It’s quite hard to change the curricula and at the time when most of these curricula were being developed things like UX were not really a big emphasis. A lot needs to be done in that area.¬†This has resulted in a lack of qualified and experienced UX people in the country.

The problem is both on the demand and supply side – on the demand side, local startups are yet to appreciate and incorporate UX as a core component of their process; and on the supply side, we have to create opportunities for training people in UX as well as giving them the necessary experience in the same.

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