Photo of Ally Long
Ally Long

is a designer and front-end developer at eHealth Africa, focussed on creating interfaces for novice tech users in West Africa. She likes all the usual things - cats, goats, coffees, internets.

A moment with Ally Long

[Q] What will you be talking about at CSSConf?

I’ll be talking about what I’ve learnt designing and building apps for public health projects in West Africa. When I was working on projects in design agencies, we would often throw around phrases like “everyone knows how to…” or “no-one has trouble with x anymore”. These assumptions rested on our own experiences and the experiences of people around us, and watching a grandparent use an iPad was probably the furthest out of our comfort zone we’d get. Making products for people living in the developing world means that you absolutely can’t rely on those assumptions. A lot of people in Sub-Saharan Africa are starting to experience digital interfaces for the first time, and they have often been introduced to technology in very different ways - e.g. via a second-hand cheap Blackberry knock-off powered by a car battery. So in my talk I’ll be going through some of my observations and research into how novice tech users in some of these emerging economies are using digital technologies.

[Q] What does your usual work day look like?

It depends. On a regular day, on the project I’m currently working on, my team in Berlin checks in with the team in Guinea and DR Congo for our daily update on the progress of the program (mobile data collection and statistical analysis for a neglected tropical disease). Then we usually brew up a nice filter coffee and take a look at the latest feedback or requests, which come from all directions - the health workers out in the field, or from local or national government partners, or the donors funding the program. At the moment we’re trying to figure out sync - the surveillance team is out in the field collecting data for almost a month without any internet connection - so dealing with the technical aspects of syncing thousands of records, as well as designing a UI for it to help the users understand what’s going on.

When I’m out in the field myself, I’ll gulp down some Nescafé (you get unfussy very quickly) before piling into a jeep or the back of a motorcycle to go visit remote health facilities, or observe a vaccination campaign in hard-to-reach villages. They tend to be long days, and very illuminating. My toolkit on these days is really just a notebook, a camera, and a sense of curiosity. How does a woman in a long dress and hijab, juggling a vaccine carrier and a sheaf of papers, also manage data entry? How easily can you read the app in direct sunlight? How far do you have to walk to get a weak 3G signal to sync the app’s data? What should we do when we’ve limited a “year of birth” field to go back 120 years, but village elders insist they’re 150? There’s so much to learn that’s specific to the app or the project, but also so much in general to challenge your assumptions. How are people in these communities already using mobile technology? What apps do they use all the time? How long does a solar charger take to charge a smartphone? What aspects of healthcare can or should be digitised in a rural community? It’s hard to fully understand all of this until you experience it.

[Q] Who in the industry consistently blows you away with incredible work?

Jan Chipchase and Studio D Radiodurans do really fascinating and immersive research into understanding people’s technology habits in emerging markets. They travel all over the place, diving deep into how Saudi millennials use their phones, for example, or on the social impact of mobile money systems in Somaliland.

Side note: Studio D also have another business producing travel gear, including a bag designed for the “discreet, comfortable carry of up to US$1 Million in used bank notes”, which I find hilarious (although obviously someone has that very specific need). The whole outfit embodies the kind of foreign correspondent / covert operative lifestyle that an armchair Monocle traveller could only dream about.

But I do find their work incredibly interesting. I’ve found that there’s often quite a disparity between what you’re told / read about a population’s use of technology, and what is actually happening on the ground. I’ve designed products for people I’ve been informed only use typewriters, to find in fact they have three smartphones on different networks (to maximise signal coverage). Chipchase and Studio D really go deep and do the groundwork to produce such in-depth profiles of technology use in a lot of different countries.

Another person whose work I really admire is Indrani Medhi Thies, a researcher with Microsoft in Bangalore. She’s done user studies in low-income communities in the developing world and published a bunch of great pieces on designing UIs for low-literate and novice users. Also, she featured in a car commercial alongside a Bollywood star. Career goals.

[Q] Have you ever feared for your life while traveling?

When I was in Kano in northern Nigeria, Boko Haram attacked a parade that we’d driven through several hours earlier; and some people in the parade were killed. I had safely arrived at our Kano office by the time the bomb went off, but it reminded me that the security apparatus that surrounds our team, as great as it is, could still be vulnerable to being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

[Q] What is the weirdest thing you have ever eaten while traveling?

Goat. Which&ellip; ok, I know it’s not that weird. But for me, well known as a lover of goats, it’s pretty aberrant behaviour. Unfortunately, goat is quite a staple in West Africa so it does crop up in meals every now and then. Surprise! I try to avoid eating it if I can. Goats are for patting, not eating! I’ve had some pretty epic side-eye thrown my way as I’ve tried to befriend grotty baby goats rooting through giant trash piles.


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