R U there? Cell phones, participatory design, and intercultural dialogue

Bernadette Longo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Background: This case recounts my experiences during a four-year participatory design project with colleagues in Katanga Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where I attempted to develop a system for people working in rural areas to share business information via mobile phones.

Research questions: For the first phase of this project: How do businesspeople in Katanga Province use their cell phones to support their business operations? How do they want to use these phones in their businesses? How do their use and attitudes compare with those of graduate students at a Midwestern US university? For the second phase of this project: Can a cell-phone delivered information system be designed for artisanal miners and small farmers in Katanga Province to share local pricing information for copper, cobalt, and maize?

Situating the case: Researchers in participatory design for social and/or technological change have traditionally assumed that including users in early design phases will result in democratization of project outcomes. When these participatory design projects are situated in intercultural settings, however, they are complicated by political and economic conditions, as well as differences in values and social relations. Because participatory design relies on dialogue within robust, multimodal communication networks, weaknesses in this approach arise when trusted social relations are not in place upon which to build these multimodal communication networks. Cases of participatory design between colleagues in the US and Sub-Saharan Africa illustrate profound effects of political and economic inequities on participatory design projects.

Conclusions: Despite the need to abandon the project, this case raised these questions about participatory design for information and communication technologies (ICT) projects when collaborators do not 'speak the same language:' How can communication researchers effectively build trusted relationships with colleagues in developing nations in order to facilitate successful participatory design projects? Given the research obligations and reward structures at US universities, is it feasible for communication researchers to spend the time to build trusted relationships with colleagues in developing nations, which may not yield publishable research or quantifiable results for three years or more? Given the political and social conditions in many developing areas, can communication researchers rely on the stable conditions and personal relations that are necessary to conduct participatory design for ICT projects?

Methodology: This is an experience report of a project that developed initially from a classroom project in which my students in the US conducted a communication audit for a partner based in Katanga Province in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A US-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) arranged the partnership and I later went to the field to carry out this project.

About the case: Working with an NGO while based exclusively in the US, we attempted to develop a system from which people working in rural areas could share business information, such as reporting business conditions in a rural location back to the NGO's Lubumbashi headquarters 75 km away, via mobile phones. The project did not work because people in Katanga were not familiar with the information design issues involved in the system and I was not familiar with the actual business situation at the NGO in Katanga. To address these issues, I traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo and interviewed NGO staff and clients. But my presence in the NGO's Lubumbashi headquarters created irreparable social disruption. I continued the project with a new client in Katanga and revised goals for the information-sharing system, but that system, too, did not work for lack of a trusted social network of informants to participate in the information-sharing system. In the end, I was only able to complete an initial analysis of the needs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number6876006
Pages (from-to)204-215
Number of pages12
JournalIEEE Transactions on Professional Communication
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Industrial relations
  • Electrical and Electronic Engineering


  • Information and communication technologies (ICTs)
  • Intercultural design
  • Mobile phones
  • Participatory design
  • Sub-Saharan Africa


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