Build and sell for Africa: Snapshot of Herman Chinery-Hesse’s talk

By: Mongezi Mtati

Ghanaian entrepreneur, who I can easily call one of Africa’s leading minds in technology and business, Herman Chinery-Hesse blew away the Tech 4 Africa audience. Unlike most conference speakers, Herman Chinery-Hesse entered with a piece of paper as his talk and described it as doing things African-style.

Apart from known as Africa’s Bill Gates, Herman Chinery-Hesse co-founded, among others,  SOFTtribe limited, one of Africa’s leading software houses. He has built and developed technology startups and does so for the African context. He asserts that African entrepreneurs should build for the market and build partnerships with companies that offer services to compliment theirs.

Here are some are key points from his talk:

  • With the rise of the web, they had to reinvent themselves.

He described that the rise of the web led to how software can be managed remotely, without selling and managing it for different branches.

  • The average African had no way to sell products to customers abroad, they built a product that acts as an international shopping mall.
  • The root of Africa’s poverty lies in the inability to sell their products to international customers.
  • Selling products in Africa requires that you also package them for Africa.

Most large companies develop solutions that do not meet Africa’s needs, and in most instances, African businesses are small and want a solution that suits them.

  • When you have the technology, rolling it out makes borders irrelevant.
  • Building for the African, or any, market requires experimentation and adapting to what the market wants.
  • It is no longer about programming, but the model you build around products.
  • It is no longer about the tech, it is now about what people want to buy. They are not techies.

Questions from the audience:

  1. In your view, what are some of the most important reasons to use the cloud in Africa?
    1. Europe and U.S don’t have power failures, Africa does.
    2. Bandwidth limitations.
  1. Would you sell your African company to a non-African buyers?
    1. Yes, but we want Africa to own the majority.

Herman Chinery-Hesse cited a lot of very relevant reasons and needs that can only be solved with African technology solutions.

What are your thoughts on where Africa can contextualise technology?

Keynote: The African Bill Gates leaves Tech4Africa speechless

By: Heidi Schneigansz

Herman Chinery-Hesse has a remarkable story. He is one of those people that makes you feel like you can do anything with nothing. That’s because Herman believes in African Style Solutions for uniquely African problems. Europe and American don’t have power failures and bandwidth problems, so Africans can’t copy First World solutions and expect them to work here.

After returning to Ghana from America, a young Herman thought he was going to go into manufacturing. The problem was, the only asset he had was an old PC. He had no capital, no connections and no infrastructure to build a factory. However, he soon realised that his PC “was a factory, it could manufacture software.”

Herman started SOFTribe in 1991 after a bet with friends when out at a nightclub that he could get a job in unemployment-riddled Ghana within three days. That Monday, he was building software for a travel agency; in front of the client, on the one computer they had in the building. Soon, SOFTribe was the biggest IT Company in Ghana and quickly expanded into other countries.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing though, the advent of the Internet nearly closed him down. His clients were insisting on central web-based software, dictated by their European Head Offices, so SOFTribe had to reinvent themselves. They knew that the majority of the economic growth was coming from SMEs, so Herman started BlackStarLine, a company that incubated a revolutionary eCommerce platform. ShopAfrica53 is a virtual shopping mall, allowing vendors a space to sell their products on a global scale. But the really special thing about ShopAfrica53 is the fact that it plans to push intra-Africa trade, selling African goods to Africans who do not necessarily have access to large malls.

However, the platform is a labour of love that has taken years to perfect, so Herman had to roll out interim products that would keep his business alive. One such product line was barcoded cards that allowed delegates access into one of Ghana’s largest trade shows, which meant the show made profit on entry for the first time ever, over 500%! It wasn’t long before the cards were being used for concerts, conference and shows all over Africa.

That was just the beginning. BSL’s next innovation was ‘Quickie’, instant ‘on-demand’ insurance through scratch cards and the cell networks, which allow you to SMS a code to switch your policy on and off. This sort of technology would never work in the developed world but revolutionises insurance in Africa.

When asked his secret, Herman says “I used to be a techie but these days, I like to think like an end user. Business is not just a programmer’s game. You should always look at the client experience, or your products will fail.”

The audience was spellbound and I left the room inspired and proud to be an African.  Herman says it best: “The African unity that I see isn’t just a philosophy, it unites with business… remember, borders become irrelevant in the Cloud.”

March of the UX Designers

By: Roger Hislop

Anyone who was at Tech4Africa in 2010 will remember ClearLeft’s Andy Budd and his awesome presentation on user experience design. He drew the parallels between a great retail store and a great website design, and how this often fails by designers having the wrong departure point. His colleagues Cennydd (pronounced Kenneth if you were wondering) Bowles and James Box took to the Tech4Africa stage again this year, talking to a packed room.

These two tag-teamed each other, talking about UX design, but focusing less on the gee-whiz concepts and more on process and techniques.

They started with the old UX ra-ra – UX is now all-important, the most successful products of today have been designed with superior user experiences: the age of competing on features is over. It’s user experience, user experience, user experience.

They then traced the path of UX design from the very first computers – from ENIAC and the old punch-card machines. In this world, operators had to learn the language of the machine. As computers have got more powerful and the interface can be abstracted, controls are no longer mapped to the guts of the device.

Now, it’s about huggable technology. In books like The Brand Gap we can see that these are concepts marketers have understood for a long time: commercial success comes from bridging the distance between expectations and experience, between assumption and real life. This is the role of the modern UX pro.

In UX the thinking and discipline has become clearer and more formalised, with a hierarchy of needs that moves from the task-led beginnings, starting with something being functional, then useful, then reliable, then usable, then convenient, then pleasurable, and finally meaningful. The end-goal being to address the experience, not what the user may have wanted to achieve.

Bowles talked about experience design as a profession – one which is described by this umbrella term that stretches over a range of disciplines from info architecture, to research, to usability studies and more.

The key to good user experience design, said the Clearleft twosome, is that it’s not a checkbox to be ticked, it needs to be integrated into every part of the process right from initial product strategy to final release. It’s becoming a clear discipline, with career paths and levels of seniority as companies start to build UX into their business structures.

The presentation looked at a four-step process:

Step 1: Design research

Begin with a pause… understand the people who will use it. This part can easily lead to an immediate taking of the wrong tack. Design research is not about listening to a wish list of features from user focus groups and feedback forms. They most vital part is understanding user behaviours, their problems, how they conceive of and understand these problems – and how can we (as UX professionals) solve them.

Their key tips were:

–       Not look at market research as core, rather design research around quite specific, personal, and one-on-one interactions with possible users.

–       Conduct ‘expert reviews’ – using experienced pros that evaluate against tested design principles (made for humans, forgiving, accessible, self evident, predictable, efficient, trustworthy), and doing competitive analysis (the risk here is significant, to get hung up on what competitors are doing and everyone chase their tails, not innovating)

–       Look at analytics closely – although again they warn against getting hung up on analytics just because it’s ‘hard data’. Analytics tells you WHAT people are doing, not WHY. It’s important when studying analytics to talk to people what they were doing (maybe they took a path to a page because they couldn’t find another way, not because they preferred it!)

Research methods recommended

–       Interviews (one-on-one)

–       Focus groups (as usual with focus groups beware of danger of groupthink, or a dominant individual driving the discussion)

–       Questionnaires

–       Diary studies (where people record their interactions with a system over a period)

–       The quick and dirty corridor tests (stick your head out the office, grab someone walking down the corridor and stick them in front of your new design, and watch them use it)

Once you’ve done your research, you need to produce some outputs – normally a report. The speakers were quite anti the normal practice of producing a couple of slides with some nice charts of the numbers, as this is often not useful when resolving design disagreements.

They suggest rather using a persona (a fictitious user that represents a user group). It’s a lot easier to design for a person than for a heap of data, they say, and each persona acts as a common reference point that is clear and intuitive.

Reports can include the personas, and they maybe even extend into comics and storyboards that show how the personas would integrate your system with their life – the idea is to build insights into a broad view of the user behaviour.

Step 2: Generate Ideas

Once this research has been done, it’s time to generate ideas.

You’re all excited, you have lots of information, and even understand your users. The temptation is to jump in and start to design right away.

No, say Bowles and Box. As in the classic tome on chess strategy, “when you see a good move, look for a better one”. You need to explore the possibility space. At this point you can throw many ideas at the wall to see what sticks – risks are low, nothing to change, nothing to hold on to.

If you jump in and start designing immediately, there is a temptation to fixate on obvious solutions.

To generate ideas, there are some conceptual tools that can help. Two good classic books in this area are the advertising industry standby, “A Technique For Producing Ideas” by James Young, and Edward de Bono’s “Six Thinking Hats”.

They are big fans of sketching – taking a koki pen and piece of paper and scribbling down ideas and layouts. It’s quick and easy, says Box, and importantly you don’t get attached to them.

Sketches can also be posted up onto a sketch board – basically a big board with rough maps, sketches and mock-ups pinned up and arranged in some kind of rough order. Sketch boards encourages stand-up communication – trying to resolve design disputes via email is often a giant, slow fail. The other advantages of sketch boards in the ideas generation phase is that they are clearly not finished, so it invites input.

Step 3: Detailed design

Historical UX designers and visual designers worked separately. In modern development this is increasingly seeing this as undesirable – with famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s adage, “You can fix it on the drawing board with an eraser, or onsite with a sledgehammer”.

This is where all the work is turned into something concrete, the dreaded ‘deliverables’, the risk that management pressure and corporate culture can fetishize these deliverables into an orgy of reports and planning.

Some of the types of deliverables include logic maps, site maps, storyboards (which are better for a more interactive site), and wire frames – although these make it difficult to capture something really interactive, so instead you may need a prototype.

For very top-down design management, there would also need to be a functional spec – great to keep middle managers and procurement departments happy, but in trying to describe how every function works they often end up being milestones that document the chasing of a moving target.

Step 4: Testing and iteration

Finally: get feedback, and test the ideas on a real site. Say the UXtabulous twosome, “You need to accept that first attempt will not be right.” There is certain emotional baggage around this that you need to keep an eye out for: Egoless vs Genius design. A bad designer will cling to concepts too long, especially if they think they’re genius.

An example of truly successful Genius design that’s often held up is Apple – although, says Box, the genius is probably more that they’re just really good at making sure we didn’t hear about all the design iteration.

Usability testing should include all stakeholders – and a structured critique is often missing from design process. This means user feedback, analytics, and even A/B testing. A risk in formalising testing in a clumsy way is codifying incorrect assumptions simply to be able to check the “tested” box.

You can compare Summative vs. Formative testing. In Summative testing you answer the question “does this work”. If the answer is no, there may be pressure to ignore or misinterpret this testing, as the cost of changes at the end is quite high. Compare this to the Formative testing, where you “test early, test often” to inform the design process.

The presentation touched briefly on some testing software, such as Clearleft’s own cheap’n’chearful Silverback, or something like Morae.

Their final bit of advice is to look to improve, not perfect, in the testing stage. Perfection is not possible, and this is the real world.

Where is UX design heading?

To wrap up, the two talked about where UX design is heading. There is a (somewhat debatable) quote that “Our medium is not technology, it’s behaviour”. More interesting was the concept that “behaviour is a function of a person AND his/her environment”, that how someone acts changes with context.

There is interesting work being done in choice architecture – it has become clear that decisions can be deeply influenced by the choices that we are presented with, and how they are presented. A lot of the work UX people do is around changing behaviour, which requires understanding the psychology of users.

A final nugget of wisdom is that good design is less about UX tactics, and more about what we can do to make their lives better. In the modern world this means there is a growing focus on cross-channel UX, where there may be a native mobile app, a mobi site and a full site, all performing slightly different functions for the user.  The modern UX designer has to make sure these are all consistent, but make the best use of each device – and also synch with real world stuff like the physical presence (retail stores, etc).

Social media goes mainstream in SA

By: Michal Wronski and Arthur Goldstuck

South Africans have embraced social media as a core pillar of Internet activity in this country, along with e-mail, news and banking. MXit and Facebook lead the way in user numbers, while Twitter has seen the most dramatic growth in social networking in the past year, and BlackBerry Messenger is the fastest growing network in the second half of 2011.

These are among the key findings of a new study released today by Fuseware and World Wide Worx, entitled South African Social Media Landscape 2011.

“The question of how many South Africans use each of the major social networks comes up so often, it became a priority for us to pin down the numbers,” says Michal Wronski, Managing Director of information analysts Fuseware and co-author of the report. “The data was collected through a combination of Fuseware’s analysis of social network databases, information provided directly by social networks, and World Wide Worx’s consumer market research.”

An analysis of Fuseware’s extensive database of Twitter usage, in conjunction with World Wide Worx’s consumer market research, shows that there were 1,1-million Twitter users in South Africa in mid-2011. This is a 20-fold increase in a little more than a year.

“One of the drivers of growth of Twitter is the media obsession with the network,” says report co-author Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx. “Most radio and TV personalities with large audiences are engaged in intensive campaigns to drive their listeners and viewers to both Twitter and Facebook. The former, coming off a very low base, is therefore seeing the greatest growth.”

As in the global environment, not all Twitter users are active users, with only 40% tweeting, but probably as many simply watching, following and using it as a breaking news service.

MXit remains the most popular social network in South Africa, with approximately 10-million active users. Its demographic mix runs counter to the popular media image of MXit as a teen-dominated environment. No less than 76% of the male user base of MXit and 73% of female users are aged 18 or over.

A surprising finding emerged from analysis of Facebook data. Of approximately 4.2-million Facebook users in South Africa by August 2011, only 3.2 million had visited the site in the year-to-date.

“This is partly a factor of many users moving on once the novelty of the site had worn off, as well as a result of the fickle nature of the youth market,” says Wronski. “Once BBM picked up significant traction in private schools, for example, many teenagers who had previously flocked to Facebook, opted for BBM’s greater immediacy.”

While LinkedIn, aimed at professional users, also reached the 1,1-million mark, it came off a far higher base – but still saw 83% growth of South African users from 2010 to 2011. Of these, 112 000 or 10% are business owners.

Consumer research analysed in the report revealed that future intention of usage of most social networks is strongly related to age. The younger the user, the greater the intention of usage.

“This is only one of many micro-trends shaping social networking,” says Goldstuck. “MXit, Facebook and BBM statistics illustrate, for example, that as social networks become more mainstream, their penetration within all age ranges deepens. This, in turn, will result in the continual flattening of the age curve as social networks mature.”

Tech4Africa 2 opens with a BANG!

By: Heidi Schneigansz

After the phenomenal success of last year’s event, expectations for Tech4Africa 2011 were high, and if the opening by Gareth Knight is anything to go by, T4A 2011 is going to be a cracker.

Who else opens a conference by sending a few tweets on a giant screen, simply because he wants to thank the people who made the conference happen? When he followed this by a slide that simply said <t4a>Welcome!</t4a> we knew that we were at a tech event for true lovers of tech and what it can do on the African continent. In fact, since Tech4Africa, it has reached out to over 150 countries in a year. Gareth wrapped up by saying “Tweet for Africa, let your networks know that we’re here and that we’re here to make a difference.”

Next up, the famed ‘Greek Geek of 702’, Aki Anastasiou introduced Derek Wilcocks, MD of Internet Solutions, who admitted that he’s a digital immigrant that is awed by how the world is changing in ways that people are battling to come to grips with.  According to Wilcocks, this year the Internet hit over a zetabyte of traffic. I can’t even begin to fathom what a zetabyte is?! 34GB of content a day is now going into the average US household, which is tantamount to 50 CDs worth of data.

But it’s not just about consumers, the machine-to-machine bandwidth used in the last 12 months exceeded user initiated bandwidth use this year. Companies like Amazon, Walmart, Ford and Tesco are using automated analytics to adapt their stock levels and marketing within hours of a major event that affected their business.

Wilcocks showed the audience how companies around the world are adopting web-based technology to recruit digital natives, sell and market their products more efficiently and better their customer service. What was interesting was that the biggest innovations are not being made by tech companies but by the ‘old-school’ trucking, cement and logistics businesses. I can only hope that the South African corporates in the audience are listening so innovation can start coming out of Africa, rather than being just adopted by her.

As Wilcocks said, “Collaboration, Community and The Cloud are reshaping the world… we really need to think about how they can change consumers, entrepreneurs and the public sector in Africa, now.”