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The Seven A Checklist to Design with the User in Digital Development

By Josh Woodard on January 30, 2020

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By now, pretty much everyone in the digital development space is aware of the first Principle for Digital Development: Design with the User. While it is common to hear practitioners talking about user-centered design, what does that actually look like in practice?

To help remember the core tenets of what design with the user looks like to me, I’ve developed a simple mnemonic device that I refer to as ‘the 7 As’.

While each ‘A’ is important in its own right, it is essential that they are considered collectively when designing any technology intervention. The goal is to find the digital technology (hardware, software, or service) that is the right match across all seven As, while also considering other key factors such as alignment with your desired impact and, of course, the other eight Principles for Digital Development.

Seven A Checklist to Design with the User

Availability – what types of digital technologies (whether hardware or software) are available in the context you are working? For example, if you happen to be working in a country where drones are banned for commercial use, then you can count anything drone-related out.

Access – what type of digital technologies do your intended users have access to? For example, if most of them only have access to feature phones, then an intervention that relies on smartphones is probably not a good match.

Affordability – how affordable would the proposed technology intervention be for your target users? For example, if sustaining the service would require you to charge the equivalent of 1% of the average user’s monthly income, would they pay for it?

Ability – what ability do your target users have when it comes to using different technologies? This includes both traditional literacy and numeracy, as well as digital literacy. For example, if most of your target users are illiterate, then you may need to think about deploying content via audio or visual means.

Attitudes – what attitudes do your target users have about specific digital technologies that may be relevant to your desired outcomes. For example, if their primary experience with drones has been those used in military operations, what might they think about your use of drones? Or, are there any societal beliefs that would impede use of the technology by certain user groups, such as communities that look negatively upon women and girls owning a mobile device?

Aspirations – what aspirations do your target users have when it comes to technology? It is critical to not only look at where your target users are today, but also where they want to be. For example, although a smallholder farmer might not currently be in a position to operate their own IoT-enabled smart farm, is that something they aspire towards? If so, how can your technology intervention help to put them on that path?

Anticipated risks – what risks can be likely anticipated from a given technology in relation to the context you are working and the users you are targeting? This factor is one of the most commonly overlooked of the seven, from my experience. However, it is incumbent on those who are introducing any new technology—or digital service/platform—to be clear about any potential risks and to share those with their target users. As an example, just look at any one of the cautionary tales from ICTworks, such as this post.

Special thanks to Bari Farahi and Maeve Quigley for inspiring the addition of two As to my original five As. What else would you add here? Please share your ideas, even if they don’t start with ‘A’, in the comments below.

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Josh Woodard is the co-founder of Civi, a civictech platform connecting people across the aisle, as well as a senior digital advisor at USAID. You can find more of his writings on his personal site and occasionally via his LinkedIn feed
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4 Comments to “The Seven A Checklist to Design with the User in Digital Development”

  1. Mary Burns says:

    This is a great article, Josh. Extremely helpful. Thank you!

  2. Great points, Josh. I think just as important is to involve the users themselves when running through a checklist like this. It is all too tempting sometimes for technology developers to make assumptions about the users’ abilities, attitudes, access e.t.c. So speaking with them instead is paramount.

    • Josh Woodard says:

      Yes, Gitahi. Completely agree. I guess that was implicit to me, but you are correct to highlight this as something explicitly that people need to consider. That should be the one A to avoid: assumptions. Don’t assume you know these things about the user without speaking with them.