A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, in a most delightful way. Mary Poppins was on to something significant in user experience, far before that phrase even entered our lexicon. How has the sugary sweet world of social media changed the game in ICT for development (ICT4D)? More than just providing us with new channels to engage our target audiences, social media has actually taught our beneficiaries how to be a mobile audience.

Improving User Uptake

It’s no secret that one of the main challenges in ICT4D has been uptake. We’ve all heard of (or even implemented) mobile health services that failed to launch or market pricing systems that end up spamming farmers. ICT4D deployments have consistently struggled with a persistent inability to gain meaningful traction and scale. Thus we find that we continue to have a bad case of “pilotitis,” despite significant investments in the ICT4D sector and rapidly improving technological infrastructure in the vast majority of the markets we seek to serve.

There are factors we control that drive this lack of uptake—things such as irrelevant content, bad design, and poor marketing—and factors we have less control over, such as users’ inability to access technology and low digital literacy. I’ve soapboxed about the need for better content and design in ICT4D in the past, but a conversation recently I had with an old friend made me look at those less controllable factors in a new—and more positive—light.

Paving the Cow Paths

The rapid rise in smartphone penetration and social media usage has meant that a lot of the uphill battle of ICT4D—getting users to check their phones, teaching them how to interact with a mobile app, cultivating a culture of reaction to both push and pull services—is being done for us. Facebook notifications have taught people to check their phones constantly. WhatsApp is teaching folks the difference between voice and text, the multiple uses of the chat function, and how to engage with an app-based service. Google and Twitter have taught users how to search for and pull information. These behaviors are vital to any successful ICT4D service, and were a nut we in the international development sector struggled to crack—until social media and the internet did it for us. Appification is not about adding more icons to your home screen—it’s about “a fundamental shift in how we metabolize information and entertainment.” By appifying our target users, these tech players are building the user behaviors and creating the digital culture necessary for us to deliver the types of development-oriented services we so eagerly desire to build beyond a pilot.

What Comes Next?

I’m incredibly excited to see where the next five years of ICT4D take us. My bet is on a far more refined sector with a real split between beneficiary-facing services and organization-facing services (the B2C and B2B of the development sector). I hope for greater integration with social media, an increased use of local digital agencies, and recognition of the artificial separation between technical and communications staff on project teams. Now that our target audiences are getting more and more appified and the barriers to usage quickly lowering, the focus on product and user experience can really begin.