I consulted for a UK-based non-profit on a research and product design project focused on employability for urban youth in Accra, Ghana as an entry point to target other parts of Africa. This opportunity was a referral by a contact who is a senior lecturer at a top university and the trust and confidence meant a lot to me.
It was a qualitative study to understand the unique needs of young people (18–26), who had at least basic but not tertiary education, regarding employment and entrepreneurship, and the potential of digital tools to avail opportunities and address their personal and professional development needs.
As a development worker, the research learnings echoed the need to defer biases in order to unpack contextual realities when designing and deploying meaningful development solutions . Like many research works, all other limitations are acknowledged.
Below are a few highlights worth sharing:
Young people know what they want
Contrary to the opinions of older adults, young people have goals for themselves and want to be in charge of their lives. However, young people feel that access to local mentoring and career development avenues are difficult to come by as existing ones mainly target their peers with tertiary education advantages.
Preference for entrepreneurship
Most young people want to be their own boss. Between being employed and self-employment, youth prefer the latter to avoid unpredictable employment relationships, gain stability and attain financial independence.
However, most admit that the need to perfect their business and people skills in order to successfully manage their businesses.
Be it subtle or overt, the product design process requires social and cultural awareness to optimize the user experience. With a user-centric approach, respondents can share intuitive details outside textbook knowledge. Symbols, logos, designs, and colours depicted deep-seated socio-cultural associations and triggered different reactions that have an impact on how a brand is perceived and adopted.
For example, what looks like a speech bubble to the developer came across as a thumbs down button to users and conveyed an entirely different meaning. A deep understanding of the unique needs of users, an appreciation of perceptions, and unwritten rules within a context are essential. Learnings from Acumen’s Human Centred Design and Ashesi D Lab’s Lean Research Approaches came in handy.
Media content consumption
Audio-visual content was popular among respondents. Don’t discard the influence of television shows yet. Compared to other options, almost all female participants consume telenovelas (Asian and Latin American) translated in the local language on various local TV stations.
What about these soap operas attract youth? Well, the themes of love, families, friendship and a host of life lessons through the lens of the characters resonate with the youth. And of course, the local language translation did the magic. On the other hand, their male counterparts preferred sports, music videos, and morning shows with a dash of politics.
Use of digital tools
Regardless of educational backgrounds, young people find digital tools engaging and effective in connecting with their peers and acquaintances at church, old school groups, trade associations, and various communities of interest.
Specifically, WhatsApp stood out as the most preferred social media platform due to privacy control options, community building, ease of use, limited data usage, the audio option that adds a personal touch for seamless communication among other reasons offered users the convenience to stay connected. Later in the product development process, this resounding preference informed the choice on how the solution should be designed and routed.
Gender perspectives on careers
Whereas females were inclined towards businesses in catering, fashion, beauty products, and fast-moving consumer products, their male counterparts aspired opportunities in engineering, manufacturing, hardware, and music. Young women were influenced by future family demands in their choices.
Users as experts
Oftentimes, researchers and developers are blinded by their domain knowledge and prior experience when on the field or developing a product. How about flipping the coin and seeing potential users as experts? He who feels it knows it, right? Exactly. With this approach, potential users were rather acknowledged as experts or advisors to uncover their pain points and what solutions will look like. These youngsters dished out profound design thinking, product development, and branding insights without technical jargons. An intriguing part is the use of local slangs in the design of the digital solution intended to effectively communicate and connect with young people.
Cramming up research insight in boring texts doesn’t help anyone; not the researcher nor participants. At every step, research insights were remodelled into tangible formats respondents could see and feel. Transforming research info into persona development to validate research insights, pre-printed materials, and iterations to get users along the design process is a powerful part often ignored.
Test, iterate, and develop
Often, we are too quick to deploy solutions to hundreds, thousands, or more and blinded by the number chase. One of the highs of user-centric design is the focus on depth without rushing breadth in experimenting in order to build a robust foundation that supports future scale.
Create the right environment
Throughout the process, one of the outstanding learnings was the connection with young people by creating a safe space that encouraged information sharing while respecting privacy. Creating safe spaces involves removing communication barriers, building trust, active listening, and stimulating interest in the co-creation process which is not a cast in stone formula.
Overall, the assignment presented rich insights and immense learning experience on the field with young people while collaborating with a global team of researchers, content developers, designers, and brand managers. Looking back, I am glad to have contributed to the development and piloting of a product; an interactive digital platform that provides self-paced soft skills, business and digital skills as well as mentoring to youth in support of their personal and professional development journeys.
I must admit that the whole design thinking process could be and messy and time-consuming. Interestingly, its beauty and relevance lie in the necessary chaos and priceless discoveries accompanying it and worth every invested penny.
More importantly, the experience offered invaluable insights, transferrable knowledge and relevant perspectives that may be useful to development organizations, corporates, start-ups and governments to design, test, and scale innovative products and services that work for users.
This author, Paulina Adjei, is a Development Advisor. She can be reached via [email protected]