Whether it be how we navigate a city’s streets, the comfort of our chair, or the time we spend on a social media app. Design, good or bad, has a profound impact on our daily lives.
When a new industry rises, the excitement of creating an innovative solution to an existing problem often leads industry pioneers to focus solely on the problem, at times overlooking the consumer.
However, as an industry matures, there’s a progressive migration from a problem focus towards people. Thanks to the rise of human-centered design years ago, the tech industry has undergone this transformation.
Historically, the goal of creating business models around its problems has led many entrepreneurs in the west to see Africa through the lens of its problems, not its people. The lack of empathy created challenges for these companies attempting to export their products to the continent.
Moreover, as African designers look to solve their own problems, success requires going beyond implementing industry best practices from the Silicon Valleys of the world but also considering the needs, constraints, contexts, behaviors, and wants of the people in their city, country, or region.
To aid African designers in this process, Muloongo Stella Mwanahamuntu created Umuntu: The African User Experience. Umuntu is a curated newsletter dedicated to the African Designer and Maker to encourage more critical thought into the products they design for the African User.
In my conversation with Muloongo Stella Mwanahamuntu UX Designer at The Zig, we discussed her journey to design, the impact she hopes to make with Umuntu, and tech in Zambia.
Meet Muloongo Stella Mwanahamuntu
I’m from Lusaka, Zambia, and my background is in mathematics and statistics. After graduating from university, I went to work as a statistician for the Ministry of Road Transport and Safety – a government agency. While there, my department got the opportunity to teach the police department how to perform data entry, and this project revealed my sixth sense for computers and tech.
The police department had outdated software that wouldn’t work with their new computers. No one knew how to fix it, but somehow I knew exactly what to do. My director, noticing my computer skills, began encouraging me to get into tech, and that’s how my journey began.
I eventually quit my government job and joined my current employer, The Zig, as a Software Engineering intern. I didn’t tell my father for six months, and when I finally shared the news, he thought I was having a mid-life crisis. Here I was pursuing a career I didn’t study in university and sacrificing my “good government job.”
I don’t want to call it an illusion because I’m sure it’s worked out for many people, but there’s this sense of security that people get in the government. So me leaving that for an industry he didn’t understand didn’t make sense.
He thought it meant I was playing with cables and fixing photocopying machines. Over time he’s warmed up to it as he’s grown to understand a bit more about tech and what I do.
Switching from Statistics to Tech
Coming from a statistics background, I started as a data science enthusiast because I believed there was only one way to solve problems, and that’s with research. Then in May 2019, I joined The Zig, as a Software Engineering intern.
I joined a new team tasked with building a payroll system. With no clear direction or clarity on why we were building certain features, the first iteration was a wreck. Not being the strongest software engineer but still wanting to add value, I took a step back to see what we were not doing right. In that process, I discovered User Experience Design.
After learning the basics of UX, I found the courage to challenge the team. I told them that we needed to reevaluate the project, which we ultimately did. As time went on, I started to own the role more even though it wasn’t my official role. At one point, I thought I would get fired because I wasn’t writing code anymore, but I had faith in my value, and as did my team.
What is Umuntu, and what led you to create it?
Umuntu is a curated newsletter where I share relevant design articles and provide additional commentary. I read almost 20 articles a day. At the end of each week, I decide which 5 – 7 articles are most relevant to an African designer building for African people.
What inspired me to create Umuntu was my family. When I’d come home from work and share what I’d built, I couldn’t guarantee that my family could use the product. I could talk about it and be proud of my work, but it wasn’t stuff that solved their problems.
And as a designer/developer, there is a personal satisfaction that comes from seeing something you created help people. So since I wasn’t building for Africa, I thought by sharing my own experience and what I learned, I could help other African designers build for Africans.
What does it mean to build for African users?
I used to think designing for Africans had some different formula, but honestly, it doesn’t. Designing for an African is like designing for any other human being on the planet. It’s the same as designing for an Asian, an Arab person, a Christian, a man, a woman, or a child.
What makes a design successful is empathy. You have to empathize with your user. You don’t wake up and design products for them even if you’ve observed the problem. You still need to understand what it’s like to be in their shoes.
A lack of empathy made it challenging for people from other continents to design products for Africans. And it’s not to say that I, as a Zambian, can design for the whole continent; it’s a matter of empathy.
Moreover, designing for Africans means designing for a human being. You need to be empathetic. I wish there was a secret, but it’s the same.
What impact do you hope to make with Umuntu?
I haven’t been a UX designer for very long, and there’s a lot for me to learn and thousands of more articles for me to read and write. But ultimately, I want to teach and for people to learn from the products that I build.
Whether it’s through the newsletter, my case studies, conversations, or people using the many groundbreaking apps I will build. I would have achieved my goal if I can teach and make people’s lives easier in a meaningful way.
What are the keys to being a successful designer in Africa?
Being a designer in tech is not the same as designing a piece of clothing that people will wear because you’re the one who designed it. It’s also not like being an artist. You’re not van Gogh or Picasso, so get off your high horse.
As a UX designer, you’re only valuable when you design something that solves people’s problems. We don’t design stuff, and people just accept it. You have to make people’s lives genuinely better to be successful.
Be true to yourself. If you are going to be loud and friendly like me, be loud and friendly. You’re not going to solve problems well if you are trying to be someone you are not.
Thoughts on tech in Zambia?
The tech space in Zambia is small, but it’s strong and very supportive. Most of what I’ve achieved in my career in tech is a result of how supportive people in Zambia and the tech community has been.
I believe if an important world problem fell on a bunch of Zambian developers, we’d do an excellent job at solving it because we work well together.
I currently lead the WordPress community. Occasionally, I give talks at our events and share my knowledge and experience. One of the other popular communities is the Zambian Facebook Developers Circle and Agora Code community. Lastly, there’s BongoHive, the best place to be if you’re interested in tech in Zambia. You’ll find everybody you need to know there.
My closing message is to anyone from Silicon Valley planning on building an app for Africa. You will get the best return on your investment if you get an African designer to build the product rather than the learning curve and expenses that come with getting somebody else. There’s a lot of business value in working with us, and you’ll also save millions if not billions of dollars.
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