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March 2, 2017 /UX/UI Design /

Design Around the World: What Cuba’s Restricted Internet Can Teach Us About UX

User experience design in a digital context is an arguably unknown discipline in Cuba where the Internet, much like its capital city Havana, seems frozen in time. Internet access is limited, government monitored, and controlled. Connection speeds are low and costs are high. What can digital designers learn about UX from a country where UX as we know it doesn’t really exist?

Turns out, quite a lot. Here are five lessons UX designers can take away from users where basic experiences are often the best experiences.

1) People are willing to pay for experiences they want bad enough

In Cuba, the Internet is a luxury not a commodity. An estimated five percent of Cubans have Internet access at home, a fraction of the population that consists mostly of doctors, academics and intellectuals who use the Internet with permission from the government, according to the UK-based Independent.

Anyone else wishing to access the Internet must do so at one of the country’s 237 state-owned WiFi hot spots at an hourly cost equal to at least five percent of the average salary. For many residents the cost of accessing the Internet is out of the question. According to the Havana Times, salaries average just $20 USD a month.

Yet despite the high costs of accessing the Internet, hotspots are evident by the crowds of (typically young) Cubans who hover around the public WiFi areas. Ding, a company that provides Internet top-up services to developing countries including Cuba, found that 70 percent of WiFi users use these hotspots every week, and 39 percent use them every day. This shows that users are not only willing to pay for experiences they way, they’re willing to do it frequently.

2) People are willing to wait for experiences they want bad enough

According to Ding, 54 per cent of Cuban Internet users travel at least 5 km (3.1 miles) to access these hotspots. This indicates that users are not only willing to pay for experiences they want, they’re willing to endure lengthy travel times to get them. Once they get there, users often have to wait long periods of time for their turn to access the Internet.

People gather around lunchtime in the Villa Panamericana neighborhood near Cojimar try to connect at a new Wi-Fi hotspot. Image via NBC News

The Internet in general may not seem comparable to whatever product or service you’re designing, but the lesson here is that if the service is vital enough, your users will wait for it.

3) People will pay more for convenience

Cubans who don’t want to wait, or who don’t want to provide their personal information (in order to use the Internet at one of these hotspots users must provide their identification), have taken to what has been compared to an Internet Black Market. Internet access is provided on cards that users scratch to reveal access codes. Users can also purchase these cards much like an illegal drug, from a dealer at a cost much higher than market value.

These dealers are opportunists, selling the cards at an even higher markup to tourists who don’t know any better. This indicates that if there are barriers to an experience, someone else will find a way to provide it—and profit off it. This means that even if you’re not the one creating the experience, users will pay more to access the experience if it’s convenient. For experiences this vital, users will find a way to get it.

This speaks to various tiers of users. When designing an experience, keeping in mind the various types of users who access an experience is a way to not only ensure that you remain in control of the experience, but that you’re providing the best experience possible for the most users.

4) Community is key

Of all the social media services out there, 95 percent of Cuban social media users are active on Facebook. Nothing else compares. Only 8 percent use Twitter, 16 percent use WhatsApp, and another 8 use Instagram, while other popular platforms like YouTube remain inaccessible in the country.

Users go where community goes. With the majority of Cuban social media users on Facebook, it’s been difficult for other social media networks to have an impact. The lesson here is in community and relationships. While the UX of Facebook is more complex than the other social media services, the opportunity for connection it offers surpasses the simplicity of the experience. The value is not always in the ease of the experience so much as it is in what the experience offers.

5) Every second counts

Bear in mind, however, that Facebook is an exception to the rule. According to Alexa rankings, top sites in Cuba include Google.com, Google.com.cu, revolico.com (Cuba’s Craigslist) and cubadebate.cu (a site with a tagline of Cuban Journalists Against Terrorism in the Media).

Each of these sites has a simple (at times outdated) design that loads quickly and navigates simply, just like other popular sites in Cuba including Wikipedia.org and WordPress.com. When every second of an experience counts, a flashy design can be a costly distraction.

For Cubans, access to the experience is just as important as the experience itself. The interface must remain simple in order to maximize the amount of time a user spends with that experience, especially when they’re spending a significant portion of their earnings on it.

Sometimes going back to basics is the best way to give users what they need. There is no point in designing something that stands in the way of the actual experience. Many users don’t have the time, or the money, for that.

This piece is the first in a series that looks at design trends and user habits from around the world and explores what UX designers can learn from them.

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