UX in Africa
Summary: UX is rapidly growing in Africa, especially in startups and Fintech companies. The continent’s young population eagerly adopts new technology and will form the basis for even more growth.
I have experienced a massive inflow of UX connections from Africa in the last two years. The user experience revolution has reached Africa. To assess the current state of UX in Africa, I met up with two African UX experts from different ends of the continent and with different specialties within the discipline (content and product design): Katherine Igiezele from Nigeria and Abel Fikreyohanes Tegafaw from Ethiopia.
Katherine Igiezele (left) and Abel Fikreyohanes Tegafaw (right).
First, some background data:
GDP per capita, PPP
1.1 M m2
0.9 M m2
8.5 M m2
I list Brazil for comparison since I recently ran a story about UX in Brazil and Latin America. GDP per person has been converted into US Dollars at purchasing-power parity.
Personal Experience and Background
Jakob: First, please tell me and the readers about yourself. How did you get into user experience, and what inspired you to work in UX?
Katherine: I am a UX Writer at Toptal's Core Team. My work sits at the intriguing intersection of Cognition and Content and ties into product development and growth strategies.
My entry into UX was somewhat unconventional; it came through the world of search and, more specifically, SEO copywriting. Which some people may find odd because of the distinction they try to create between SEO and UX.
While working as an SEO copywriter, I realized that search was usually or mainly the first touch point for many users on their online journeys. They always had a goal and something in mind to search for, and my job was to ensure they found what they were looking for, not just by matching keywords but by really understanding what they intended to find. A practice I would later realize to be 'user-centered SEO.' So, that was my first basic exposure to UX.
With this approach, I ranked a lot of content on Google, but I also realized that I couldn't explore my entire understanding of users' search intent beyond search engines because my impact was only on top-of-funnel content. This led me to embrace more challenging opportunities as the sole content developer at an agribusiness firm in Nigeria, an initiative to bridge the gap between farmers, end-consumers, and investors. In this role, I created content across various platforms—from social media to e-commerce landing pages, websites, and mobile applications. This end-to-end experience solidified my interest in UX and highlighted the value of seamlessly blending findability with functionality. This principle has since become the cornerstone of my UX career.
In a nutshell, my journey into UX is an evolution of my writing, search, and content strategy background, fueled by a commitment to user-centered design and social impact.
Jakob: Fascinating story. Abel, what about you?
Abel: I was first exposed to technology in second grade, and that's when I got my first desktop PC. It fascinated me because getting connected to technology was quite challenging back then. Only a few offices had computers, and they intrigued me. That computer ignited my passion for technology, and I became interested in various aspects, such as programming. I vividly remember my primary school days when I used Microsoft Publisher's drag-and-drop tool to build websites. This might have been my first interaction with design and UX, unknowingly. As I progressed, my enthusiasm for software engineering grew, and I decided to pursue it.
By the time I reached the 12th grade, I had started learning about coding and software engineering concepts. At that time, the role of a front-end developer was closely tied to product design. The real turning point occurred during the pandemic when we were all in lockdown. I kept myself busy with projects every day, but eventually, I got bored and decided to learn another skill that piqued my interest. I began studying products and startups, realizing that every product involves three crucial elements: design, technology, and business. Since I had already been exposed to technology, I continued to learn about design. UX, in particular, caught my attention, and I delved deeper into it. Without even realizing it, I became proficient in UX, applied for jobs, and started working full-time for a company as a UX designer. Over time, I've had the opportunity to work with various companies and clients.
Jakob: I love UXers who started in the second grade. The next question continues on what Abel was saying. Please tell us more about what you do in your current job.
Abel: In my current position, as I mentioned earlier, I work at Safaricom Telecommunications Ethiopia as a Product Designer. This company is the second telecom company in Ethiopia, having acquired its license two years ago and launched just last year. I am currently focused on M-PESA, one of Africa’s leading mobile money giants. Fast forward to today, it operates in 8 African countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Mozambique, Tanzania, and, most recently, Ethiopia. Across these countries, it has surpassed 55 million users. Ethiopia is the newest market for M-PESA, having been launched approximately two months ago. We have already reached 1.5 million customers and are actively working on further growth.
As a Product Designer, I lead the design and ensure user experience consistency across the M-PESA platform and its various channels. This includes internal, commercial, consumer-facing apps, developer experience platforms, design systems, and web platforms. It's a dynamic role that involves managing designs created by other vendors and designing products myself. I oversee the entire product design lifecycle, starting from the initial stages of empathy and research all the way through to testing and iteration.
Jakob: Katherine, can you talk about your current job?
Katherine: My career is robust and fulfilling. I operated a content consultancy a few years ago, working with a diverse range of international and local clients in industries like tech startups, food tech, agribusiness, fintech, and others. For local clients, I primarily worked in Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, and Tanzania. The consultancy was a one-person operation, allowing me to wear multiple hats as a UX writer, researcher, strategist, and client acquisition and management. This experience has been instrumental in shaping my multidisciplinary approach to UX, enabling me to collaborate effectively across various departments such as marketing, product management, UX design, and engineering.
At Toptal, where I currently work, I operate at the intersection of product development and growth strategy, researching, strategizing, and creating user flows, journey maps, and UX content, amongst other things that align with our users' expectations. Toptal has a strong presence in the African talent market, so my work impacts user experience globally and benefits from my local insights.
Beyond my professional endeavors, I am committed to addressing the UX education gap in Africa. I'm actively involved in mentorship on ADPList and industry events. I also lead the UX Content Champ, the first comprehensive UX Writing Academy developed by a global UX Content Professional from Africa.
UX Growth in Africa
Jakob: An awe-inspiring story, and it’s true that when you’re on your own, you learn a lot of different skills. Africa is still fairly small in user experience regarding how many people we get from Africa, for example, for just my newsletter. But I've noticed substantial growth in the last few years. So my question to both of you is, what do you think has happened recently compared to the previous decades to get UX growing much more in Africa suddenly?
Katherine: I can attribute the growth you're observing to three key factors. The first one would be the pandemic. The pandemic was a moment of truth for everyone around the world. It forced everyone to go digital, prioritizing their digital interfaces as businesses realized it to be one of the first or most influential touch points between them and their customers. This led to a surge in the demand for UX professionals.
Second, social media and professional networking platforms like LinkedIn and X, formerly Twitter, have made UX mainstream, particularly in Nigeria. UX influencers, designers, writers, and researchers, including myself, provide valuable content and organize events, raising overall awareness.
Third, the talent from the diaspora and those based in Nigeria but working in global markets have set an aspirational standard. So there's this aspiration to be UX professionals, work in this cool field, and create these amazing experiences that connect users with products. This has made the UX profession appealing to many, especially those looking to create impactful user experiences.
Jakob: Well, UX is cool. So you're right about that. Abel, what would you like to add?
Abel: As Katherine mentioned, quite a few things are going on, but one crucial aspect I'd like to address is the significant rise of young entrepreneurs on the African continent in recent years. These entrepreneurs are typically young and are closely connected to European and American tech cultures. They've started to grasp how vital UX is and how it can revolutionize industries, enhancing how businesses operate. This, too, is a major development in recent years.
Jakob: How would you describe the state of user experience in your country and how it has changed in recent years, so more generally? About how much influence UX has in local products.
Abel: UX is gaining traction, especially here in our country. However, in the past year, people haven't fully grasped the concept of UX, and it's not a common topic in boardrooms like it is for many big tech companies. It does pose some challenges, but it's gradually evolving and gaining momentum. I believe it will take off big time in the next few years. One challenge is demonstrating the value of UX to people. It can be challenging, but the more we get people into the UX pipeline and help them understand design and UX's potential to drive their businesses, the easier it will be to have it take its rightful place in boardrooms. Moreover, as the ecosystem matures and competition becomes fiercer, businesses are starting to realize the importance of UX.
Katherine: The evolution of UX in Nigeria is gaining momentum, just as Abel mentioned. A few years back, the understanding of UX in Nigeria was rather elementary — often reduced to basic UI aesthetics. It's all part of it, but that's mainly what people thought UX was, and they just put UX under that umbrella of fancy designs on the screen. Now, there's a better understanding of UX as an umbrella term encompassing many disciplines, ranging from research and strategy to UX writing and design.
The tech ecosystem, with companies like Flutterwave and Paystack, also contributes to this shift. These companies understand the value of UX and are creating more opportunities in the field. Also, I was recently invited to a panel discussion at the Colab tech hub in Kaduna State, Nigeria, about designing financial solutions for women, an initiative by Digital Kaduna in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The inclusion of UX in such discussions underlines its growing importance in Nigeria.
Jakob: Katherine, you already answered some of my next question when you said that many startups are particularly good with UX. In general, are there some companies or industries where you see a particularly high level of user experience maturity?
Katherine: Yes, especially in the fintech sector, companies like Flutterwave and Paystack have been instrumental in driving the UX narrative not just in Nigeria but across Africa. When you use their platforms, the experience is seamless, covering every detail from color scheme to user emotion. We also have others like PiggyVest, mainly in fintech. Probably because money plays a crucial role in our lives, the UX revolution is starting from fintech. It's no longer a 'nice to have'; it's a business imperative. These are the companies at the forefront of the revolution.
Jakob: Abel, what would you say are the leading industry sectors or companies in Ethiopia in UX?
Abel: Regarding UX, as she mentioned, the big industry that's booming is Fintech. Africa has a growing demand for Fintech, and we're witnessing the rise of more and more Fintech companies. These companies are placing UX at the very heart of their products. Additionally, other industries like food delivery, logistics, and more are becoming increasingly competitive, with innovative products emerging alongside. As competition grows, these industries are starting to take UX seriously. I believe that companies tend to prioritize UX when they face high competition and mature industries because they're looking for the best ways to stand out from their competitors and offer their customers the finest experiences. The better you can be compared to your competitors, the more you'll think about your user experience.
Language Challenges in Africa’s Diverse Culture
Jakob: How would you say the UX challenges in Africa differ from those in, let's say, the United States or Europe? Are they the same, or are they different?
Katherine: Although these issues aren't continent-specific, it’s true that Africa has its unique challenges. Two significant issues are digital literacy and internet accessibility.
Secondly, Africa's linguistic and cultural diversity presents unique challenges in UX design. Take Nigeria as an example; with over 500 languages, designing a product for just one country means accounting for hundreds of languages and diverse cultural nuances. This makes tasks like localizing UX content particularly challenging. While some companies are exploring localization, it's far from being a mainstream practice yet. This UX hurdle is less pronounced in the U.S., U.K., or Europe.
Jakob: Before we turn to Abel, I'd like to ask a follow-up question for Katherine, which relates to the languages. You mentioned there are about 500 languages in Nigeria. If you compare with Europe, in the European Union, they have 24 languages, so dramatically less. And even they have a hard time getting all those localizations done. So, what are the more realistic strategies? Because you mentioned there were a few companies that might do a lot of translation, but what do most companies do? Do they only use the biggest Nigerian language? Do they use English? Do they have a few languages they use? What are the main approaches?
Katherine: First, English is our lingua franca, but we also have three major languages: Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo, along with subsets of these languages. So, some products may be specifically targeted to one major language, and it'll be easier for them to serve those markets, even though I wouldn't say that's an all-inclusive solution.
Another observation I've made In terms of technology is that some products are moving beyond high-end digital experiences that require advanced smartphones. Now, they're adopting solutions like USSD codes, especially targeting rural areas and less tech-savvy individuals. Users can be educated in one sitting to use these codes to, for example, receive money from relatives. This approach simplifies interactions for those who aren't as technologically advanced.
Abel: Here in our country, it's quite the language puzzle, similar to the issue Kathrine mentioned. Ethiopia boasts over 100 languages, but we typically focus on a few major languages when it comes to recognition and localization. But the cultural diversity is where the real challenge lies. As you know, Africa can be a bit more conservative than other continents, which certainly influences our product development. Adapting to every culture can be tough when building something for such a diverse customer base. It's often more practical to create a standardized approach that can be at the core of every culture. But here's the kicker — a lot of folks around here have some misconceptions about UX. Many think it's all about making things pretty, creating flashy stuff, and building things that pop. We really need to spread the right message about UX and make this knowledge as accessible as possible. As Steve Jobs said, 'Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.' I'm all in for pushing this knowledge so that people truly understand its value.
Rich vs. Poor Users
Jakob: The next question is whether it seems like the UX projects in your countries are mainly targeting rich or middle-class people or they’re also working on making better designs for the broader population. People who are not rich or middle-class.
Abel: Absolutely; instead of primarily targeting the wealthy or the moderately well-off, most of our products are designed with the younger generation in mind. Africa boasts the highest number of young people globally, with an average age of around 19 and a median age of approximately 26. So, our products are tailor-made for these young minds, as they are open to learning and experiencing new things. It's clear that in the coming future, Africa will be leading in terms of its youth population. That's why we invest in young people, as they are the future, and that's where our business thrives. These young minds are the early adopters. However, there are also some exceptional products designed for rural areas. For instance, there are agritech products specifically tailored to help those who have less knowledge and need more guidance when it comes to using these products. It's all about making technology accessible to everyone.
Katherine: I've observed that businesses primarily target their solutions toward middle-class and affluent customers. Probably because they're the ones with disposable income to interact with products like financial services and e-commerce platforms. However, as I mentioned before, there are emerging solutions that focus on broader populations, including rural and low-income communities. These products are designed to work well on less advanced phones, considering not everyone has access to high-end smartphones or stable networks.
In my experience, while working at an agribusiness startup some years ago, our key objective was to make agricultural information and marketplaces accessible to smallholder farmers. We aimed to bridge the gap between farmers, buyers, and investors who were primarily middle-class or higher, by designing intuitive experiences that balanced the needs of both target audiences. This experience highlighted how products can serve both middle-class and low-income earners.
Abel: I've got to talk about M-PESA because it's just exceptional. In Kenya, from farmers and low-income folks to the most advanced and wealthy individuals, M-PESA is the go-to. There are very few products like M-PESA that have such wide coverage, and they practically run entire economies. I remember hearing the CEO of M-PESA Africa saying that if M-PESA were to crash for even a short time, it could have a ripple effect and crash an entire economy. Some products are just exceptional and serve a vast range of customers. It's incredible how they impact entire countries and their economies.
Katherine: Yeah, to summarize that point, while most digital products are targeted toward middle-class people, there seems to be a realization that good UX is not just for the affluent. It's a basic human need. So there's that growing recognition in the Nigerian and African landscape as a whole that good UX isn't a luxury but a necessity for everyone.
Jakob: Great. My next question is to really a follow-up to what you already mentioned, which is about designing for people in the countryside and farmers, compared to people in the cities. You already mentioned a few examples. Can you maybe talk a little bit more generally about designing for city people versus designing for country people?
Katherine: I've touched on some points already. A few months ago, I was a panelist on a project discussion at Colab tech hub about designing financial solutions for women, an initiative by Digital Kaduna in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. One insight I shared, which I'll share now, is when you're designing for locals, you should practice human-centered research. That's a concept I picked up from Don Norman. You have to go to the people, interact with them, understand their pain points in their own language. Don't make assumptions. The first point is prioritizing that kind of research. Don't just rely on existing research; go see for yourself.
I've seen some Nigerian founders do this lately. They go to marketplaces, interact with the women, and understand their needs. When I was working on an agriculture project, my team always invested time to actually go and meet with farmers to understand their needs and lifestyles better. The insights you gain this way directly influences the outcome of what you're designing.
And then there's localization. It's not just limited to digital products but can also influence marketing campaigns. For instance, I live in northern Nigeria, which is predominantly Muslim. The culture here is conservative in many ways, from dressing to other customs. You want that culture to be reflected in everything you're designing, from ads to communications and the UX of the product. The key is paying extra attention to detail to make product adoption really easy for everyone.
Abel: Building products for the countryside can be quite a challenge. You can't just assume things from the office. As Kathrine mentioned, you have to get out there, sit with the customers, and experience their lifestyle. It's a crucial part of the process. Consider the type of devices they use. In rural areas, feature phones are the norm, so that's something you always need to keep in mind. In my current company, we have a culture of going out to customers, visiting markets, and constantly observing how things work. You often stumble upon the strangest cases you hadn't even thought about. And when it comes to simplicity or security, you adjust accordingly.
I've heard a fascinating story from a Silicon Valley founder who built a product for the coffee value chain. She came to Ethiopia, lived in the countryside, and spent two years learning about every single step in the process, from crop cultivation to export. Only after that deep research did she create her product. So, going deep into the countryside requires less assumption and more research. Now, when it comes to building for more advanced users, it's usually easier. Younger people in our country are quite influenced by Western culture, and many products from Western countries set a standard that aligns with their expectations. It's a more straightforward process beyond that most of the designers nowadays are similar to advanced users.
Jakob: I also want to ask you about literacy and illiteracy, people who cannot read. In both of your countries, the government estimates that there are quite a lot of people who cannot read. The illiteracy rate is estimated at 31% in Nigeria and 48% in Ethiopia. Are there any initiatives to design user interfaces for people who cannot read, who are illiterate? Or are you just assuming users can read?
Katherine: No, not at all. Digital or general illiteracy poses a serious question. How do we make user interfaces accessible for people who can't read?
One approach is through the use of 'icon-first' or 'image-first' design, where pictures and universally recognized icons can help represent key actions and information. Of course, thorough research is essential because icons can have different meanings in different contexts. A Kenyan platform, "HelloPaisa," currently uses intuitive icons for sending and receiving money.
Another strategy is voice user interface design. In Nigeria, we have the U-Report initiative by UNICEF, where young people can voice their opinions on social issues through SMS.
In financial solutions, another approach could be using biometrics, facial recognition, or voice technology for Know Your Customer (KYC) requirements instead of filling out long forms.
Leveraging these alternatives means could make a significant difference for those who can't read.
Jakob: Actually, one follow-up question before we turn to Abel. So Katherine, you mentioned there were some icons that caused trouble that didn't work. Can you give an example of maybe a particularly striking example of an icon that did not work?
Katherine: Certainly! The most striking example I encountered wasn't actually an icon but an emoji. In a UX context, I discovered that the appearance of emojis can vary significantly between Apple and Android devices. This inconsistency can alter the user's interpretation and potentially cause confusion. The experience highlighted the importance of considering cultural nuances and the types of devices people use. It's crucial not to make assumptions about the universal understandability of an icon or emoji without proper research and testing.
One emoji was intended to be a cute animal, but it ended up looking rather unsettling. This experience served as a valuable lesson for me. Now, I'm cautious when incorporating emojis and icons, ensuring that their context is universally understood to avoid any negative user experiences.
Abel: Absolutely, Voice UI is a game-changer when it comes to helping illiterate people. They can speak their language and communicate effectively. Utilizing Voice UI is the best way to empower these individuals. Another thing that hasn't been mentioned yet is the use of USSD patterns. There's a strong culture of creating common patterns, especially in telecom and other companies with high USSD channel usage. For instance, if you want to send money, you might have a specific pattern like *444*4*2*recipient's number*amount*1#. These common patterns are designed with illiterate users in mind, making it easier for them to memorize and execute specific tasks. I've seen these patterns being used in markets, local stores, and various USSD products. People memorize them and use them for specific tasks, even if they don't fully understand the underlying technology. It's a practical approach to make technology accessible to a wide range of users.
Differences Between Countries
Jakob: We've seen a very high growth in UX in Brazil for about 10 years now. One big difference relative to Brazil is that it's three times richer than Nigeria and five times richer than Ethiopia. Do you think the only reason for this more significant growth in Brazil is that it is more affluent, or do you think there are other differences as well as the reason that Africa has only started with UX in the last few years?
Katherine: While Brazil may be more prosperous economically, I don't think money is the only growth factor. Speaking from the Nigerian lens, I'd also attribute it to educational infrastructure. Brazil has a very robust educational system. I read your publication on UX in Brazil and saw where they highlighted that even though there's a challenge in incorporating real-life opportunities, their educational systems are at least starting to include UX design and related disciplines. Over here, we don't have such formal college programs for UX yet. Most of us who are privileged to work in the field have spent hours on self-learning paths, and when we have the resources, we take courses and certifications. So, the learning curve is really steep. That's one of the factors.
Also, in terms of market maturity, Brazil is more mature when it comes to tech adoption. They have more recognition compared to Nigeria, which is catching up. And then, there's the factor of global influence. Geographically, where you're located can influence how things are moving. So that's another factor giving them high momentum compared to us in Africa, who are still catching up but will soon get there.
Abel: No doubt, I think the major reason behind this evolution is how tech is advancing. Over the past four or five years, Africa has seen a significant development in its tech ecosystem, and it's happening fast. Especially after the pandemic, most people have gotten connected to the Internet. I remember that having Internet at home used to be rare in my country before the pandemic. But during those times, connectivity started to surge, and technology was booming. This shift has opened up a whole new world for people to gain knowledge, learn about what's happening globally, and catch up with the rest of the world. I believe this is why the African UX scene is taking off a bit later compared to other regions. It's all about the timing and the pace of internet adoption, which has been a game-changer in recent years.
Jakob: I know you've been also working on projects in other African countries besides your own, so I wanted to ask you, do you think there are differences between the UX in Nigeria and Ethiopia compared to other African countries?
Katherine: Drawing from my experience working on projects whose solutions targeted Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Zambia, Uganda, and Tanzania. From my observations, the cultures are distinct, but the challenges, opportunities, and insights that influence the designs aren't vastly different, except for the language, of course. For instance, I am from Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa. Many of the products I've worked on, especially those led by people from other countries, aim to leverage the Nigerian market. So, they're designing for more than just Kenya, Tanzania, or Ghana but also considering scaling to populous countries like Nigeria.
In terms of tech talent, especially in UX research, writing, and design, much of it is coming out of Nigeria. I know several UX professionals in Nigeria who travel to other African countries like Rwanda to work on projects. So, aside from language differences, I don't think the experiences for different countries in Africa are significantly different.
Abel: Yeah, I agree with what Katherine said about the differences. The thing is, it's not about major differences in Africa, but more about regions and the cultures they're steeped in. If we look at the western part of Africa, countries like Ghana and Nigeria share some commonalities in their culture. So, if you build a business model or a product catering to that area, it's often easier to expand around there. Now, when you head to places like Kenya, Uganda, and South Africa, you find different commonalities, mostly shaped by their unique historical cultures.
But here's the twist — Ethiopia stands out as a pretty different and challenging market. When you compare it to other African countries, it's somewhat isolated in terms of its economy and has a distinct business culture. So, breaking into markets like this can be more challenging. In most of Africa, you can find some common ground to build upon. But in some countries, you're dealing with unique cultures and markets, which can present a whole different set of challenges.
Jakob: My next question is, can you talk about the influence of local culture on UX designs and in which ways the culture in your country impacts design?
Katherine: Nigeria is rich with diverse culture and over 500 languages. We're highly cultural. In UX design, I see some early-stage adoption integrating this culture, although it's more evident in brand and product packaging design where colors and typography come into play. There's an opportunity in UX that some are exploring, but it may not be overt due to challenges in measuring UX impact.
If we focus on fintech in Nigeria, cultural considerations are crucial, especially for women who face barriers accessing financial services due to existing norms around money and gender bias. When designing financial solutions targeting women, you need to account for these cultural considerations. I recall advising on this a few months ago, discussing the importance of demographics and the unique challenges women face in different regions.
To translate these challenges into a UX solution, extra security measures could be beneficial. The existing gender-based issues around money aim to prevent women from having financial control. So, a financial product designed for African women might need additional security features, addressing the archaic "my money is safer under my bed " mentality.
Another aspect is color choices in design. In Nigeria, blue is popular for fintech solutions, symbolizing transparency and safety. Similarly, green, inspired by our national flag, is widely used in agribusiness solutions, indicating abundance and richness.
So, there are numerous opportunities for incorporating local culture into UX design. These are areas I can speak to right now.
The Nigerian flag, drawn by Dall-E.
Abel: I've got to disagree on this one. In today's products, I don't think they're necessarily under the influence of culture. It's more about conservativeness or language barriers that might create this perception. But especially now, our products aren't strictly tied to any particular culture. When you're in a diverse country, it's nearly impossible to satisfy everyone. So, the strategy we often choose is to make things more standardized, which essentially means reducing the influence of culture. It's a way to try and cater to a broader audience and avoid favoring one culture over another.
UX Success Stories
Jakob: Do you have a particularly memorable case study or success story for user experience from either your country or from Africa, where things went well? When UX really worked, and you had a great design come out.
Katherine: I have one standout example to share. While working in-house with an agribusiness company, I got to both design and test content. This is different from consulting or freelancing, where you often deliver projects without later insights. Initially, the company relied heavily on social media for promotions. Especially during seasons when farm produce was up for investment or purchase. Users would click through to our e-commerce site from socials.
When I joined as a UX Content Developer, the first thing I tackled was revamping the e-commerce product descriptions. The existing language wasn't user-focused or actionable. There was also little attention to those tiny details that actually had a major impact. So, I leveraged user research and insights to revamp the copy and CTA links and buttons. The results? All slots to invest in farm produce for that season sold out upon opening.
Before this, my focus had been on SEO-optimized copy. I had seen clients' articles rank well in search results, reeling in more customers, but this was the first time I saw the end-to-end impact of content that was both findable and functional. This was a significant turning point in my career.
As we began developing a mobile app, I took on the information architecture among other tasks. We had a small team, but the work was fulfilling. Especially because we were making a social impact. The app turned out intuitive and user-friendly. These were key moments that have shaped my career up to now.
Jakob: That's a great success story. Abel, do you have one you want to share?
Abel: Yeah, here's a story that really made me realize the importance of UX. I used to work at a delivery company, and we had just launched a new version of our product. After the launch, we wanted to keep improving the user experience. We found out that many customers ordered food from the same place repeatedly, but there was a problem. If someone usually ordered food to their office and then wanted to place an order somewhere else, it was a hassle. So, we decided to add a feature that allowed users to pick a previous location. Imagine a customer who usually orders food for their office and then wants to place an order for someone else's office — it was a hassle.
So, we decided to optimize this user experience by giving an option to choose a previous location as a major feature. We discussed, planned, designed, and implemented it, and then came the launch. Chaos ensued. Cancellations went up, and our conversion rates dropped. We had to quickly figure out what went wrong. After diving into the data, we found a pattern. Most customers ordered from home on weekends and from their office during the week. They'd link the 'previous location' to their home when at the office and vice versa. Our UI highlighted 'previous location' too much, so we needed to fix that. We went through troubleshooting, iterations, and created a better solution. Our conversion rates recovered, and our optimization worked. This story taught me a valuable lesson — messing up UX can really hurt your business. It was a big 'aha' moment for me.
Katherine: Just to add to what Abel has said. It's hard to discuss success stories in Africa or Nigeria without mentioning Flutterwave, the Nigerian fintech company. Their payment technology platform is really one of the best. What's made their UX a success is recognizing the diversity of the African market. They've taken steps to localize their service to cater to different payment methods in different countries, which is commendable. They're operating across several African countries, and their UX approach takes into account local behavior, currency preferences, and language. It's impressive and a UX success story that inspires me.
UX Beyond the Digital Sphere
Jakob: That's great to hear. So we've talked a lot about Fintech, but also in general about a lot of digital services, websites, telecommunications and such. Do you see any applications of UX in non-digital design? So for example healthcare, public services, retail, or other places that are not in the digital world?
Katherine: Yes, absolutely, I do see this, especially in terms of accessibility, which aligns with UX principles. There's a big shift happening, not just in digital spaces but also physical ones. Take hospitals, for example. When I walk into a hospital and see wheelchair-friendly facilities, wider corridors, and ramps at the entrance, it shows that the design is accommodating for everyone, regardless of their abilities. That's particularly notable in healthcare settings.
In the retail sector, we have significant players like Jumia in the e-commerce space. They could solely focus on their online presence but choose to maintain accessible physical locations. So if you happen to miss a delivery date or notification, you have the option of visiting a physical store. Knowing that there's a nearby location to pick up my item reduces stress and enhances the overall experience. It's about making life better for everyone, whether it's digital or not. So, that's where I see these principles coming into play.
Abel: Absolutely, when I think about UX, it's like telling a story to me. You're essentially narrating a story for the customer and guiding them through an experience. It's a concept you can apply to pretty much anything. We need more advanced storytelling and guidance for our users in various industries. In some cases, I like to call it CX, which stands for customer experience, and it has a broader scope than UX. But at its core, this concept can be applied to any industry. It's all about streamlining workflows and guiding people effectively through your business. It's an essential element that transcends specific fields.
Jakob: My next question relates to artificial intelligence. Are you seeing the adaptation of AI and how is it impacting your UX design?
Katherine: At present, the application of AI in Nigeria is most prevalent in the finance and e-commerce sectors. For instance, banks are using customer service chatbots to significantly improve user experience by providing quick, automated responses to customer queries.
Currently, AI's role in enhancing UX largely revolves around automating repetitive tasks. However, there are also exploratory opportunities that I and others are leveraging. In UX, what I do as a writer can sometimes be repetitive. So generative AI can come in handy during the ideation and brainstorming stages to scale up idea generation and free up time for activities that require more thought.
Although, it is crucial to recognize that UX writing is not just about text generation; it is contextual, a height AI is yet to attain.
I've also explored AI for research and comprehension tests, like using Otter.ai to transcribe voice notes from research sessions into scripts and Natural Voice AI to test the coherent flow of content before it goes live.
I've also shared some of these findings and insights about AI for UX Writing with my product and content design team at Toptal, which I later published on my website.
I believe there's an opportunity for UX professionals to be at the forefront of discussions around AI, especially concerning ethical considerations. How an AI sounds or looks to people should be a concern for UX professionals. I see a lot of opportunities for UX to improve the interfaces of some of these AI tools, which currently might not offer the best experience.
AI is still evolving, and more opportunities will emerge in the coming months and years.
Abel: On my end, AI is something we're gradually catching up with. It's become crucial, especially for someone like me working as a one-man team in UX design in Africa. Here, you handle everything related to design, and it's often like being a whole department by yourself. So, AI becomes a lifeline to simplify tasks and daily workflows. One area where AI shines for me is UX writing and content design. Meeting Katherine today has been great because there's a big gap when it comes to copywriters and content designers. When you have multiple projects and a pile of things to do, diving deep into content becomes challenging. So, these days, I'm using generative AI to create context-specific content, saving a lot of time and effort. In terms of technology, we don't have to go through each and every step. It's more of a quantum leap. That's the advantage in Africa; we can catch up and build on what we have. There's a lot of potential and growth ahead. AI adoption is on the rise. As for worries about AI taking our jobs, in UX, it's highly unlikely. UX is deeply connected to human experience, so I don't doubt it will replace us. Instead, I look forward to AI enhancing our daily lives and tasks.
Jakob: Great, I love that optimistic view. I want to ask about UX education in Nigeria and Ethiopia. How do you see UX education evolving?
Abel: Ethiopia hasn't made significant strides in UX yet, to be honest. Most emerging UX designers, including myself, gather their knowledge from the internet. There's a lot of work to be done if we want to bring more people into the UX industry. It's a tough road ahead because, as mentioned earlier, our UX industry is still relatively new, and we professionals are also busy trying to expand our knowledge. For me, I know there's a lot more to learn about UX. As I delve deeper into this field, it might get trickier to teach others, but we do our best to mentor and support our fellow peers.
Katherine: Indeed, there are challenges in accessing structured and specialized UX materials. Issues like exchange rates and payment platforms can be barriers. Many people opt for a self-taught path, using whatever resources they can find online. Abel mentioned this, and it's true.
While senior UX professionals are trying to bridge this gap by sharing their knowledge online, as Abel mentioned, balancing career advancement while sharing knowledge can be overwhelming for some.
I share my expertise on social media, but not everyone can manage that. Still, I enjoy content marketing and sharing what I know.
There are some positives, however. Platforms like Udemy are accessible and affordable, although their courses aren't specialized. I've also seen localized boot camps rising. A while back, I even participated in a UX design boot camp at Colab, a tech hub in my local city, Kaduna State. We learned UX methodologies and designed solutions for local initiatives. There are others like Utiva as well.
Also, most tech hubs in Nigeria constantly organize meetups, hackathons, and fireside chats where people can learn about UX for the first time. I co-organized the first-ever UX Writing Meetup in my local city, and we pulled a lot of several UX aspirants and adjacent professionals.
So, there is progress, but it could be more structured, which is one of the key challenges, which is why I began the UX Content Champ Academy for aspiring and existing UX professionals interested in content design. While I can't solve all the UX disciplines, I hope others take up the challenge to create more structured learning pathways for other UX fields, as I've done for UX Writing.
Lastly, mentorship platforms like ADPList have been valuable. I mentor on the platform and have spent over 500 mentorship minutes with mentees from Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, the US, India, and more. It helps bridge the gap between aspiring UX professionals and industry experts.
While there's still much to be done, things are falling into place in Nigeria and Africa. It could be better, but it's evolving.
Jakob: Regarding languages, do you think there is an issue about having UX information in your local languages, or is it acceptable that it is all in English?
Katherine: As Abel mentioned, the main challenge is accessing course materials. Industry professionals are often at full capacity. In UX in Africa, the more skills you have, the more you earn. So many professionals are already stretched thin and might need more mental bandwidth to create or even think about localizing course material. There's definitely a barrier there.
In Nigeria, even though English is our official language, we have over 500 languages. Where do we start? I see more opportunities to impact the younger generation; as Abel mentioned earlier, they tend to be more interested and fascinated by technology and its potential.
I've considered collaborating with tech hubs or institutions during summer camps or holidays and giving them access to the UX Content Champ UX Writing Academy course curriculum to help groom their UX writing skills from a young age. But to make a real impact, we have to start with those who speak English. I have yet to make significant strides in that direction because it's a larger issue. However, I know there's an opportunity for innovation. I've heard discussions about localizing UX material beyond English, although I can't specify which community or institution is spearheading that right now.
Abel: Localization can pose a significant challenge, particularly in a field that's continually evolving. When you're dealing with innovative concepts, it can be tough to find equivalent terms or create entirely new vocabulary in local languages. This presents a real hurdle when we aim to make this evolving knowledge accessible to broader audiences by translating it into local languages.
Job Market: Too Few Senior UX Staff
Jakob: I'd like to talk about the job market, the UX job market. Is it competitive? How easy or how difficult is it to get a job in UX?
Katherine: I'd say the job market in Nigeria is currently in between — early this year, it was increasingly competitive, but then the job market got hit worldwide. However, I still believe it's becoming more competitive due to growing demand. When companies see competitors doing something they're not — especially in tech — they immediately open positions for UX writers and designers.
I've also seen significant job announcements from my mentees and audience on Twitter and LinkedIn, which is a good indicator.
In terms of education, there's a demand for highly qualified senior talent, but supply is limited. I believe if you go above and beyond to upskill with the in-demand skills and certifications, there's nothing stopping you.
The fintech, e-commerce, and healthcare ecosystem is expanding, creating more demand for UX professionals.
Lastly, Nigerian tech talents are gaining a lot of international exposure regarding global opportunities. Companies are increasingly indifferent to whether the talent is local or remote — if you're good, they want you. That's also affecting the local job market. For example, I'm currently in Nigeria but working with the world's largest talent company, and I'm able to contribute both internationally and locally. I've seen many positive job announcements lately, so I believe the market is recovering and will continue to improve.
Abel: In terms of job openings in the UX industry, there is some growth, but limited, considering the global economic structure. The field is expanding, but it's not experiencing a dramatic surge. As I mentioned earlier, the challenge often lies in the fact that many businesses haven't fully grasped the value of UX and thus, haven't prioritized it in their boardrooms. This can make it somewhat challenging to secure UX roles unless they face stiff competition from other companies. On the flip side, as you move up the seniority ladder in this relatively new industry, the competition tends to decrease. The pool of senior candidates in UX is still relatively small, but it's rich in talent and innovation. Over the last few years, we've seen a substantial increase in individuals entering the UX pipeline. I recall the times when I started working four or five years ago; finding a UX designer with even basic knowledge was a challenge. So, in terms of competition, as you progress in seniority, it often becomes less intense. On the other hand, the job market in the UX industry is rapidly accelerating. I believe that as the global economic landscape improves, there will be more job openings and an array of opportunities for aspiring candidates.
Jakob: Continuing about the job market, what skills are most in demand for UX professionals?
Katherine: In Nigeria, I can confirm that UI, UX, and UX writing are in high demand. On our X, formerly Twitter trend tables, there are days when you'll see UI and UX trending because of the volume of conversations happening around it. This high demand for skillful talent in UX writing comes as businesses are more focused than ever on enhancing their digital interfaces. They're actively looking for designers who are proficient in tools like Figma. You'll see these job openings at companies like Flutterwave and Paystack.
In terms of UX writing, demand has escalated especially in sectors like fintech, healthcare, and e-commerce. These are areas where even the microcopy is considered an integral part of the user experience. I can also share some insights from the UX Writing Academy, UX Content Champ. I get a range of questions and direct messages on LinkedIn and social media platforms. Whether they're complete newbies or enthusiasts, people are asking, "What is this UX thing that's always trending?" I often have to explain, and they'll schedule another call because they're genuinely interested. So, yes, UI design, UX, and UX writing skills are highly sought after.
Abel: Indeed, UI/UX design is in high demand across Africa. However, in terms of skills and priorities, many African companies tend to lean more towards visual design. It's a common trend to emphasize visual design as a driving force for the product. While we might refer to it as UI/UX design in general, the approach often skews more towards being a visual-heavy designer rather than a UX-heavy one. This means that the aesthetic and visual aspects of design are particularly important in the African context.
Jakob: Do UX people in your countries collaborate with other UX people in other African countries? Or is it more isolated within the countries? Is there continent-wide UX community or is it each country on its own?
Katherine: For me, there's still an opportunity for deeper connection and collaboration. The main times I've collaborated with UX professionals from other African countries was while working for a company. In a company setting, you naturally have diverse people from diverse backgrounds. Freelancing or starting out on your own, however, the communities aren't as collaborative or connected yet.
Referencing the ADPList platform again, while it doesn't necessarily foster any collaborative work per se, it does allow for connection with UX and design professionals in different parts of Africa. It counts for something to say, "I have mentees in Ghana," for example. There's an opportunity, but it's still emerging.
As for open-source projects, I have yet to be a part of any specifically focused on Africa. I've been involved in some with our friends in Europe. But I know there are open-source projects here in Africa. The thing is, these projects are more developer-focused than UX-focused. If there could be a shift towards UX, that would create a valuable avenue for people from different African countries to come together, collaborate, and connect.
Abel: Indeed, Katherine's observation is spot on. The reality is that we, as UX designers in Africa, often find ourselves in a somewhat isolated situation. We lack the established communication channels or networks that are prevalent in other parts of the world. To connect with fellow African UX designers and peers, our primary means are through social media platforms. We engage in discussions, understand their products, and try to grasp their design processes. The more significant avenue for interaction is if you happen to work for a multinational company that operates across multiple countries, including African nations. However, these multinational companies are relatively rare in the African context. Unless you're fortunate enough to work for one of these companies, it's a challenge to establish direct communication and collaboration with other African UX designers. Instead, we often resort to understanding their work by following their activities on social media.
Future of UX in Africa
Jakob: I’d like to turn to the future here at the end of the interview: What is your prediction for the future of user experience, both in your countries and in Africa, for the next 5 to 10 years?
Katherine: Given the rising momentum in tech and UX, I expect increased investment from both local and foreign companies in UX talent from Nigeria and across Africa. Our talent pool is promising, as are the products being designed and developed. I see a future for a more mature, diversified, yet specialized UX industry. I'm a firm believer in the T-shaped career model, where individuals thrive by having a core specialization alongside multidisciplinary skills that help them collaborate.
I anticipate a trend where talent understands various aspects of UX, like information architecture, user research, user journey mapping, and testing, and can contribute on all fronts in the product development stages. I also see the emergence of roles in voice UI and conversational design. Given the right resources, I hope talents will be inspired to conduct more human-centered research locally, building portfolios rich in African perspectives.
As tech markets in Nigeria, and other African countries evolve, there will be greater demand for our talents on the local and global stage. This should amplify our voices and allow us to give back to our communities. While the profession is still gaining momentum, I expect UX and User Research to become well-defined in Nigeria in the next five to ten years. It will move beyond just aesthetics to become a business initiative. We'll develop formulas to measure the impact of our UX efforts and earn a proper seat at the table with stakeholders.
Abel: I truly believe that Africa is poised to be the next big thing. If we look at the data trends, Africa is set to become one of the most significant populations of young people in the world. When we observe this trajectory, it's evident that Africa is where the future lies. Even now, we already have remarkable talents on the continent, individuals with exceptional capabilities who are making a substantial impact on an international scale. Moreover, the upcoming generation, those who will take the reins in the next four, five, or six years, are full of promise. They've grown up with the internet and technology as integral parts of their lives, which means we can expect a surge of smart and innovative talents to emerge in the coming years. These individuals will play a pivotal role in shaping the UX landscape and the broader tech ecosystem in Africa. In the tech world, there's a concept known as 'NBU,' which stands for 'Next Billion Users.' Africa represents this NBU, and it's where we'll witness the development of the next fascinating products, the rise of a substantial economy, and numerous exciting innovations. I firmly believe that Africa is on the verge of something extraordinary in the near future, and Africa is the future indeed.
Jakob: I love that expansionist and optimistic vision. I'm sure it will come true. Many people will get excited about our UX future, particularly in Africa. Thank you very much for sharing all your insights in this interview.