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Arab World special section: Hot topics

ArabHCI: Five Years and Counting


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hand holding Ramadan lantern, illustration

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ArabHCI is an initiative that started in 2016 to promote Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) research and education in Arab countries, and to build a community of Arab and non-Arab researchers interested in the Arab context (https://arabhci.org). Notably, the inception team consisted of all Arab female researchers.

The Arab world consists of 22 countries across Asia and Africa and is considered one of the world's most strategic territories to host renowned political events such as the Arab Spring and the refugee crisis; all of which featured unique appropriations of existing social media technologies. The initiation of ArabHCI was largely motivated by concerns about how Arab users have been sometimes misrepresented in global HCI research that focused on these events. The diversity and cultural richness of the region were not fully communicated to Western technology makers. Therefore, our research agenda was set to increase the visibility of local HCI researchers' perspectives and expertise and to explore the methodological means by which the authentic voices of Arab users could be included in the technology design processes.2


Cultural values must be incorporated within systems to ensure their adaptability and success.


HCI courses are gaining more popularity in Arab academic institutions despite the fact that HCI's interdisciplinary nature and its link to humanities and art make it challenging for computer science educators to introduce it to students. One of Arab-HCI goals is to promote a broader and deeper teaching agenda that goes beyond a focus on user interface guidelines. HCI concepts, we believe, could be integrated when students are taught about emerging technologies such as wearable devices, virtual/augmented reality, brain-computer interfaces, and autonomous vehicles. A smooth interaction design is essential to the success of these technologies. Additionally, to help students grasp the different means by which users could be engaged in the design, it is important to introduce design methods as well as quantitative and qualitative research to HCI curricula.

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Figure. Attendees of the CHI'19 Diversity Lunch held in Glasgow, Scotland.

Since its inception, ArabHCI has embarked on a journey to establish an intercultural dialogue between the global HCI community—a.k.a. Western technology designers—and Arab HCI researchers. At the core of this dialogue is our commitment to communicate the contextual challenges hindering Arab researchers from participating in the global HCI community to the ACM Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction (SIGCHI). We contributed to SIGCHI's decisions of providing a reduced fee for emerging economies and offering an early career researcher mentorship program. ArabHCI's inauguration and success as a regional initiative were featured twice in the diversity and inclusion events at the SIGCHI flagship conference in 2017 and 2019.

Furthermore, four research-focused meetings were hosted at top HCI international conferences that encouraged an exchange of views between Arab and non-Arab HCI researchers. The 46 papers presented in those workshops depicted HCI research in 10 Arab countries: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Palestine, Lebanon, Morocco, Jordan, Syria, and Qatar. Non-Arab researchers participated from the U.S., U.K., Germany, Denmark, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, and Iran. Following the success of these workshops, ArabHCI members were invited to edit a special topic to promote their work with Arab users to the global audience in ACM Interactions magazine.5

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Figure. A poster depicting the vision of and events hosted by ArabHCI.

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Distinctive ArabHCI Research

Community discussions revealed some underlying Western assumptions about Arab users that do not translate to reality. Thus, it is important to establish the unique characteristics of the Arab communities that distinguish Arab from Western users and design digital technologies to cater to them. Here, we discuss efforts by Arab and non-Arab researchers to highlight some of the appropriations of Western design methods they had to make to suit the Arab context.

Assumptions and realities. International researchers, when adapting their systems to Arabic, have often simply translated the interfaces. While this is usable, it does not provide for a quality user experience. Cultural values must be incorporated within systems to ensure their adaptability and success. For example, when designing social networking websites, the English word "friend" has 26 different translations in Arabic, choosing which translation to use in context influences the design acceptance.

Most Arabs are very in touch with their religion and universal designs do not accommodate for that. Some Arab users reported they do not mark a Facebook event as "going" and instead use "interested" even if they are certain they will attend. The provided explanation was that all future events in their offline life are followed by the sentence "God willing," which is an option that is not reflected online through Facebook. Religion is a significant driver for Arab Muslims' behavior as it appeared in how they integrate it into their online practices; for example, using the Holy Quran during tweets.1 This behavior, after investigation, was interpreted as an act of worship since social media accounts could extend beyond their lifetime and so are considered good places to share good deeds.

Another significant marker of Arab cultures is gender differences, while this might be known, the details of how it influences technology use is not incorporated in Western designs. Saleh et al.9 reported that Arab women are concerned with their reputation and have greater requirements for privacy protection of their personal data. All these considerations and more only touch the surface of the depth and richness of the Arab culture. It is also important to note that not all Arab countries are the same in terms of cultural practices, there is a large spectrum from conservative cultures like Saudi Arabia to secular cultures like Lebanon.2 Designers should be cautious about generalizing lessons learned from one country to another.

Unique design methods for Arab users. While technology design has established Western-originated methods, researchers encountered several challenges when implementing them in the Arab context. Giglitto et al.3 found that when using participatory design methods with Egyptian Bedouins, the participants were constantly cautious about making mistakes that will portray them as incompetent, as opposed to Western participants who may enjoy the process of prototyping. What appeared as extra cautiousness stems from a culture that is grounded in problem avoidance since a capable Bedouin would secure grazing areas in the desert before bringing the sheep. These findings were echoed by Saleh and Sturm10 during their work with low-literate Egyptians on a simple oral survey. Their participants were hesitant to answer questions in fear of giving wrong answers despite being assured there were no right or wrong answers.

Another challenge faced by Nassir and Leong8 was the difficulty encountered during conducting in-home interviews due to the busy nature of the Saudi homes and the large number of people in the home. To overcome these challenges, the authors introduced cultural probes that have assisted them with this unique Arab problem. Other methods were employed such as diaries, social media as a communication channel between participants and researchers, and seeking the help of chaperons as co-researchers.

Another unique take to a rather prominent problem is participant recruitment. While normally this is challenging for any researcher, participant recruitment in the Arab world has added complexity, especially when recruiting female participants. Nassir et al.7 discuss this extensively, noting that in the conservative Saudi society, the male guardians of female participants may not approve of their communication even with female researchers. This issue has been reported across multiple studies and is usually quite challenging to resolve.


The Arab context has unexplored design spaces to which technology must be tailored.


Last but not least, the Arab context has unexplored design spaces to which technology must be tailored. One example is the annual Hajj pilgrimage where millions of Muslims visit Makkah for a few weeks. This distinctive gathering has special arrangements and therefore special requirements should be investigated on the ground as shown by Majrashi,6 who proposed unique technology solutions. Another impactful issue is the work done with refugees to explore their use of digital technologies. One of the noteworthy examples of this work is conducted by members of the ArabHCI community to investigate participatory design challenges with such marginalized communities.4

In the presence of such complex socio-technical system dynamics, an insider perspective can be very helpful in adapting existing research methodologies and generating results with and for the Arab communities.

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Conclusion

Thanks to our small community, Arab students and faculty interested in learning about HCI have a platform to connect with established HCI researchers. ArabHCI community's collective knowledge is a useful resource for Western designers who wish to scrutinize their assumptions and methods before conducting research in the region. It could be leveraged to increase their familiarity with the context if they were to judge work done by Arab scholars. We plan to add more high-quality articles to our resources through editing special issues in top HCI journals. Additionally, future efforts will focus on organizing local events to grow technical HCI capacity in Arab countries.

Acknowledgments. We thank all ArabHCI workshop organizers, workshop participants, and the global HCI community members for actively engaging with us.

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References

1. Abokhodair, N., Elmadany, A., and Magdy, W. Holy tweets: Exploring the sharing of the Quran on Twitter. In Proceedings of the ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact. 4, Article 159 (Oct. 2020); https://doi.org/10.1145/3415230

2. Alabdulqader, E., Abokhodair, N. and Lazem, S. Human-computer interaction across the Arab world. In Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conf. Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, NY, USA, 1356–1359; https://doi.org/10.1145/3027063.3049280

3. Giglitto, D., Lazem, S. and Presto, A. In the eye of the student: An intangible cultural heritage experience, with a human-computer interaction twist. In Proceedings of the 2018 CHI Conf. Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, NY, USA, Article 290, 1–12; https://doi.org/10.1145/3173574.3173864

4. Krüger, M., Duarte, A.B., Weibert, A., Aal, K., Talhouk, R. and Metatla, O. What is participation? Emerging challenges for participatory design in globalized conditions. Interactions 26, 3 (May–June 2019), 50–54; https://doi.org/10.1145/3319376

5. Lazem, S., Alabdulqader, E. and Khamis, M. Introduction to ArabHCI Special Topic. Interactions 26, 3 (May–June 2019), 41–43; https://doi.org/10.1145/3320109

6. Majrashi, K. User need and experience of Hajj mobile and ubiquitous systems: Designing for the largest religious annual gathering. Cogent Engineering 5, 1 (2018); http://doi.org/10.1080/23311916.2018.1480303

7. Nassir, S., Al-Dawood, A., Alghamdi, E. and Alyami, E. 'My guardian did not approve!' Stories from fieldwork in Saudi Arabia. Interactions 26, 3 (May–June 2019), 44–49; https://doi.org/10.1145/3318145.

8. Nassir, S. and Leong, T.W. Traversing boundaries: Understanding the experiences of ageing Saudis. In Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conf. Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, NY, USA, 6386–6397; https://doi.org/10.1145/3025453.3025618

9. Saleh, M., Khamis, M. and Sturm, C. What about my privacy, Habibi? INTERACT 2019. D. Lamas, F. Loizide, L. Nacke, H. Petrie, M. Winckler, and P. Zaphiris (eds). LNCS 11748. Springer, Cham; https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-29387-1_5

10. Saleh, M. and Sturm, C. Exploring the effect of literacy on signs in GUI design. In Proceedings of the 2nd African Conf. Human-Computer Interaction: Thriving Communities (2018). ACM, New York, NY, USA, Article 21, 1–5; https://doi.org/10.1145/3283458.3283534

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Authors

Shaimaa Lazem is an associate professor for the City of Scientific Research and Technology Applications (SRTA-city) Alexandria, Egypt.

Mennatallah Saleh is a Steering Committee member of the Cairo ACM SIGCHI Chapter (CairoCHI), Egypt.

Ebtisam Alabdulqader is an assistant professor for CCIS, King Saud University Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.


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