Self-taught front-end de­vel­oper and UI de­signer Ire Aderi­nokun dis­cusses build­ing sites for the next bil­lion users

Self-taught front-end de­vel­oper and UI de­signer Ire Aderi­nokun on build­ing sites for the next bil­lion users, en­abling Nige­ri­ans to trade cryp­tocur­rency in­stantly and go­ing from tin­ker­ing with a fan site for on­line game Neopets to speak­ing at events all ov

net magazine - - CONTENTS - Words by Oliver Lindberg

Un­like many of us, Ire Aderi­nokun has ex­pe­ri­enced first-hand what it’s like to de­velop web­sites for the much-talked about next bil­lion users – peo­ple who are com­ing on­line for the first time in coun­tries such as In­dia, In­done­sia, Brazil and Nige­ria, where Aderi­nokun lives.

“One of the most an­noy­ing things about Nige­ria is the lack of con­sis­tent in­ter­net,” Aderi­nokun ex­plains. “If it rains heav­ily, for ex­am­ple, the in­ter­net will not work very well and you just need to ac­cept that. I have four or five dif­fer­ent ISPs in my house. When one doesn’t work, I just use an­other one. It’s a lot of patch­work.”

Peo­ple also tend to use very dif­fer­ent de­vices (typ­i­cally low-end mo­biles) and browsers than those in de­vel­oped na­tions, while two-thirds of users in Nige­ria are on 2G. For Aderi­nokun, who went to school and univer­sity in Eng­land, where she got used to fast, re­li­able in­ter­net con­nec­tions, that was the big­gest shock on her re­turn to Nige­ria.

“I was work­ing for a com­pany here in La­gos and in Google An­a­lyt­ics I saw that maybe 20 per cent of the users were us­ing Opera Mini,” she re­mem­bers. “I wasn’t even aware of that browser at the time! I down­loaded it, opened up the busi­ness's site in Opera Mini and al­most ev­ery­thing was bro­ken!”

This prompted Aderi­nokun to think a lot more about the dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ences peo­ple have and test more on real de­vices and browsers. It also helped her un­der­stand how ev­ery as­pect of writ­ing and serv­ing CSS im­pacts the user, in­clud­ing the se­lec­tors and prop­er­ties you use, the or­der you write CSS and how the styles are even­tu­ally de­liv­ered. She found that pro­gres­sive en­hance­ment and per­for­ma­tive CSS were the fun­da­men­tal things to con­sider.

“It’s easy to view and test your sites in Chrome and Fire­fox but that’s not nec­es­sar­ily what our users are on,” Aderi­nokun ex­plains. “I’ve learned to shift my mind­set and not just go for the bet­ter de­vel­oper ex­pe­ri­ence and use the lat­est cool thing. For ex­am­ple, Flexbox has just been in­tro­duced to Opera Mini but CSS Grid isn’t there yet. There were times when I wanted to do some­thing in Grid but I re­alised that the users were on Opera Mini and that I could achieve the same thing in Flexbox, which al­lowed me to make an in­formed de­ci­sion.”

But Aderi­nokun points out that it’s not just about emerg­ing mar­kets. “There’s just a dif­fer­ent user base on the in­ter­net to­day,” she ex­plains. “Twenty years ago, maybe 99 per cent of your users were on desk­top ma­chines, in the US or Europe, male and very well versed in tech­nol­ogy. It was a small sub­set of the ac­tual pop­u­la­tion of the world but the de­mo­graphic we’re tar­get­ing to­day is grow­ing in both quan­tity and di­ver­sity. For ex­am­ple, you can’t guar­an­tee that peo­ple in ru­ral ar­eas, even in the US, have a fast in­ter­net con­nec­tion. You can’t guar­an­tee much about any­thing any­more. We are now deal­ing with a huge spec­trum of users that have so many vary­ing needs, from peo­ple who use as­sis­tive tech­nol­ogy to browse web pages to peo­ple who browse those same pages on $50 mo­bile phones. So the next bil­lion users is a shift in the mind­set of how you see your users. Nowa­days, we’re ac­tu­ally tar­get­ing a pop­u­la­tion that’s more in line with the ac­tual hu­man pop­u­la­tion rather than just a sub­set of it.”

The best and most mal­leable sites, there­fore, are built with as few as­sump­tions about the end user as pos­si­ble. This doesn’t mean your site needs to work for ab­so­lutely every­one. Aderi­nokun ad­vises to start with know­ing your ac­tual user base. “If you’re build­ing a site that’s sup­posed to be viewed by the aver­age per­son in Nige­ria, for ex­am­ple, that’s a com­pletely dif­fer­ent web­site than if you’re try­ing to build sites for the aver­age per­son in the US. Know­ing your user base helps a lot be­cause it nar­rows down who you’re build­ing for, even though any­one in the world can ac­cess it.”

Aderi­nokun has al­ways been in­ter­ested in tech­nol­ogy. In pri­mary school she made lap­tops out of paper and first got into build­ing web­sites through on­line game Neopets when she was just 14. She was so ob­sessed with the game that she built her own fan site, us­ing some ba­sic HTML, to share graph­ics she cre­ated in GIMP for peo­ple to down­load. She was en­thralled by the process of cre­at­ing the site and spent hours im­prov­ing it.

At the time, how­ever, most peo­ple (in­clud­ing her par­ents) con­sid­ered it to be just a hobby and not some­thing to be pur­sued

pro­fes­sion­ally. As she ex­plains in her Su­perYesMore ar­ti­cle An Un­ex­pected Jour­ney, when she ap­plied for one school in Eng­land, the head­mas­ter told her that she was “not the kind of per­son we are look­ing for”, be­cause spend­ing so much time on a com­puter made her seem like “some­one who doesn’t have any friends”.

Tem­po­rar­ily put off by this crush­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, she ended up study­ing first ex­per­i­men­tal psy­chol­ogy at Bris­tol univer­sity and then law. But it was while at univer­sity that she be­come aware you could ac­tu­ally study com­puter science and pro­gram­ming. Aderi­nokun de­cided to give it a shot and started tin­ker­ing around with web­sites again, teach­ing her­self with the help of on­line tu­to­ri­als, cour­ses like Codecademy and Udac­ity and by study­ing other peo­ple’s code. “One of the things that I love about be­ing a front-end de­vel­oper is that ev­ery­thing is pub­lic,” she en­thuses. “If I see some­thing on a web­site that I don’t know how to do, I can just in­spect it and fig­ure it out.”

Aderi­nokun also started con­tribut­ing to open source and work­ing on per­sonal projects and set up her blog bit­sof­code ( bit­sofco.de) as a way to build up her skills and con­trib­ute to the com­mu­nity. “I chal­lenged my­self to learn some­thing new and write an ar­ti­cle about it ev­ery sin­gle week, which then could also be used to teach some­one else. I told my­self that if no­body ever reads my blog, it’s still use­ful be­cause it’s an archive for all the things that I’ve learned.”

For­tu­nately Aderi­nokun’s no­tion that peo­ple might not read her blog turned out to be com­pletely un­founded. Her ar­ti­cles – over 100 and count­ing – have gath­ered half a mil­lion page views each year and to date her news­let­ter has at­tracted 3,000 sub­scribers. It put her on the map and led to her first ma­jor speak­ing gig at Fron­teers in Am­s­ter­dam two years ago. “At that point I hadn’t re­ally spo­ken at con­fer­ences at all, only at one in Nige­ria,” Aderi­nokun ex­plains. “And that one was a very small meetup here in La­gos, so Fron­teers was so scary! It was a com­pletely dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence be­cause I knew I was go­ing to be speak­ing in front of peo­ple who were much more ad­vanced than the au­di­ence in Nige­ria.”

An­other big step was be­ing se­lected as a Google de­vel­oper ex­pert in 2006. Aderi­nokun had heard about the pro­gram at a Women

“20 years ago, maybe 99 per cent of users were in the US or Europe and male; the de­mo­graphic we’re tar­get­ing to­day is grow­ing in both quan­tity and di­ver­sity”

Tech­mak­ers event in La­gos, ap­plied and be­came the sec­ond ex­pert in Nige­ria. Not only did this give her val­i­da­tion and re­sult in more in­vites to con­fer­ences all over the world, it also en­abled her to travel to events like the Chrome Dev Sum­mit and Google Ex­perts Sum­mit and will see her present a talk on CSS for the next bil­lion users at Pixel Pi­o­neers Belfast in Novem­ber (her first speak­ing en­gage­ment at a UK con­fer­ence).

But her blog wasn’t just the first step on a phys­i­cal jour­ney: it also played a big part in Aderi­nokun over­com­ing im­poster syn­drome. Be­ing self-taught and work­ing alone for the most part made her un­sure of whether what she was do­ing was cor­rect and caused her to doubt her abil­i­ties. “The writ­ing re­ally helped,” she says. “The more I wrote and the more at­ten­tion my blog got, the more peo­ple said they liked what I was writ­ing and that it helped them. I still get im­poster syn­drome but I re­mind my­self that it’s okay to not know ev­ery­thing. So, for ex­am­ple, I haven’t done much work with Re­act, which peo­ple al­ways talk about, but I know An­gu­lar. That’s the frame­work I usu­ally work with and you don’t have to know ev­ery sin­gle frame­work.”

Last year Aderi­nokun de­cided to leave the me­dia com­pany in La­gos she had been work­ing at as head of tech­nol­ogy and be­gan look­ing for a new chal­lenge. How­ever, her blind ap­pli­ca­tions were re­jected. It was only when she tweeted that she was look­ing for a job that com­pa­nies be­gan ac­tively court­ing her. One of them was eyeo, a Ger­man com­pany that pro­duces open source soft­ware like Ad­block Plus, which is ar­guably the most pop­u­lar browser ex­ten­sion ever with over 500 mil­lion down­loads. As a pas­sion­ate open­source ad­vo­cate, Aderi­nokun quickly jumped at the op­por­tu­nity.

Aderi­nokun’s lat­est project is a cryp­tocur­rency ex­change for Africa called BuyCoins ( buycoins.africa); co-founded by her and a friend, the startup has just com­pleted Y Com­bi­na­tor’s Sum­mer 2018 pro­gram. “Buy­ing any sort of cryp­tocur­rency in Nige­ria is in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult,” she ex­plains. “There’s no prod­uct that works like Coin­base at the mo­ment. A lot of trad­ing ac­tu­ally hap­pens through ser­vices like What­sApp but it’s just such a con­vo­luted and fault-prone process.”

When Aderi­nokun wanted to buy an iPhone last year, there was no easy way for her to trans­fer her Nige­rian naira into dol­lars to en­able her friend in the US to buy it for her. De­cid­ing that there had to be a bet­ter way, they started with a peer-to-peer ex­change called Bit­coin Afrika and have now cre­ated an app that peo­ple use to buy and sell cryp­tocur­rency, in­clud­ing Bit­coin and Ethereum, di­rectly with their lo­cal bank ac­count or debit card. It’s a huge op­por­tu­nity. There is al­ready $4bn traded in cryp­tocur­rency in Nige­ria and the mar­ket is grow­ing quickly. Once again Aderi­nokun’s in­side knowl­edge of the lo­cal user base in Nige­ria has helped her cre­ate a bet­ter ser­vice and ful­fil a real need.

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