Mobile Technology: Design for Social Change

Mobile phone penetration around the world continues to increase at phenomenal rates that are not comparable with any other technology to date. According to a 2010 Information Communication Technology (ICT) report, mobile penetration rates in developed markets have exceeded 116 percent, meaning, on average, every person has at least one mobile phone. In developing markets, mobile penetration has exceeded 67 percent, up from around just 4 percent in the year 2000.

In developed countries, the mobile phone has become an essential component of our everyday lives. We have become so dependent on mobile phones that many of us would find it very difficult to function without one. To fully understand the ubiquity of the device, next time you are standing on a subway platform or walking down a city street, stop and look around. You will likely observe myriad diverse interactions between people and their mobile phones. To further the point, the next time you go out, leave your mobile phone at home. Observe if at any point throughout the day or evening you feel lost without it. Or rather, count the number of times.

The UX Challenge

As designers of mobile products and services, we spend a great deal of time and effort trying to better understand our users, their expectations, behaviors, and experiences—who are the users, where are they using the product, how are they using it, and what are they using it to do? In most cases, we design products that will be used by people who are, in many ways, like us.

However, if we consider standard mobile UI design in a broader and more global context outside of what we find familiar, blurring socio-economic, cultural, and geographic boundaries, is there anyone we have neglected to consider? As designers, are we making assumptions that will inevitably exclude users who are not like us?

Most mobile phone UIs assume a basic level of literacy, an assumption that neglects to take into account a significant portion of the global population. Until recently, little research has been conducted to understand and design for the user experience of individuals who are unable to read or write. According to the United Nations, in 2008 there were 774 million illiterate adults worldwide, most of whom reside in rural regions and urban slums of the world’s poorest and most populous countries.

According to a 2009 U.N. Development Program Report, India is the world’s second most populous country and it is approximately 66 percent literate; approximately 77 percent of men in India are literate, compared with 55 percent of women. Literacy rates are lowest in rural areas where the discrepancy in literacy rates between men and women are even more pronounced.

Despite its relatively low rate of literacy—the world average is approximately 84 percent—India’s mobile phone subscription rates are staggering. Kevin Sullivan of the Washington Post reported that in the year 2000 there were 1.6 million mobile phone subscribers in India. Ten years later that number increased to 125 million, with 6 million new subscribers each month. Further, analysts predict that half of India’s 1.1 billion population will be connected via mobile phones within the next four years.

Due to the high rate of mobile subscription in developing countries, and even higher rate of mobile sharing (representing access to a mobile phone, as opposed to ownership), many poor and illiterate people across the developing world are gaining access to information. These are the people historically excluded from the benefit of ICT, due to issues such as prohibitive cost, lack of fixed line and broadband infrastructure, availability of consistent power supply, and inability to read; they have been the digitally disenfranchised or information impoverished. According to C. K. Prahalad, inability to access information has been a key contributor to perpetuation of global poverty throughout history. Proliferation of mobile phones is changing this pattern by making information available, indiscriminately, to people representing all walks of life.

Migrant workers in urban Indian slums, and people living in rural regions of the country who do not have bank accounts—the unbankedare using mobile phones to pay bills and send remittances, allowing them to bypass traditional, costly transfer services such as Western Union. Indian farmers are using mobile phones to access crop, weather, and pest reports, as well as real-time commodity prices—information that has been shown to help the farmers increase overall profits and decrease loss. Teachers on the subcontinent are using mobile phones to facilitate and support learning activities in poor, rural communities where the prospect of using the mobile phone (to communicate via SMS) motivates children to learn to read and write.

Phones for Healthcare

Mobile phones are also being used to improve health services to the poor. Mobile Health, or mHealth, represents the intersection of mobile technology and public health. Over the past several years, thousands of mHealth initiatives have been launched around the world to assist existing health services that are often failing to meet local need. In some cases, mobile apps are used by health workers to collect, store, and monitor data. In other cases, mobile phones are being used to disseminate health-related information directly to those in need.

In India, one of the most critical gaps in health services for the poor is lack of adequate medical facilities and the absence of qualified doctors. In the public sector there are approximately two doctors for every 10,000 people, which critically fails to meet the need, especially to the rural poor who are last in line when it comes to receiving medical care. While mobile phones cannot produce more doctors, they can be used to provide communication links between qualified doctors in urban hospitals and intermediary health workers, or community health workers (CHWs) in rural villages, presumably increasing overall access to health services and improving the quality and availability of care.

Training, education, and overall effectiveness of CHWs varies greatly from community to community. Most CHWs in India are women, and many are inadequately trained and represent varying levels of literacy. With this in mind, applications and interfaces to be used by CHWs for training, data collection, monitoring, and information retrieval should be designed for the lowest common denominator: low-to-non-literacy. Additionally, mHealth initiatives that involve dissemination of health information directly to those in need should also assume and design for low-to-non-literate users to minimize their exclusion.

Designing Solutions

There are a number of variables to consider when designing mobile UIs and solutions for use in developing markets. To account for low-to-non-literacy, researchers in India have been exploring multi-modal user interface options, such as multi-level, voice-based solutions that can be used in place of traditional text-based interfaces by low-to-non-literate users. As an example, voice-based mobile applications have been developed for use by CHWs in India to assist in diagnosing and treating ailments such as malaria. To use the system, the CHW dials into a voice menu system that prompts her to select, initially, from a broad range of menu items. Through multiple voice input selections, she is able to narrow down to the desired topic until she is given the specific information she is seeking, such as “symptoms of malaria.” This information can then be used to assist the CHW in making a diagnosis.

Research has also been conducted to explore the use of graphic and icon-based UIs, as well as combinations of modalities, such as use of voice and graphics. Pilot studies conducted with low-to-non-literate users have shown that users prefer (and have higher performance results using) voice-based interfaces as opposed to text or graphic interfaces. More research is needed, however, to continue to explore and refine alternative UI solutions for this population, taking into account the many and diverse requirements that make each group of users unique.

Aside from literacy, there are a number of other variables to take into account when designing mobile solutions for use in developing markets. In light of recent market projections, and in recognition of the vast growth potential for mobile and telecommunication companies within these markets, much research is being conducted to understand existing communicative ecologies, specific regional, socio-economic, infrastructure, and environmental challenges and requirements, as well as methods for motivating members of communities within these regions to adopt and utilize ICT.

In order to propose viable, scalable, and sustainable solutions as user experience designers, we must take steps to form an in-depth and multi-dimensional understanding of our target users in the context of their world, culture, and day-to-day experiences. If we focus carefully on the research problems we are trying to solve and adhere to the first rule of user experience design, “Know your users,” and then prepare and conduct our research accordingly, we should be able to achieve scalable and sustainable solutions for our users, whoever they are, wherever they are.

Maxwell, M. (2011). Mobile Technology: Design for Social Change. User Experience Magazine, 10(2).
Retrieved from http://uxpamagazine.org/mobile_technology/

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