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Connecting Villages: The Role of Mobile UX in Developing Nations

by Pamela Gay , 29.11.2011

This article is re-posted from User Centric’s blog.

Having lived in West Africa from 2006 to 2008, I had the opportunity to witness the transformation of mobile phones become a device for the masses in a developing country. It was a time of excitement as the potential for two-way communication and commerce exponentially grew. By the time I left, almost everyone knew someone who owned a mobile phone, with many families having access to at least one device. For most, a mobile phone was the initial foray into the devices and interfaces predominantly made with Western metaphors, cultural identifiers and interaction patterns at the core. These devices were mainly second hand phones, passed down from the recycling bins of Western markets, while less were purchases of new phones whose physical design was intended for use in emerging markets.

Mobile devices in West Africa, regardless of origin, had a similar defining feature: English or French is the lingua franca between person and device. Unfortunately, the use of Western language throughout the navigation structure of many of these devices limits their potential in West Africa where primary education is lacking and literacy rates are low. A lack of comprehension beyond iconographic representations prevented many from using the phones beyond their most basic functionality, let alone make use of many of the advanced tools that were only available within deep menu structures (e.g., messaging, address books, calculators, etc.).

Yet over time, pattern recognition learning techniques would lead to the use of certain words and interactions, creating a mobile phone-centric functional literacy that demonstrated the potential for these phones to act as agents of non-formal education. For user experience professionals, this presents a new opportunity to engage in designed usability that is guided by the goal of improved education within the context of an interface that is “effective, efficient and satisfactory in a specified context of use.”

So what would that system look like? How can systems be better designed with education of those in emerging regions in mind? One answer may lie in moving away from the world of directly selecting and manipulating objects that are in part recognized by their Western written script. It requires reimaging a world where the direct manipulation paradigm of today’s smart phones is not the primary interaction method. Embrace a system designed from the ground up on indirectly manipulating a system through voice commands. While we are a long way off from a truly intelligent system that can hold a conversation, products are beginning to be produced that are able to gracefully respond to natural voice input. These systems should be built around a back and forth between speech and command confirmation, creating a two way dialogic interaction model.

How would a system like this assist in informal education? By embracing the back and forth of speaker to interface, the interface is able to reinforce and repeat common words, ideas and text, without forcing them upon the user. A user could simply speak commands, rather than navigate and recognize unfamiliar written text. Users would be able to first say what they know, and then receive feedback in words that are perhaps unfamiliar to them. Imagine an interaction pattern of someone who functionally speaks English but never learned to read:

- User speaks, “Send $500 to Miriam.”

- System responds with $500 displayed with an arrow pointing to a picture of Miriam.

- System asks user, “Would you like to send $500 to Miriam?”

- User says, “Yes.”

- System displays a message that the money is being sent and confirms when completed.

In this way, the user is freed of having to navigate menus in order to input commands and is still able to receive textual feedback. Over time, by matching intended user meaning with system responded language, some users could further develop functional literacy skills that might not have otherwise been developed using the same interaction happening on a traditional phone.

Consider this alternative interaction on a traditional device using direct manipulation:

- User finds and recognizes icon for banking application and presses it.

- User finds and recognizes “Send Money” button.

- User finds and recognizes field for “Enter Amount” and presses it.

- User enters the correct amount to send.

- User finds and recognizes “OK” button and presses it.

- User finds and recognizes field for “Recipient” and presses it.

- User finds the icon/text/label for the desired receiver.

- User finds and recognizes “OK” button and presses it.

- User finds and recognizes “Confirm and Send” button and presses it.

And remember to consider this happening in an unfamiliar language.

The missing link in the second scenario is of course a system that can understand languages from emerging markets. Until that happens, stepping stones of Western languages can be used. While illiteracy in these regions is often high, there does exist a group of functionally literate users in spoken Western language. This alone would have a significant impact. In the above examples the user only needs to go through two spoken steps in order to accomplish a task. In the textual example, the user needs to understand written English and then complete nine tactile steps in order to accomplish their task. For the illiterate user, this is the difference between feeling in control of a system and where confidence is desired, and blindly making choices over the course of many screens of an interface.

This dialogic interaction pattern through voice commands has the potential to open the world of technology to a group left out of the digital age. In the coming years, developing regions like West Africa will begin to have mobile phones with the power to make these kinds of interactions possible. The repetition of these interaction patterns, reinforcing spoken and written language, can be agents of informal education. In designing this kind of interaction, the user experience professional becomes so much more than a designer of systems that are effective, usable or enjoyable; they can become involved in social change.

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