Addressing critical challenges

XV.1 January + February 2008
Page: 56
Digital Citation

FEATUREDesigning for the last billion

Gabriel White

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In the developing world, access to mobile phones can have a significant positive impact on people's lives. Phones can increase the sale price of produce by providing farmers with better access to information and markets; they can give tradesmen the ability to serve customers beyond their immediate area. In parts of Africa, phones are being used to alert unemployed people to job opportunities, health information, and more. Research by the London Business School found that an increase in 10 mobile phones per 100 people can boost the GDP growth of a developing country by up to 0.6 percentage points. There are social benefits, as well: For the vast populations of migrant workers in developing countries, mobile phones help maintain relationships with family at home.

Unfortunately, there are some difficult challenges in making mobile phones usable to these people. The UNESCO Institute for Statistics estimates that almost a billion people throughout the world lack even basic levels of literacy, most of them living in poor and developing countries. Almost half are in India, Pakistan, or Nigeria. As mobile phones spread rapidly through developing countries, the need to create products that cater to nonliterate people is becoming more pressing. India's telecoms regulation body claims that this country alone is adding almost 7 million new mobile phone users each month, many of whom will not be literate.

At present, effective use of almost all digital systems requires relatively advanced levels of literacy. How do people who cannot read learn to use digital systems? How can people navigate, understand, and make use of the functions of these tools? And how can we, as designers, help make this possible? Many standard working assumptions just do not apply when creating digital products for a nonliterate population. The research and design for MotoFone, a Motorola mobile phone crafted specifically for use in developing countries, offers some unique insights into these issues.

back to top  Literacy and Design

Most people have some level of literacy. Most people can read numbers; many "nonliterate" people can recognize at least a handful of words and symbols. People learn enough to get by in their day-to-day lives. But many of the basic features available in mobile phones are potentially confusing for those who cannot read. Most functionality, beyond making basic phone calls, requires an understanding of the comparatively complex descriptive labels and symbols used to communicate the product's capabilities and interaction paradigm.

MotoFone addresses these challenges by providing an icon-driven user interface that is supported by audio voice prompts. The voice prompts are used to describe the names of functions and guide users through basic tasks. The process of setting the alarm, for example, is explained verbally as users step through the task. Significant efforts were made to provide the voice prompts not just in dominant national languages, but also in regional dialects—six languages for India alone.

However, literacy should not be considered a competence that is solely individual. Jan Chipchase of Nokia describes the phenomenon of "proximate literacy," wherein people by themselves may not be able to use a mobile phone, but are able to learn and become competent with the assistance of others (see There is almost always someone in a person's family or community who can help, either by demonstrating how to use a product or by helping to read instructions. In this way, design patterns are not just useful for helping individuals, but are empowering mechanisms for transferring knowledge and understanding between people. If the design patterns used by a given phone are familiar to a potential instructor, the process of transferring knowledge to a novice becomes easier. Because of this, products need to be designed not just for end users, but also for their instructors.

Designing for familiarity means that designers should rely more heavily on mimicking real-world interactions and commonly understood metaphors. Conceptual metaphor or abstraction has much more potential to cause confusion for people who are not literate than for those who can read. Considerable effort went into the design of each of the icons used in MotoFone. In many developing countries, for example, it is important for people to know whether their phones are connected to their home networks, or roaming onto another network. This is because roaming can have a big impact on the cost of calls. The "roaming" indicator is typically a simple triangle placed next to the signal strength meter. The MotoFone research team found that this important indicator meant little to users, and that an icon showing a house with a cross through it—a metaphor that is much more closely connected to the message—was far more accessible to the target audience.

back to top  Gestures and Spatial Memory

Making use of spatial reasoning and memory in a design can make it easier for people who cannot read to learn how to use a device. Often, nonliterate users make use of spatial memory to navigate a system that would otherwise require reading skills. In India, for example, nonliterate people sometimes use automatic teller machines by learning a series of gestures, moving from one button to the next in a sequence of movements that are necessary to complete the task. This physical motion, rather than the on-screen content, governs the pattern of interaction.

Designing systems that take advantage of our ability to repeat gestures makes them easier to learn and use. In developing countries, most people's experience using technology is limited to tools such as televisions, cassette players, fixed-line telephones, and cars or motorcycles. For most of these kinds of devices, each unique control has a unique location, appearance, and dedicated function, making it much easier for people (both literate and not) to use their spatial memory to learn and use the device.

On mobile devices, the opposite is true. For all but the most basic digital systems, physical controls often have different effects in different contexts. For example, the "OK" button used on many mobile phones can have a significantly different effect, depending on the context in which it is used. This makes learning a series of gestures more difficult for users and limits the ability of the designer to leverage spatial memory skills. This problem is compounded by the limited physical space available for controls and displays on today's functionally rich mobile devices.

MotoFone was designed to better take advantage of gestural and spatial memory. The keypad was designed to reduce the need for menu navigation. The address book, the most used function after making and receiving phone calls, has a dedicated button. Checking a prepaid account balance, also very important, is available using a direct keypress. By making important functions directly available from the keypad, MotoFone enables users to more easily access the phone's features by harnessing spatial memory.

back to top  Navigation and Spatial Memory

Nesting functions in hierarchical menus is in direct opposition to the design goal of taking advantage of spatial memory. For almost every phone, the same physical space of the screen is used to represent divergent kinds of information and functions, and there is often very little space available to provide orientation cues. In one context, the information shown on the screen might represent an address book; in another context, it is an SMS message composer or a music player. Reusing the physical space in this way runs counter to people's natural bias toward a spatial understanding of systems.

Addressing this in the design of mobile devices is difficult: Displays are small, and the functional demands are high. Good user interfaces provide users with context about their location in a system (such as breadcrumbs in website navigation). But even in typical mobile phones, this objective is often difficult to realize. Without the luxury of large screens to provide orientation cues, mobile phones rely heavily on short, descriptive screen labels and people's memory of where they are in the system. For those who cannot read, however, understanding these labels becomes a difficult task, as there are no spatial cues to prompt memory.

Through in-country research and concept validation, the Motorola team established a core feature set for MotoFone that was both useful and appealing to target customers. By reducing the amount of functionality available, the main navigation could, in turn, be flattened to a single-level menu that provides direct access to important functions. In this way, SMS (often necessary to check prepaid account balances), ringtone selection, alarm clock, and system clock settings are all primary functions directly available from this menu. This approach mitigates the need for users to remember where, within a complex internal hierarchy, each piece of functionality is located.

back to top  Environmental Factors

In addition to struggling with literacy, people in developing countries often have quite specific practical needs in relation to mobile phones, compared with those living in wealthier parts of the world. Through the course of the MotoFone project, the Motorola research and design team spent a great deal of time carrying out contextual research in many developing world countries. The team found that phones are very often used outside, so screens need to be highly readable in direct sunlight. Power supplies are often unreliable, so battery life becomes a critical issue. And users are very price sensitive, so tracking phone spending is an almost continuous activity.

To address these issues, MotoFone makes use of a large Electronic Paper Display, like those used in some e-books, which is exceptionally readable in full sunlight. Battery life is rated at more than 12 days. Customized prepaid tracking features allow users to directly check their prepaid account balance with a single keypress. But perhaps most important, many design elements of MotoFone are focused on supporting people who cannot read.

Designing systems for nonliterate users creates a unique set of demands and opportunities for designers. When creating products for nonliterate people, designers should consider the following best practices:

  • Harness collective literacy. Understanding the competencies of the group must be considered along with those of the individual.
  • Leverage familiar images and metaphors that are culturally meaningful. Without written words, appropriate design of symbols and icons becomes critically important.
  • Draw on well-developed skills, such as spatial memory. Make the most of people's ability to remember spatial relationships.

Bringing mobile phones to the developing world can have a considerable positive impact on people's ability to improve their lives. Designing such products in an appropriate way only enhances that opportunity.

back to top  Author

Gabriel White
frog design

About the Author

Gabriel White led the interaction design for MotoFone while working for Motorola in Beijing. Currently, he is a principal designer at frog design, a strategic-creative consultancy, based in Palo Alto, Calif. He has a keen interest in designing products for social change, and also publishes a blog dedicated to mobile interaction design at

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©2008 ACM  1072-5220/08/0100  $5.00

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