XXIV.4 July-August 2017
Page: 74
Digital Citation

Usability, tested?

Neha Kumar, Naveena Karusala, Aaditeshwar Seth, Biswajit Patra

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As a team of HCI researchers testing the usability of a media-sharing mobile application with rural Indian users, we found our notions of usability to be challenged in unexpected ways. Our experience highlighted the need to bring a deep understanding of sociocultural contexts into conventional usability evaluations. In this article, we touch upon the importance of considering prior technological encounters, the contribution of peers to the process of learning how to use new technologies, and the role of adaptability in the short term. Taken together, these reflections offer us an enhanced understanding of how to conduct usability evaluations with new technology adopters in cross-cultural settings, particularly regions of the so-called Global South that are still fairly under-studied in human-computer interaction (HCI).

back to top  Insights


Penetration of mobile coverage and personal computing devices across the world has grown dramatically, including in relatively resource-constrained regions such as parts of the Global South. With this growth, HCI has also witnessed the emergence of the domain of HCI for development (HCI4D). HCI4D research draws richly on the diversity of mobile uses and users that has grown in leaps and bounds, now that we can design mobile apps for those using low-cost devices, or even the slightly more expensive devices in which many economically disadvantaged individuals invest. Yet, as these users begin to engage more extensively with various mobile devices, the challenges that arise in the uptake of these technologies also take on new flavors.

Much of the early and influential work in the field of HCI4D focused on text-free user interface (UI) design to address the limitations of literacy among these populations. Indrani Medhi's seminal efforts toward defining how to create, test, and implement text-free user interfaces have led to more concrete design principles as well as a comprehensive understanding of the various factors impacting the use of interfaces by illiterate or low-literate users. Over time, the HCI4D community has developed a great sensitivity to the relevance of using local languages and dialects when designing and testing new products and services, emphasizing images as opposed to text, and trying to simplify user experiences as much as possible. Indeed, one might argue that these practices would better suit the more literate among us as well.

Other early work has further characterized technology use in the HCI4D field, laying out future research directions. Medhi's continuation of her work has shown that while there are more barriers to usability than illiteracy, including lack of confidence with the technology and inexperience with procedural instructions, group interaction with the technology can overcome complexity. Our first author Neha Kumar's prior work on Facebook use among Indian youth has also highlighted the ability of the users to overcome social and technological limitations to achieve their aspirations [1]. Moreover, Nimmi Rangaswamy [2] and Tom Smyth [3], among others [4,5], have extensively studied mobile media consumption and sharing, pointing to the agency of users in creating and maintaining their role in complex systems of media consumption despite serious barriers. This body of work sets the stage for a reflection on the realities of usability and how it is shaped by the context of expanding mobile adoption and use.

back to top  Mobile Vaani IVR Platform

Though we thought we were well grounded in understanding the kinds of considerations that Medhi discusses, we encountered new lessons during the research we conducted in collaboration with Gram Vaani, a social enterprise headquartered in New Delhi ( Gram Vaani, established in 2009 with a "focus on using simple technologies and social context to design tools," is an interactive voice response (IVR) social media platform targeting social development. Its efforts have impacted communities including more than 2.5 million users in several regions, across 15 Indian states. To mention a few outcomes of their work, 30 rural radio stations across India are now equipped to manage and share content over mobile devices and the Web, corrupt officials in Jharkhand were arrested due to citizen complaints, and women leaders in Uttar Pradesh (UP) were able to share lessons and opinions.


One of Gram Vaani's most impactful projects has been the Mobile Vaani (MV) IVR system. Used throughout multiple states in India, including Uttar Pradesh, Orissa, Bihar, and Jharkhand, it offers residents of small towns and villages the ability to place a missed call to the MV server, so that the system can then call users back and allow them to record and listen to news categorized by local channels. A team of moderators checks the recordings for quality before posting them on the IVR system for other listeners. Topics range from job openings and government accountability to social issues and folk songs and poems. Partner organizations of MV can also post content, often pushing informational campaigns, addressing grievances, and collecting feedback on government schemes. Thus, MV's growth as an IVR platform was driven by local volunteers and early adopters from the community who demonstrated that IVR was helpful to other users, assisting with their onboarding (i.e., sign-up and registration). Not only did this entail feature-level training, but it also explained to prospective users conceptually how such a platform could help the community and what kind of content and services could be useful.

back to top  Lessons from the Field

For our study, we designed and tested the app version of the MV IVR system. The app has limited functionality at present, allowing users to listen to each local channel in the form of a playlist. Over the course of the summer 2016, we developed an offline sharing feature for this app. This feature allows users to share multiple recordings from a channel at once with one other MV app user without using cellular data. Inputs for the design of this feature were taken from target users of the app in the East Singhbum district of Jharkhand. Our team consisted of members both relatively new to HCI4D (Naveena) as well as those with several years' experience in the field (Biswajit, Aaditeshwar) and HCI4D expertise in general (Aaditeshwar, Neha). This combination of backgrounds also drove a singular focus on situating our design appropriately in the cultural context, to the best of our ability.

As we made plans to head to the field, we were curious also to examine "opportunities for assessing learning on UIs for low-literate users over a longer period of time," identified by Medhi Thies as requiring further exploration in her recent review of literature on UI design for low-literate users [6]. This direction brought up questions including:

  • How might we account for existing familiarity with other, similar technologies as we test for usability?
  • What role might peer relations play in facilitating usability?
  • How might we rely on users' ability to adapt so that technologies become and stay usable over time?

We present here our initial observations that sowed the seeds for a longer, more in-depth exploration of these questions.

First, increasing availability of technologies that are usable and relevant for a growing rural user base means that these users no longer come from a place of not knowing how mobile apps work. Prior familiarization with mobile apps is something that has generally been overlooked in HCI4D work, and for good reason, since projects in this field tended also to represent the users' first interactions with mobile technologies. Not too surprisingly, we discovered that a large portion of our participants had already adapted to social-networking apps like Facebook and used them on a daily basis. Not being fluent in English appeared not to be a deterrent. In fact, these apps had successfully familiarized our participants with English terms and phrases. This finding challenged our approach to localization. Was there such a thing as too much localization, we were forced to ask, as we proceeded to test the app. At one point in our usability evaluation, we realized that we had left English terms in the UI by mistake (while others had been translated to Hindi). This serendipitous accident led us to observe that English terms appeared to facilitate completion of the task in a way that reflected a level of comfort we weren't expecting. Words like Cancel and Share are common in apps that the users already had experience with and were easier to understand than unfamiliar and imperfect Hindi translations. Perhaps in the case of localizing language, concepts like "sharing a file with another user" become difficult to translate, especially when those concepts were first understood in another language. When we asked participants whether they would prefer more of these English keywords used throughout the app, many of our participants who frequently used smartphones and mobile apps said yes. Though localization is essential to working with different language fluencies and literacies, language itself is ever changing. Long-term exposure to other languages, especially via technology use, is an important factor to consider in usability. At the same time, language and technology use can vary among age groups and genders. Perhaps then localization is not completely understood by a single slice of data within time or a demographic, but rather by a timeline of language transformation and exposure among different demographics. This is a significant area for research to explore in order to understand how these elements impact usability evaluations and subsequent product uptake in rural areas in the Global South, although they are not necessarily unique to those settings.

Second, when we think of usability and the user, we frequently view the user as an individual, engaging with technology on his/her own. The field of HCI has increasingly drawn attention to the importance of the user's context, above even the characteristics of the individual alone. Indeed, what goes on around users, we find, can strongly influence them. We conducted parts of our usability study in groups, realizing along the way that the usability of the app was often determined by the user who was quickest to learn. Once the first user learned how to use the app, he or she gave other users pointers and suggestions that helped them complete the task faster. Even the first users within a group-testing scenario had the collective suggestions of onlookers to aid them, although it was everyone's first attempt at using the app. More than an isolated incident, this is often how users get the hang of mobile apps in general—they are taught by a friend or relative who introduces them to the app. Particularly in scenarios that involved the transfer or exchange of mobile media, users utilized peer-to-peer sharing apps that required the sender and receiver to be located physically next to each other, pointing to the social nature of app use and learning. Of course, usability for a single user is also needed, considering phones are personal devices and that there may not always be someone around to help. However, when phones are shared among members of a family, or mobile app use is a social activity, it is worth exploring how usability and adaptability might leverage group dynamics.

The third observation we noted was that of the "learnability" of the app or, in other words, usability over time. What was not apparent to us at first glance was that even when participants appeared to struggle with features in an app that was novel to them, there was a likelihood of their learning how to use them over time. When we asked them how long it took to learn how to use these apps, participants said that over the course of a few days they would become quite comfortable with the functions they wanted to use, such as sending messages or sharing media content. This learning curve may be indicative of users' agency to adapt, particularly when there is perceived value to be derived from using the application, such as how WhatsApp and Facebook provided ways to communicate and share both entertainment- and business-related content with family and friends, including those who lived far away. These observations point to the importance of the questions that must be asked in addition to "Can users use this?" such as "Why would users want to learn how to use this?" and "Will users persist through the learning process?" and "Will users continue to use this??"

If we view usability as an attempt to close the gap between the potential user and the technology in question, then we can start to think about not only the factors that bring the technology closer to the user, but also those that bring the user closer to the technology. The three factors contributing to the latter point to the importance of both taking time and place into consideration and viewing these users as learners with agency, regardless of whether they are low on print and digital literacy. We stress that these challenges around usability are relevant much more broadly, beyond the rural Global South. In fact, our lessons from the field serve to highlight, perhaps in somewhat exaggerated form, concerns that might be relevant for us to consider in other sociocultural contexts, in other parts of the world as well.

back to top  References

1. Kumar, N. Facebook for self-empowerment? A study of Facebook adoption in India. New Media & Society 16, 7 (2014).

2. Rangaswamy, N., and Cutrell, E. Anthropology, development and ICTs: Slums, youth and the mobile internet in urban India. Proc. of the Fifth International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development. ACM, 2012.

3. Smyth, T.N. et al. Where there's a will there's a way: Mobile media sharing in urban India. Proc. of the SIGCHI conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, 2010.

4. Kumar, N. and Rangaswamy, N. The mobile media actor-network in urban India." Proc. of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, 2013.

5. O'Neill, J. et al. The increasing sophistication of mobile media sharing in lower-middle-class Bangalore. Proc. of the Eighth International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development. ACM, 2016.

6. Medhi Thies, I. User interface design for low-literate and novice users: Past, present and future. Foundations and Trends ® Human—Computer Interaction 8, 1 (2015), 1–72.

back to top  Authors

Neha Kumar is an assistant professor at Georgia Tech, jointly appointed at the schools of International Affairs and Interactive Computing. She focuses on human-centered computing for global development. She graduated from UC Berkeley's School of Information and was a postdoc at the University of Washington's computer science and engineering department and the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California.

Naveena Karusala is a graduate of Georgia Tech's College of Computing. Her research on human-centered computing and development involves work on women's safety and applications of feminist HCI. Her future research interests lie at the intersection of gender and the domains of learning and healthcare.

Aaditeshwar Seth teaches at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, where he runs the ACT4D (Appropriate Computing Technologies for Development) research group. He won the Knight News Challenge award in 2008 to start Gram Vaani, a social enterprise that builds low-cost, voice-based systems for community media in rural areas.

Biswajit Patra is an employee at Gram Vaani, a social technology company based in Delhi whose objective is to reverse the flow of information, that is, to make it bottom-up instead of top-down, and to empower poorly literate and low-income communities to create and share their own media.

back to top  Figures

UF1Figure. Naveena and Biswajit conduct their usability study.

UF2Figure. One of the screens on which we accidentally left the English words Cancel and Delete.

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