Forum: under development

XIII.6 November + December 2006
Page: 16
Digital Citation

How do you manage your contacts if you can’t read or write?

Jan Chipchase

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The mobile phone enables personal, convenient synchronous and asynchronous communication—in essence allowing its users' communication to transcend time and space, at a time and in a context of his or her choosing. It is therefore unsurprising that with these almost superhuman characteristics, many people consider their mobile phone to be one of the essential objects to carry when leaving home. These benefits (and associated costs) apply equally to an urban city dweller in London and a rural farmer in Bangladesh.

As traditional markets for mobile phones such as Sweden, UK, and Singapore reach the saturation point, network operators and handset manufacturers actively seek growth in "emerging markets" such as India, China, Vietnam, Brazil, and Indonesia, markets that include some of the world's most populous countries. Targeting products and services at new markets creates many new challenges, not least of which is understanding new customers and meeting their needs.

A number of these markets have limited formal education and, consequently, lower levels of literacy and numeracy. The United Nations estimates the total number of illiterate adults to be 799 million worldwide, 270 million of whom are located in India alone [1].

The key question for companies that wish to address the communication needs of this potential customer base is: How does the inability to read and write affect the ability of mobile phone users to make effective use of mobile phones? How can we design communication tools that draw on the knowledge and experiences that these users do have?

To explore these issues, researchers from Nokia's Mobile HCI Group conducted field research in India, China, and Nepal as part of Nokia's exploration of future user-interface requirements. The participants were engaged in a variety of manual trades—cooks, cleaners, gas station attendants, and caretakers. Data from these participants was collected using a variety of qualitative techniques: shadowing, observations, and contextual interviews, including screening criteria for literacy and numeracy. We looked at what devices our nonliterate participants currently used, studied how they managed to maintain contact information, and documented their strategies for coping with written material.

The research was framed by five broad observations: that many text-based tasks such as filling in a form can be completed but take longer to complete—relying on access to literate people during the process; that it is practical to draw on a wide variety of cues to aid understanding, including scent and texture; that many tasks can be learned by rote learning (which can be fine until errors occur); and that the potential benefits of mobile communication to this user group should not be underestimated. Who has the greater need for personal, convenient synchronous and asynchronous communication—someone working 9 to 5, five days a week, or someone working 5 to 9, seven days per week?

So how do illiterate users get by?

The simple answer is that nonliterate mobile phone users can call, but cannot message or use the address book. The subtleties are more interesting than this.

Two basic tasks were easy for almost all our participants to complete: turning on the phone and answering an incoming call. Beyond this there were various degrees of success. Dialing a local phone number is relatively easy, but problems can occur when there are variations such as dialing a national or international number, or using IP telephone prefixes. Dialing an incorrect number may require starting from the beginning of the task since the cancel button is not always understood. Phone features that require text editing such as creating a contact, saving a text message, and creating a text message present too great a barrier for use.

Information is often relayed as part of a phone call, but taking a verbal message during a phone call requires the user to remember the message details since this cannot be written down. This increases the likelihood that the message will simply be that a person called, rather than the content of the message itself. It may or may not be possible to write down numbers, and names, if written, are often annotated with rudimentary markings understood only by the writer. The call log served as an ad hoc address book, albeit one in which the user needs to remember the number of calls since the person they wish to communicate with last called.

Several of our participants kept paper phone books. Typically, contact information was written and updated by a literate family member, and sometimes annotated by the textually nonliterate user as an aid to remembering who was who. Specific contact information was remembered based on a number of criteria including on what page in the address book it was written, what color pen was used to write the number, and position on the page. The ability to put contact information into the most appropriate format significantly supports the user's ability to gather it in one convenient place.

In emerging markets, a user's experience will be affected by other factors. The user may be literate or semiliterate in a language that the phone user interface does not support. Or the device itself may well have been bought used and is mechanically unreliable, perhaps continuously repaired by one of the many street-repair services. Buttons may be worn out. Alternatively, if the network coverage is weak and oversubscribed to, multiple attempts to call must be made before a connection is made. Calls may frequently be dropped. Whilst each of these factors may not present an insurmountable inconvenience by itself, consider the difficulty in learning how to use something when the experience itself is unpredictable.

The best solution by far to address these needs is to raise the general level of textual literacy—in a world of words and numbers, literacy opens up a world of easier options. Beyond this we are looking at improvements to the phone, network infrastructure, and the communications ecosystem. There are no silver bullets when it comes to literacy research, but the solutions that meet this target user group may well benefit all users. It's quite possible that our illiterate participants are simply lead users for the rest of us.

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1. Youth and Adult Literacy Rate by Country and Gender for 2000-2004. Unesco Institute for Statistics (UIS), July 2004.

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Jan Chipchase
Nokia Research Center

About the Author

Jan Chipchase works with the Mobile HCI Group at Nokia Research Center. He lives and works in Tokyo, his home for the past five years. An extended version of this essay can be found on

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