How to design phones for emerging markets

Summary:Frog Design's Jan Chipchase, a veteran of user experience design for mobile phones, met with ZDNet UK to discuss the challenges facing handset makers in places such as Uganda and Afghanistan

...which groups have the least mobility and tend to have less time? If you're looking at those markets, it tends to be women. In Afghanistan, for example, a woman won't be outside the house without her husband, and in other communities women are more likely to be working in the fields or cooking. There is a strong argument for saying women's needs are not being met, particularly in poorer communities.

There is an argument for saying women's needs are not being met. Does that mean you design phones for them? I'm not sure it does, but that doesn't mean you can't address that problem.

Does that mean you design phones for them? I'm not sure it does, but that doesn't mean you can't try and address that problem. Banglalink [had a programme called] Ladies, First — they sold airtime cheaper to women than to men, and it significantly increased female penetration. These things might sound quite trivial, but these are the things that bring people into the mobile fold.

Of [the] 6.8 billion people [in the world], there are probably 100 million who will never go near a mobile phone. In engineering-led, male-and-pale organisations, there is a tendency to want to abstract things to "let's make it pink". I'm totally oversimplifying it, but there are many ways to address it. Part of the way is to make sure the senior management in those organisations has female representation.

Another [barrier] is illiteracy. There are 680 million illiterate people worldwide, 270 million in India — give-or-take — and most of them are using devices that look and sound like everything else — entry-level devices. A number of years ago the question was: "should there be a phone for illiterate people?" My conclusion at that time was that it's better to crank out a few hundred million of whatever else is out there and tweak them slightly to make it more accessible, than design something specific for those markets.

Tweak them how?
Illiterate consumers can do pretty much whatever anyone else can do if they're motivated to do it, but they don't do it with the same comprehension. If they make a typo or are not paying attention, they find it much harder to recover. So from a design perspective about making zero superfluous features, you have to design something that's quite strict.

There are two really strong reasons why you wouldn't want to design something specifically for illiterate people. Firstly, there's a social stigma to being illiterate, so you want to buy something that makes you feel like everyone else. The second reason is related to 'proximate literacy': I can be illiterate, but if my neighbour is literate, I wait until she comes round, pop round and ask her to help.

Those social interacts are really common in places like India. If you have something that looks radically different from what everyone else has and are then asking someone to show you how to do something, you're putting a massive burden on them.

In some markets or segments, we'll have illiterate consumers on their third or fourth phone already. They know they want: an FM radio, a colour screen...

There are two really strong reasons why you wouldn't want to design something specifically for illiterate people: social stigma and 'proximate literacy'.

There's a parallel to this with [Fujitsu] Raku-Raku phone in Japan. There was a phone aimed at the elderly, and the first version looked like a dumb-phone, a cordless DECT [Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications] phone. It had close to zero features. It actually had a fold-out physical address book. A brilliant design solution, but it sold really badly because it marked you out as someone who's no longer a part of regular society. The third version morphed into something that looked outwardly like everything else, but if you opened it, it had the same simple features. I believe it became the biggest seller in Japan that year.

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Topics: MWC, Mobility, Smartphones


David Meyer is a freelance technology journalist. He fell into journalism when he realised his musical career wouldn't be paying many bills. His early journalistic career was spent in general news, working behind the scenes for BBC radio and on-air as a newsreader for independent stations. David's main focus is on communications, of both... Full Bio

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