How to design phones for emerging markets

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
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Jan Chipchase is a user-experience researcher for Frog Design, a company that helps manufacturers come up with new products, mostly in the electronics sector.

Chipchase worked for Nokia until April 2010, and his ethnographic research is arguably a key factor in that company's dominance in the so-called emerging markets. At the moment, he is heavily involved in researching the use cases for services such as mobile banking.

ZDNet UK caught up with Chipchase at this year's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. In this discussion, he explains some of the challenges the mobile industry faces in addressing markets in countries such as Uganda and Afghanistan.

Q: I was in South Africa in January and was struck by the speed and sturdiness of mobile broadband there. Obviously, the football World Cup had something to do with that investment, but is this a recurring theme?
A: Frog has this [corporate social responsibility] initiative called Mobile Mandate: it's an opportunity for our creatives to work for the social good, and we have a global partnership with Unicef. I was in Uganda and up in the north — you get up to the edge of the asphalt, and it hits the dirt road. There's no mains electricity, but you can get a signal, and you can actually run Edge, which is remarkable.

The Unicef guys have a disease outbreak monitoring platform. If there are a lot of malaria cases happening, they've got volunteer health workers who go to the villages, and they send reports in by SMS. If you have a PC with a dongle in it, you can actually check statistics in real time. They're piloting it, but it's quite a nice story.

There's a total recognition, even an argument, to say that it could be a right for people to have access to information.

A lot of the innovation in mobile usage in, say, Africa, is to do with basic use of the mobile phone — reselling credit, and so on. Is there a role for smartphones in that kind of market?
There used to be a strong debate as to whether large multinationals should be selling mobile phones in Africa. I used to give presentations and people used to stand up and say: "How do you think you have a right to sell to these communities?", as if it's an exploitative thing. Today there's a total recognition, even an argument, to say that it could be a right for people to have access to information.

Everyone everywhere will find a use for that stuff. In those markets there are early adopters, entrepreneurs, housewives... there is no 'Uganda'; there are just many stories in Africa. Anyone who glosses over that is not paying sufficient respect to the market.

So, say, mass-market Android phones have a bright future in those sorts of markets?
It depends on the service offering, whether they have a good battery life and all those other things. It also depends on whether they are aspirational products, whether people want to own them. Many of those consumers are on their third, fifth phone already.

You need to go down to a price point of something like $30 (£18.50) for it to go mass market. Are people willing to give up four months' salary or just two weeks'?

We're also dealing with a product that sells 1.2 billion a year. The replacement cycle of those devices ranges from probably 12 months to 3.5 years, so think of all those. My rule of thumb is that whatever is cutting edge here — in San Francisco or London today — will start trickling through to the market in places like Uganda as used devices from maybe a year onwards.

I've been in some of the world's more remote places, where you're thinking life appears to be really tough, and a phone call comes in and they whip out an iPhone or a premium Nokia product. Something I've learned is when objects become pocketable, they travel differently than other things. They travel much further and faster through informal and formal flows.

Are smartphones serving the needs of such markets, or are they more tailored to the needs of the western world?
There's a significant gender divide in the adoption of mobile phones. Statistics show 40 percent male adoption worldwide of phones and 28 percent for females.

Phones do many things, but at the core of what a phone does [is that] it allows you to communicate across time and space. You can communicate across time by sending a message, and across space by making a call. Those two things are the drivers behind why this is a five-billion-SIM industry.

The next question is which groups are location-constrained and time-constrained? In other words...

...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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