Not Just a Pretty Interface: Designs Must Be Easily Learned and Used

> Posted by Saborni Poddar and Brett Hudson Matthews, Associate at MicroSave and Executive Director at My Oral Village

The financial inclusion industry often asks the question of how can we best configure mobile money products and services to support increased adoption and usage. But how about when prospective users are illiterate and innumerate (unable to decode large written numbers), as is the case for many unbanked individuals at the base of the pyramid?

In search of insights into designing mobile wallets for such illiterate and innumerate (oral) populations, we traveled through the Indian states of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, interacting with potential users. As our conversations got underway, and we began to understand the implications of designing a mobile wallet that an oral individual can use with ease, we could visualize why a conventional mobile wallet design would not be as clear to a daily-wage unskilled laborer as it is to the readers of this blog.

To start with, almost everyone we talked to had a feature phone, but most used it only for voice calls and were unfamiliar with basic syntax and navigation rules. Most could not use an address book; each time they make a call, they dial numbers from scratch. This gave us a first-hand glimpse into the potential intimidation caused by technology.

When we showed popular mobile wallets, respondents understood few icons. Even core ones like ‘add’, ‘send’ and ‘request’ money, were not well understood by many. We learned that the abstractions (communication shorthands) widespread in oral communities are oftentimes not the same as literate abstractions – which evolve over generations or centuries in cultures where writing is widespread. For example, for ‘send money’, one approach is to use the rupee symbol ‘₹’ inside a wallet outline, with an arrow pointing outwards. However, this is a literate abstraction, and many participants did not recognize the ‘₹’ symbol, remarking that it looks vaguely like the Hindi ‘R’ or the Hindi numeral ‘2’. For a mobile wallet, ₹ is an essential symbol, but there are design tricks to help users learn its meaning.

So, how did we approach such obstacles?

Our team conducted a series of tests that applied oral iconography for the task of sending money on a wallet prototype we created. Our literate biases dominated at first. We designed an icon with two gullaks (Indian version of piggy banks) with arms coming out of them exchanging some green notes. While most respondents recognized the image, some indicated that gullaks are predominantly used by kids to save their change. Next we thought, how about two brown wallets with arrows indicating money going from one to the other? Participants countered with the question: but which wallet is mine? Further, we learned that women are not typically using wallets. They indicated that they typically tie up money in a cloth and stash it away in a box, hiding it in the folds of their clothing or even in their bosom. Therefore, for them, a wallet seemed like a man’s business.

Through such trial and error we eventually noticed a cultural practice important for designing an oral icon for sending money: the giver is at a higher position and the taker at a lower. We took this cultural tip, and in order to make it gender neutral, we did away with the wallet icon and worked on a third iteration: a hand giving money, with its palm down-turned, seeming like the money is being given from a higher position, a position of power. What we essentially had to understand was the power structure that the exchange of money brings with it. Dene wala (the giver) will always have an upper hand (literally) than the lenewala (the taker). Everyone, literate or illiterate, male or female, finally got it!

Another insightful revelation was regarding hierarchies of content. Some designers claim that hierarchy is an abstraction and that oral cultures do not understand abstraction. While we agree that hierarchy is an abstract concept, we learned that oral individuals struggle only with literate abstractions, not oral ones, and that hierarchy exists as both an oral and literate concept.

The hierarchies contained in market-leading mobile wallets are usually cluttered. For example, the home page of a bank’s mobile application might place 10 major propositions for the user, and several subsidiary ones. Behavioral economist Shlomo Benartzi argues that mobile screens cannot convey more than 4-6 main propositions without generating cognitive discomfort – and this is assuming a literate user. These interfaces typically rely heavily on text to convey far greater precision – and support far greater complexity – than would otherwise be possible.

We tested a prospective hierarchy of content that does away with such conventions. In the figure at right is a wireframe design for a mobile wallet’s home page. It centers on five main propositions, all supported by oral icons tested carefully for guessability and memorability:

  1. The wallet balance: The oral market segment faces very tight cash constraints and wants to be fully in control of this variable at all times. Since most cannot read 4+ digit numbers with confidence, the numeral string is accompanied by a clear image of the cash equivalent.
  2. The most recent transaction record, and a hyperlink to the detailed transaction record through an image of a wallet.
  3. A pathway to add money
  4. A pathway to send money
  5. A pathway to request money

The six subsidiary pathways on the upper and lower strips include:

  1. Home
  2. Personal profile
  3. Help
  4. Mobile recharge
  5. Bill payment
  6. Merchant payment

Our team conducted a usability test for this prospective hierarchy of content with a group of illiterate women to a large degree of success.

Additionally, we took them through the registration page, which had multiple fields to fill. They were briefed on the flow from the top to the bottom. One field required them to pick an image for a security question. Everyone chose the saucepan — something they could readily connect with. After a time gap, we tested recall by asking them to register themselves without help. They did not start at the top; instead, they instantly went to the saucepan option. This revealed two things: 1) The image is relevant to their daily lives, and 2) The top-down information architecture was difficult to grasp.

When the blank input fields on each page were reduced to two, navigation was satisfactorily clarified. Another alternative is to reduce each page to one input field, eliminating any need for user choice. But in that case, even repeated use would offer no support in learning top-bottom protocols.

Of course, amongst many learnings, we did verify that one common misconception about design principles is that it is all about making a product look beautiful. Great designs must get colors, typography, layout and graphics right, but as Don Norman observed in The Design of Everyday Things, this is only one ingredient. Designs must be easily learned and easily used by the target market.

For more on MicroSave’s work in designing mobile money services to fit the needs of illiterate and innumerate clients, click here.

Image credit: Accion

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