Oral Users and Digital Payments: Can Existing Interfaces be Adapted?

A lack of formal numeracy shouldn't preclude access to digital financial services.

Oral users track dates by following seasons and lunar cycles, and digital interfaces can reflect this.

The digital payments revolution is aided in part by the rapid adoption of smartphones. In India, several enabling factors have contributed to this favourable outcome:

  1. Smartphones are increasingly available at prices within the budget of low-income people.
  2. Fintech APIs are emerging to meet the unserved financial services demand of this segment.
  3. There’s a push from the government to improve internet connectivity and provide an enabling regulatory environment for fintechs.

However, universal access to digital financial services (DFS) is constrained by the fact that, globally, 14 percent of the population is illiterate. Many low-income people have difficulty decoding the meaning behind numbers and words when they’re presented as text on a screen. This poses a great barrier for this segment to decipher the user interface of smartphone applications. As they have grown up without formal literacy or numeracy, these people are likely to be reluctant to shift away from the oral culture they are used to, where information is recorded, processed, and managed without text.

Many low-income people have difficulty decoding the meaning behind numbers and words when they’re presented as text on a screen.

It’s no wonder that in India, for example, only 2 percent of those with primary education or less have used their mobile phones to access their bank accounts. According to research conducted this year with CGAP, a large fraction of the population — almost 1 billion adults worldwide — cannot read numbers larger than 10 when displayed in Indo-Arabic notation in their own currencies. The research provided compelling evidence from two national surveys conducted on a random basis.

A Digital Wallet for Oral Users: Design Principles and Considerations

Led by Brett Matthews, the founder of My Oral Village, a team from MicroSave Consulting (MSC) developed a concept-level, mobile digital wallet for oral users in 2017. This design featured a cash keyboard where oral users could input the amount using images of currency notes, an address book that oral users could update by themselves through photographs, and oral icons to support navigation through key transactions, such as sending and requesting money.

The principles of oral information management (OIM) must, therefore, govern sound interface designs. These principles include two significant factors for the adaptation of mobile wallets, mobile banking and other fintech applications.

  • OIM designs build cognitive bridges that support the easy acquisition of vital numeracy and literacy skills. For example, customers need the ability to read multi-digit numbers, navigate through a transaction, or use a personal transaction history.
  • OIM designs should not cause embarrassment to literate users, such as through iconography that reduces the seriousness and sensitivity associated with money, essential for building trust in the consumers.

Mnemonics Hold Promise

Mnemonics transposed on a standard digital numeric keypad.

Mnemonics transposed on a standard digital numeric keypad.

A key aspect of OIM is the introduction of mnemonics at critical points where the oral person might face maximum hindrance and discouragement. The ubiquitous passwords and PINs required for logging-in is one such example. Since the lives of oral people are rarely informed by interaction with digits, they have problems remembering multi-digit strings.

However, mnemonics tailored for oral people provide a key. Mnemonics forge associations with life events, situations, objects, and actions. These mnemonics are drawn from the lives of oral people themselves. The digit 7, thus, might be imagined as an axe, which resonates with many rural communities (see figure to the right). Such mnemonics can be transposed with the numerals in the keypad of mobile wallets/fintech applications such that oral users develop a familiarity with numerals over a period of time.

Each such digit can be accompanied by a variety of mnemonics — a library of icons from which different digital payments users can choose depending on their relevance and context. Mnemonics are an essential component of the cognitive scaffolding that oral users require to inhabit the world of DFS comfortably.

Navigation Considerations

Another essential component of this scaffolding is the navigation flow in the user interface, which must be intuitive—or easily guessed—by an oral person. Industry selection of graphics and icons rarely considers the needs of unschooled users. Earlier research has shown that the oral population struggles to understand these icons. In this round of field research, we tested simple emoticons, such as happy, neutral, and sad faces, and found that users often guess these incorrectly as well. Empirically grounded oral iconography that is built around the idioms used by such people is the bulwark of sound OIM design. Through our past field tests, we have been able to arrive at icons for essential features, such as “send” and “receive.”

Time and Date for Oral Users

Those without numeracy use oral, event-based measures of time rather than the modern calendars and clocks found in existing digital applications. For example, “07/12/2018” may fail to convey the intended meaning to oral users.

Oral people track time through days, seasons, life cycle events, and festivities. Their conceptions of time should, therefore, integrate into the user interface, with ready access to modern analogs. Hours, days, months, and years all pose unique challenges. For example, can a picture of a moon depict a month? Oral users think practically and may ask, “Does a full moon represent a month or only its full phase?” Events like account opening, or a user’s actual transactions, offer a more practical foundation for an OIM solution. This proves useful while designing the transaction history page—an important enabler for building trust in the digital world.

Members of the MicroSave, My Oral Village and Alliance University (Bengaluru) design team at work, conceptualizing time in an oral culture.
Members of the MicroSave, My Oral Village and Alliance University (Bengaluru) design team at work, conceptualizing time in an oral culture.

A Bridge to Mainstream Interfaces

OIM tools can be adopted as an ancillary “language” within any mobile wallet/fintech app, set by using a language toggle. Just as the availability of multiple languages does not change the prime product, OIM does not change it either. By overlaying oral designs above the prime interface, OIM cues the oral user to adapt to the product’s layout, text, and the numerals over time. All OIM mobile designs promote mainstream learnability, such that oral users can steadily and securely make progress towards acquiring fluency with the primary interface should they choose to do so. OIM solutions can marry digital solutions and oral customers’ behaviours. Emphasis on QR codes through OIMs can also help, as it provides the visual cues to conduct a transaction successfully.

An Unmet Need

Nearly 1.5 billion adults worldwide—mostly women in rural areas—comprising those who either cannot read and write or have had poor learning outcomes, cannot use mobile wallets and other fintech applications in their current UI designs. Together all the stakeholders can help the oral users make a smooth and sustainable transition to the digital wold. Financial services providers and regulators have a major opportunity to bridge the digital divide worldwide by rewiring digital financial services using principles of oral information management.

The potential value offered by such a large customer base is huge: in India, if just 10 percent of overall monthly expenditures by an oral person were transacted digitally in 2017, it could add up to $1.6 billion overall for the digital payments industry.

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