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Four Obvious Yet Completely Wrong Assumptions About Technology Use in the Developing World

By Guest Writer on July 25, 2011

I am Patrick Meier and I’ve spent the past week at the iLab in Liberia and got what I came for: an updated reality check on the limitations of technology adoption in developing countries. Below are some of the assumptions that I took for granted. They’re perfectly obvious in hindsight and I’m annoyed at myself for not having realized their obviousness sooner. I’d be very interested in hearing from others about these and reading their lists. This need not be limited to one particular sector like ICT for Development (ICT4D) or Mobile Health (mHealth). Many of these assumptions have repercussions across multiple disciplines.

Predictive Text on Mobile Phones

The following examples come from conversations with my colleague Kate Cummings who directs Ushahidi Liberia and the iLab here in Monrovia. She and her truly outstanding team – Kpetermeni Siakor, Carter Draper, Luther Jeke, and Anthony Kamah – spearheaded a number of excellent training workshops over the past few days.

At one point we began discussing the reasons for the limited use of SMS in Liberia. There are the usual and obvious reasons. But the one hurdle I had not expected to hear was Nokia’s predictive text functionality. This feature is incredibly helpful since the mobile phone basically guesses which words you’re trying to write so you don’t have to type every single letter.

But as soon as she pointed out how confusing this can be, I immediately understood what she meant. If I had never seen or been warned about this feature before, I’d honestly think the phone was broken. It would really be impossible to type with. I’d get frustrated and give up (the tiny screen further adds to the frustration).

And if I was new to mobile phones, it wouldn’t be obvious how to switch that feature off either. (There are several tutorials online on how to use the predictive text feature and how to turn it off, which clearly proves they’re not intuitive).

Satellite Imagery & Maps

In one of the training workshops we just had, I was explaining what Walking Papers was about and how it might be useful in Liberia. So I showed the example below and continued talking. But Kate jumped in and asked participants: “What do you see in this picture? Do you see the trees, the little roads?” She pointed at the features as she described the individual shapes.

This is when it dawned on me that there is absolutely nothing inherently intuitive about satellite images. Most people on this planet have not been on an airplane or a tall building. So why would a bird’s eye view of their village be anything remotely recognizable? I really kicked myself on that one. So I’ll write it again: there is nothing intuitive about satellite imagery. Nor is there anything intuitive about GPS and the existence of a latitude and longitude coordinate system.


Kate went on to explain that this kind of picture is what you would see if you were flying high like a bird. That was the way I should have introduced the image but I had taken it completely for granted that satellite imagery was self-explanatory when it simply isn’t. In further conversations with Kate, she explained that they too had made that assumption early on when trying to introduce the in’s and out’s of the Ushahidi platform. They quickly realized that they had to rethink their approach and decided to provide introductory courses on Google Maps instead.

Google Maps user interface

More wrong assumptions revealed themselves during the workshops. For example, the “+” and “-” markers on Google Map are not intuitive either nor is the concept of zooming in and out. How are you supposed to understand that pressing these buttons still shows the same map but at a different scale and not an entirely different picture instead?

Again, when I took a moment to think about this, I realized how completely confusing that could be. And again I kicked myself. But contrast this to an entirely different setting, San Francisco, where some friends recently told me how their five year old went up to a framed picture in their living room and started pinching at it with his fingers, the exact same gestures one would use on an iPhone to zoom in and out of a picture. “Broken, broken” is all the five year old said after that disappointing experience.

PIN Numbers

The final example actually comes from Haiti where my colleague Chrissy Martin is one of the main drivers behind the Digicel Group’s mobile banking efforts in the country. T

here were of course a number of expected challenges on the road to launching Haiti’s first successful mobile banking service, TchoTcho Mobile. The hurdle that I had not expected, however, had to do with the pin code. To use the service, you would enter your own personal pin number on your mobile phone in order to access your account. Seems perfectly straight forward. But it really isn’t.

The concept of a pin number is one that many of us take completely for granted. But the idea is often foreign to many would-be users of mobile banking services and not just in Haiti. Think about it: all one has to do to access all my money is to simply enter four numbers on my phone. That does genuinely sound crazy to me at a certain level.

Granted, if you guess the pin wrong three times, the phone gets blocked and you have to call TchoTcho’s customer service. But still, I can understand the initial hesitation that many users had. When I asked Chrissy how they overcame the hurdle, her answer was simply this: training. It takes time for users to begin trusting a completely new technology.

So those are some of the assumptions I’ve gotten wrong. I’d be grateful if readers could share theirs, as there must be plenty of other assumptions I’m making which don’t fit reality. Incidentally, I realize that emerging economies vary widely in technology diffusion and adoption—not to mention sub-nationally as well. This is why having the iLab in Liberia is so important. Identifying which assumptions are wrong in more challenging environments is really important if our goal is to use technology to help contribute meaningfully to a community’s empowerment, development and independence.

Patrick Meier originally published this post as A List of Completely Wrong Assumptions About Technology Use in Emerging Economies


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5 Comments to “Four Obvious Yet Completely Wrong Assumptions About Technology Use in the Developing World”

  1. Nana Kwabena owusu says:

    I read this article and immediately felt, no way, you guys read my inbox this morning and sent me that….

    I am experiencing exactly this type of issue and it is not within ICT4D or in any such context, just with a new service our business is trying to provide, listing deals and discounts online for companies in Ghana.

    We are attempting to start local and go national and with national brands, I had assumed that each regional branch will have access to some basic digital assets (logo, images of products), after all they sell these items. I discovered otherwise.

    I am humbled at the scale of the challenge which up to now had felt like a technical and ideological challenge, that is, site dev and design and also convincing them to try an online service.

    I had not anticipated that just because some of our target clients are big players in their category does not mean they have a streamlined system in place for digital asset management in even its most basic form and that since marketing is a head office (usually in Accra) oriented activity, we have to account for that.

    Sometimes when you are an avid user of technology your assumptions can be so off, you feel silly in hindsight. You live and you learn.

  2. Shalini K says:

    For me there is a simple explanation to the instances you have cited. Applications and technologies are predominantly developed by and for those of us who are either in the “developed west” or the urban part of the developing world, and in response to our problems. We shouldn’t expect these technologies to work for others who operate in a fairly different and diverse milieu of settings. So, please don’t kick yourself.

    Clearly, the answer, as you say is in initiatives that either help adapt and embed technologies in a different setting or develop new ones altogether. And are based in these contexts for local participation and probably leadership. Isn’t it a real plus that ICTs allow for close customization and lend themselves well to democratic decentralization?

    I fail to understand why Nokia or other handset makers do not design for such markets; wouldn’t the developing country users collectively be a huge market, probably low value and high volume, but still big? Are these bad business areas? Isn’t it the same argument that was made for the markets for consumables in rural areas some decades ago? I can tell you from the experience in India, once some smart entrepreneur understood that the way to tap the rural Indian market was not by offering discounts on big size shampoos and soaps but by making available one-time use saches, all followed including some of the biggest Indian and International companies. Maybe we need similar out-of-the-box thinking for ICT tools.

    As people committed to enhance the reach of ICTs for socially purposeful initiatives, I think its important to share these learning and explore together the possible solutions. Thanks for your note.

  3. If one’s job is to design something, you have to design with your intended audience in mind. Just like the Windows desktop interface wasn’t at all intuitive to our parents’ generation when they started to use computers, interacting with mappmg applications won’t be too intuitive for users who didn’t grow up with the web.
    To be honest, I’m a bit surprised you are surprised by the height of the threshold of these unconventional, or new, for their market, solutions.

    Wide acceptance of pin-based transactions took many years, in the west. Plenty of my friends still don’t use predictive texting and it’s painful when I see my mum struggling with the google maps interface (“isn’t it OBVIOUS?!”) while she is someone who *has* been at the top of tall buildings and has been flying for many decades.

  4. Stephane says:

    The predictive text on the mobile phone is even more frustrating when the user tries to type in his local language which is not supported by the device of course. Try to type in Haitian Creole and see your text being corrected in French or even worse in English!!!

  5. peter van dijk says:

    In South Africa, one of the world’s most developed financial markets, poor borrowers are regularly obliged by lenders, including regulated ones, to provide bank card and PIN so that bank staff can collect the repayments. And this although it is legally prohibited.

    Please stand a moment still and try and imagine what this means for poor people in less developed markets, sectors, with less consumer protection. And then compare to “our” situation. How long do poor people have what kind of working hand phone, how do they memorise codes? What are the realities of mobile phones with stored addresses and numbers changing hands, voluntarily or forced, and how easy is it to force someone to provide the PIN?

    Me, I have a direct contact with my bank and at least two bank staff know me over a long period. I regularly let them know about my realities, about my missions to certain countries and I regularly review with them my account, products, use of data. I have only one bank and two cards and me and the bank agreed on how to re-act when a card gets stolen or if there is any misunderstanding of sums of money taken of (debited) or added (credited) onto my accounts.

    Will a handphone company or the telecom company ever take over the same obligations and undertake all the necessary actions?? Of course not, ask Safaricom of the globally applauded M-Pesa in Kenya. What if the grocery shopkeeper in a Nairobi slum is robbed from the money of all depositors on his/her way to the bank on a bicycle (from which services he only gets a tiny commission)??