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5 Guidelines for Using Mobile Messaging Applications in International Development

By Wayan Vota on September 10, 2018

messenger applications international development

By 2018, 3.6 billion people were using mobile messaging applications – nearly half of humanity. This has been both a driver and a result of increased connectivity in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa, which in 2017 surpassed the United States and Europe’s combined global share of mobile connections and internet users and is now second only to Asia.

Africa alone reached 191 million social media and messaging app users, 90 percent of whom are mobile and the majority of whom use only WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, the world’s most popular messaging apps.

This rapid growth presents an unprecedented opportunity for the international development and humanitarian sectors to engage directly with the populations they serve. To better understand this opportunity and capture lessons from organizations already using messaging apps, DIAL commissioned research by Echo Mobile to examine how and to what effect international development organizations have used messaging apps, capturing lessons for development and technology practitioners.

Those lessons are synthesized in the DIAL Messaging Apps for Development white paper and exemplified in the project summaries and case studies. From in-depth research into these cases, Echo found that the following considerations are essential for successful project design when deploying messaging apps for development:

1. Go Where the People’s Attention Is

Development organizations that introduced messaging apps to groups of people who were not already familiar with them struggled to compete for users’ attention against their prevailing preferences—whether that be other messaging apps, voice calls, SMS or social media. Users are unlikely to use their finite mobile data packages and time to download and learn a new app when they are already comfortable with a different one, especially if the new app serves only one new purpose.

Organizations that were most successful used messaging apps that were already popular in that community for communicating with family and friends, conducting business, and staying up to date on current events. By leveraging familiar communications channels, development organizations removed the need to promote and fund their adoption, train users, and troubleshoot technical issues. Instead, they built on existing behaviors and habits in order to drive and sustain engagement.

2. Focus on User Needs Over Implementer Needs

The first Principle of Digital Development is “design with the user.” The experiences of development organizations reviewed in the appended case studies and Project Catalog underscore the importance of this principle when deploying messaging apps for development.

Organizations that prioritized implementation concerns and failed to test assumptions about user needs struggled to scale and sustain their engagement or realized too late that they were solving the wrong problems. This forced some to eventually change how they used messaging apps or abandon them altogether. Conversely, those organizations that invested early in understanding user needs avoided these costly project design pivots.

Organizations and teams like WFP adapted early based on the results of field testing that revealed a better way to meet user needs, while WTS and ECAP adapted their approach later, when their scale exceeded their management capacity. In each of these cases, user behavior and feedback were monitored continuously for insights into user needs and behaviors, and the organizations remained flexible and adaptive in their use of messaging apps in order to meet those needs effectively.

Organizations that sought to save time and money by skipping user-centered design research, relying instead on untested assumptions about their needs or making decisions based on ease and cost of integration, ultimately failed to scale and sustain their efforts. Many also bore significant unexpected downstream costs.

3. Engage More Users With Multiple Channels

Messaging apps remain just one of a wide range of communication channels accessible to development organizations and their target audiences. Echo’s research found that development organizations that were most successful at meeting the needs of the most users were those that combined messaging apps with other channels, most notably SMS. Using SMS ensures that those who lack access to a smartphone can still access development services and resources.

Even for those who do have smartphones, development organizations can deploy zero-rated or reverse- billed SMS in many countries, making all incoming and outgoing messages free for the user. Meanwhile, mobile data is relatively costly and WiFi is not always available, making messaging apps more expensive and less preferable for many users.

However, messaging apps usually provide a cheaper and preferable option for implementers. Organizations incur higher messaging costs when conducting zero-rated or reverse-billed SMS messaging, which also requires third-party providers, technical integrations with MNOs, and/or the maintenance of multiple systems. Development organizations should weigh the costs and benefits of messaging apps against SMS and prioritize whichever is preferable and accessible to more users. Where possible, they should deploy both to increase scale and impact.

4. Prioritize Communications Content and Personnel

Messaging apps and chatbots cannot be effective without considerable human support and involvement, either in the form of well-staffed, in-house teams or outsourced partners. Personnel are critical for producing content, conducting continuous communications, and monitoring and analyzing user behavior and data for project improvements and decision-making.

Each of these roles requires sectoral expertise and familiarity with the target audience. Engineering capacity may also be essential for any technical integration or chatbot development, but even a fully integrated and automated messaging system still requires considerable human intervention to monitor user behavior and provide effective, well- designed content.

Development organizations had the most success with messaging apps when they built and maintained teams dedicated to continuous content development, as well as sector experts and data analysts.

5. Partner for Scale and Technical Expertise

Many organizations achieved scale and impact by partnering with government ministries that enabled national scale, creative organization agencies that helped generate effective content, and messaging app providers that agreed to let development organizations pilot nonstandard features.

Governments can help overcome challenges to scale. Third-party developers can help overcome technical limitations. Messaging app providers can help overcome limitations of features and policies. Partners can help provide technical content

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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