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Five Traits of Low-literacy Technology Users – Your Weekend Long Reads

By Steve Vosloo on January 20, 2018

We know that the first step to good human-centered design is understanding your user. IDEO calls this having an empathy mindset, the “capacity to step into other people’s shoes, to understand their lives, and start to solve problems from their perspectives.”

Having empathy can be especially challenging in ICT4D since the people we develop solutions for often live in completely different worlds to us, literally and figuratively.

I’m currently drafting a set of guidelines for more inclusive design of digital solutions for low-literate and low-skilled people. (Your expert input on it will be requested soon!) There are many excellent guides to good ICT4D, and the point is not to duplicate efforts here. Rather, it is to focus the lens on the 750 million people who cannot read or write and the 2 billion people who are semi-literate. In other words, likely a significant portion of your target users.

Globally, the offline population is disproportionately rural, poor, elderly and female. They have limited education and low literacy. Of course people who are low-literate and low-skilled do not constitute a homogeneous group, and differences abound across and within communities.

Despite these variances, and while every user is unique, research has revealed certain traits that are common enough to pull out and be useful in developing empathy for this audience. Each has implications for user-centered design processes and the design of digital solutions (the subject of future posts).

Note: much of the research below comes from Indrani Medhi Thies and the teams she has worked with (including Kentaro Toyama) at Microsoft Research India, developing job boards, maps, agri video libraries and more, for low-literates. If you do nothing else, watch her presentation at HCI 2017, an excellent summary of twelve years of research.

1. Low-literacy is Not Just an Inability to Read

Research suggests that low exposure to education means cognitive skills needed for digital interaction can be underdeveloped. For example, low-literacy users can struggle with transferring learning from one setting to another, such as from instructional videos to implementation in real life. Secondly, conceptualising and navigating information hierarchies can be more challenging than for well educated users (another paper here).

2. Low-literate Users Are Scared and Skeptical of Tech

Unsurprisingly, low literate users are not confident in their use of ICTs. What this means is that they are scared of touching the tech for fear of breaking it. (There are many schools in low-income, rural areas where brand new donated computers are locked up so that nobody uses and damages them!)

Further, even if they don’t break it, they might be seen as not knowing how to use it, causing embarrassment. When they do use tech, they can be easily confused by the UI.

Low-literate users can lack awareness of what digital can deliver, mistrust the technology and doubt that it holds information relevant to their lives.

3. They Are One of Multiple Users

Low-income people often live in close-knit communities. Social norms and hierarchies influence who has access to what technology, how information flows between community members and who is trusted.

Within families, devices are often shared. And when low-literates use the device it may be necessary to involve “infomediaries” to assist, such as read messages, navigate the UI or troubleshoot the tech. Infomediaries can also hinder the experience when their “filtering and funnelling decisions limit the low-literate users’ information-seeking behaviour.”

The implication is that the “target user” is really plural — the node and all the people around him/her. Your digital solution is really for multiple users and used in mediated scenarios.

4. They Are Divided by Gender

Two thirds of the world’s illiterate population are women. They generally use fewer mobile services than men. In South Asia women are 38% less likely than men to own a mobile phone, and are therefore more likely to be “sharing” users. Cultural, social or religious norms can restrict digital access for women, deepening the gender digital divide. In short, for low-literate and low-income users, gender matters.

5. They Are Motivated (Which Can Trump Bad UI)

While we often attribute successful digital usage to good UI, research has shown that motivation is a strong driver for task completion. Despite minimum technical knowledge, urban youth in India hungry for entertainment content traversed as many as 19 steps to Bluetooth music, videos and comedy clips between phones and PCs.

In terms of livelihoods and living, the desire to sell crops for more, have healthier children, access government grants or apply for a visa, are the motivators that we need to tap to engage low-literacy users.

If “sufficient user motivation towards a goal turns UI barriers into mere speed bumps,” do we pay enough attention to how much our users want what we’re offering? This can make or break a project.

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Written by
Steve Vosloo is passionate about using technology in education. He's worked at UNESCO, Pearson South Africa, Stanford University, and the Shuttleworth Foundation on the use of mobile phones for literacy development, how technology can better serve low-skilled users, and the role of digital media for youth. All opinions expressed in this post are his own.
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5 Comments to “Five Traits of Low-literacy Technology Users – Your Weekend Long Reads”

  1. Owen Whitehouse says:

    I really feel that we’re looking at an imminent sea change in these populations with regard to technology. Natural language recognition and AI are going to dramatically change UI design and text adoption, and it has already started. Look no further than Google Buds.
    Once these tech marginalized populations get access to systems that can be interacted with using voice, validated with biometrics and all in the language they are accustomed to, we will see dramatic changes.

    • Steven VOSLOO says:

      Thanks Owen, that’s an interest perspective. I think there will be some major challenges to overcome before we get to the scenario you describe, but maybe not. You’ve inspired my next post 🙂