Saturday, January 17, 2009

Vodafone: Mobile Devices for Emerging Markets

Over the weekend I discovered an online magazine called Vodafone Receiver. This publication recently released an issue focused on emerging markets that features several interesting perspectives about design and innovation.

Similar to Nokia, Vodafone positions emerging markets as places that offer business opportunities for local and global companies; that have large numbers of people with an entrepreneurial spirit; and where companies can make a positive impact on the development of local communities. The article Poor Markets Make Good Cents lays out this perspective with some interesting supporting evidence.

Phones, Finance and Innovation

First and foremost, during the past couple of years mobile phone adoption rates have skyrocketed in emerging markets throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America. A large demand for mobile technology exists in emerging markets. In many of these countries the landline infrastructure was never adequate to support poor communities. Therefore, this is the first time that many people have had the opportunity to own a phone of any type. The same goes for the computing functionality. A mobile phone tends to be the first information device that these people have experienced since computers are out of reach due to their much higher price tags.

On the supply side two important trends are driving the financing of information and communication technologies in emerging markets. First, the appearance of new institutions dedicated to linking financial markets to social entrepreneurs and ventures that use market forces to drive social change. Secondly, the fact that traditional venture capitalists, who had previously written off these markets, are taking a fresh look at them. These trends help create opportunities for local and foreign entrepreneurs to promote innovations that make a positive impact on local markets.

This article also features interesting examples of mobile services that are positively impacting communities in emerging markets. These examples highlight successful services that were developed to address the specific needs and context of emerging market residents.
  • In 2007, Reuters launched a service called Market Light that provides weather and market information to farmers in India. This information enables farmers to better tend to their crops and to negotiate the fair prices with middlemen.
  • In Bangladesh, a service called CellBazar provides an SMS-based craigslist of sorts. It includes listings for appliances, cars, apartments and even live animals. This service, a spin-off of MIT's Program in Developmental Entrepreneurship, is helping facilitate commerce for individuals and business, and providing both buyers and sellers with access to a much larger marketplace.

The second article of note from this issue of Receiver Magazine is titled Mobile Communication in the Developing World – A Design Challenge. It focuses on human factor insights to help designers create appropriate mobile devices for emerging markets.

Design of Mobile Communications

Development of mobile devices and services has always been, and continues to be, driven primarily by the needs of customers from advanced countries. “Mobile interface design has been aimed at literate, numerate users who follow text-based menus, sometimes read instruction books and have built mental models for how mobiles work based on previous technologies.”

People in emerging markets have significantly different needs, education background and social-cultural perspectives. Most existing mobile interfaces are not appropriate for these markets because they don’t adequately support users who have problems reading and writing, and many native languages. Mobile phones tend to feature functionality that is not relevant for these markets and lacks applications that support specific local needs. So let’s take a look at some important considerations for designing mobile products for the developing world.

The literacy rate is the an important design consideration that is specific to emerging markets. “There are 799 million illiterate people in the world.” Low literacy users are able to make and receive calls but are not able to read text-based menus or take advantage of text-based communication and organization tools. Features such as phone books and asynchronous messaging need to be redesigned for this population. Recently a carrier in India launched a low-cost mobile phone with a voice-based interface and no screen. Called Spice, this device also features a Braille keypad for blind users.

Gaining a deep understanding of social and cultural dynamics is the next important consideration. It is crucial for designers to be able to envision and create relevant products and services. The two services mentioned earlier, and phone banking services are examples of products that were designed with an understanding of local communities and context. They address relevant needs and leverage technologies and interfaces that that are appropriate.

Support for native languages is another consideration that is important, especially in Asia and Africa. Even literate users are unable to read menus written in a language they don’t know how to speak. Therefore, in order for mobile devices to reach their potential handset makers will need to consider development of devices with design hardware and software design features to support additional native languages.

The last, and most obvious, consideration that needs to be kept top-of-mind throughout the design and development process is affordability.

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