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Designing for Illiteracy

The use of technology, especially mobile phones, in poor and developing countries presents huge opportunities for designers. Mobile banking and microfinancing, as just two examples, can help the poor and unbanked with financial services and business support.

But it was only after seeing the work by Indrani Medhi that it I grasped one of the deepest underlying design challenges: many of these people are illiterate. In fact there are over two billion people, worldwide, who are illiterate.

Indrani’s research on “Text Free User Interfaces” (in Microsoft’s Technology for Emerging Markets group) proposes a solution that’s both simple and rational. The interfaces are based on “extensive use of hand-drawn, semi-abstracted cartoons with voice annotation, aggressive mouse-over functionality, a consistent help feature, and looping full-context video dramatizing the purpose and mechanism of the application.” The video demos are particularly important because users may not fully understand what is happening behind the abstraction of the interface. And the hand-drawn illustrations are important because meaningful icons vary so much between cultures.

The interfaces themselves don’t look very fancy. And the UI doesn’t appear to be much more than assisted menu-based guidance. But, for their audience, they work. It’ll be interesting to see how this research develops as higher quality displays and UI capabilities (such as future generations of the OLPC) become affordable to this audience.

(Link via Technology Review, which listed Indrani as one of their TR35 2010 innovators. The work was also part of MoMA’s Design and the Elastic Mind exhibit.)