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Designing for Women: The Mobile Challenge

by: Christopher Burns, Economic Growth and Agricultural Development Advisor, U.S. Agency for International Development

December 6, 2012

WISENET (Women in ICTs Shared Excellence Network) is the International Bureau’s convening platform that aims to leverage the experience, resources and connections of the international ICT community to better the situation of women, their communities and their countries. As part of this work, the FCC has invited prominent women and men in technology from around the world to post blogs sharing their experiences.

Imagine if you picked up a smartphone and didn’t know how to use it.  The frustration of of holding such a powerful device in the palm of your hand but not being able to use it could be enormous.  For many technically illiterate women in the developing world, navigating a smartphone or even a more basic feature phone is a real challenge.

Based on research performed in Egypt, India, Papua New Guinea and Uganda, as part of the GSMA mWomen Program, we know that on average, resource-poor women are 22% less likely to want a mobile phone because they would not know how to use it.  Yet we also know from other GSMA research that mobile phones afford women critical entrepreneurial opportunities, security, and a greater sense of family connection.

Mobile phone use in the developing world is exploding, yet women in these countries are at a high risk of being left behind, missing out on opportunities and services from education to healthcare.  Making the user experience easier would open up a multitude of possibilities.

So what if there was a more intuitive way of navigating a smart phone? In partnership with USAID, the GSMA mWomen Program, has set out to do just that, by launching the GSMA mWomen Design Challenge: Redefining the User Experience.  Announced at the third annual Social Good Summit in New York in September, the Design Challenge asked designers, programmers and innovators of all kinds to consider the user experience of resource-poor women and re-imagine a smartphone’s core user interface to be more intuitive and accessible. Through submissions from the global design and development community, the GSMA mWomen Program seeks to increase access to life enhancing mobile services so that regardless of someone’s skill level, they can pick up a phone and maximize its potential.

At the Social Good Summit, USAID, GSMA, the Australian Agency for International Development, Qtel Group and the design firm Huge, shared possible approaches to solving this issue, as well as, factors that need to be taken into account in addressing the design challenge.  For example, designs need to be appropriate for first-time smartphone users with limited basic and technical literacy. Many people who cannot read or write can recognize numbers, important words and symbols. Further, designs will also need to consider the universality of iconography and whether or not icons need to be localized in order to resonate with users.

Research suggests that, in addition to providing women in the developing world with an added sense of security, mobile phones can also be empowering, helping to improve quality of life and provide social and economic benefits.  Mobile technology is a lever for large-scale economic development: in one study, a 10% increase in mobile phone penetration was linked to a 1.2% increase in GDP in low and middle-income countries. Mobile phones are a real game-changer when it comes to tackling global challenges around the world. But if the functional user interfaces for mobile devices are not adapted, hundreds of millions of women risk being left out in this next mobile revolution.  That is a risk we cannot afford to take.

To learn more about women in ICT see: WISENET: the Women in ICTs Shared Excellence Network

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