Designing Products and Services for Illiterate Users

By Ruth Branvall, Innovations Against Poverty

Designing Products and Services for Illiterate Users

Designing services and communications for illiterate people is a common challenge for many businesses operating in rural areas in emerging countries.

In Ethiopia, M-Birr is currently in the final phase of piloting the country’s first mobile money service, in collaboration with several micro-finance institutions. The service enables people to conduct basic financial transactions from their mobile phone, including sending and receiving money, paying bills, receiving salaries and repaying loans.

A majority of M-Birr’s customers are illiterate and use simple handsets. Four languages are widely spoken – Amharic, Oromiffa, Tigrinya and English – of which two do not use Latin characters. M-Birr provides its service in all of these languages, but had to adapt its user interface to languages with characters that do not exist on most mobile phones and to users who cannot read. Amharic for example is written in a script known as Fidel.

“We cannot use Fidel characters on the handset, so instead we are writing the phonetic equivalent with Latin letters. People here are quite used to that, so it works,” explains Thierry Artaud, Managing Director at M-Birr.

Reading is still a challenge for many, no matter which language. M-Birr has chosen to design their service using USSD, which is similar to SMS, with the difference that the user will only need to enter numbers in response to a menu, where each number corresponds to a given list of choices or replies.

It is only the agent who uses letters when they enter the name and details of customers into their system.

But surely this process would still be challenging to understand if you are illiterate? M-Birr’s approach is to provide user support through sales agents:

“Usually when they register they are with an agent who will help them with the registration process. The agent asks them what language they want and then trains them to use the service. When money is involved people learn faster, I think! There is money to be collected and to be received. Sometimes people do transfer to the wrong people, because they have entered the wrong number, but it is never lost since we have everything on record. People tend to send money to the same people, so the number is usually saved as a name and then the user chooses this name for the next transfer, rather than entering the number again.”

Thierry Artaud refers to the mechanisms that work for many of us when we deal with the same automated customer service regularly. If, for example, you call into an automated call centre, you will quickly learn what choice 1, 2, 3 etc stand for and do not need to listen to the full message. “Anyone who designs these types of services just has to ensure consistency and that the menu structure stays the same.”

To design a product well for someone who is not able to read will require a lot of creative thinking. And a lot of testing, since it seems incredibly difficult to get it right. In this month’s Spotlight I have interviewed 4 companies that have developed their own practices to ensure that services are understood and can be used by anybody. Read some of their insights here.

Do you work for, or know of, a company that is designing products and communications material for illiterate users – post a comment here! We would love to add more good examples.

Editor’s Note:

A version of this blog was first published on The Practitioner Hub and is reproduced with permission.

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2 Responses

  1. Whilst working in Tanzania we designed and developed a mobile app for market information services and faced some of the same issues of illiteracy, finding numbers were better recognised than the alphabet.  After research we utilised some of the local networks of agents and officers to train farmers on dissemination on the dissemination process.  And, as USSD was already active for money transfer services we decided to use the same process for MIS.

    However, our challenge didn’t end there.  It became apparent very quickly that despite help and training from agents on how to use the service it was also very important for farmers to be trained on the cost / benefit analysis of using the service.  Many farmers immediately had raised expectations of getting those same prices for their produce.  We had to conduct training and updates to advise farmers that markets did not purchase directly from farmers.

    The solution is not simply about developing the right technology but about developing a system of processes that interact seamlessly with the technology.

  2. It is important to consider all the available technologies when designing services for illiterate people; using voice based services can have advantages over text messaging or data. In particular, voice has the potential to reach a larger share of the market, as it avoids literacy barriers (both language and technical). Voice also has cost advantages to the service provider, as it has lower long term costs than SMS. (see MDI’s report, ‘Value of voice’ here:… )



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