Designing for Low-Literate Users in Rural India

As a School of Information Global Information Engagement Program fellow in 2014, I worked with two teammates as user experience research and design consultants for Digital Green, an international development not-for-profit organization headquartered in New Delhi, India. Their innovative approach centers around using community-created videos to share knowledge and spread farming best practices across India and Sub-Saharan Africa. We were tasked with designing a Virtual Training Institute (VTI) for accrediting agricultural workers that could accommodate a wide spectrum of users. On one end, we were designing quality assurance mechanisms for Delhi headquarter employees with advanced degrees, regular access to new technology, and high literacy levels in English as well as their mother tongues. On the other end, we needed to provide educational content to farmers who often have limited education, partial or no written literacy in any language, and little or no exposure to computers. 

A meeting of agricultural knowledge leaders in a village in Bihar, India

A meeting of agricultural knowledge leaders in a village in Bihar, India

Having done a significant amount of working, studying, and traveling in India, I was excited to return back to a familiar environment. But there was one particular aspect of the project that intrigued me most: working with low-literate and illiterate user populations. Being in an information school, we were accustomed to constantly talking about new technologies and the latest gadgets. Most of the projects we did focused on a very specific segment of users—people with easy access to computers and the internet who can read, write, and understand at least basic English. Digital Green provided us with an opportunity to explore design in an entirely new context. 

Leader from a partner organization based in Bihar

Leader from a partner organization based in Bihar

To do user research in the field in Bihar, India, we paired up with local people and organizations that already worked within the communities we wished to engage with and observe. This was vital in establishing trust and comfort, obtaining higher quality data, and accessing a great deal of information that would otherwise be inaccessible to us as outsiders. We were prepared to face unique challenges with most all of our research taking place in group settings. But we also recognized the importance of observing interactions in these contexts, as relationships between actors in Digital Green's model are often heavily dependent on social norms. For example, my two male partners had little to no opportunity to interact directly with women; on the other hand, I and our female partner from the Delhi headquarters could spark up conversation with females without issue and in some cases were even allowed into closed physical spaces that the males were not. 

Members of the whole community typically join knowledge dissemination sessions

Members of the whole community typically join knowledge dissemination sessions

By combining insights from extensive literature review and research in the field, we identified several key principles to incorporate into our designs: 

  • Graphical support using icons, pictures, etc. is key. Studies have shown that illiterate users cannot navigate fully text-based systems independently, even with a great deal of prompting and assistance.
  • Visual representations of concepts and objects are never "standard" and can vary significantly in different cultural and societal contexts. Iconography used in any system should undergo rigorous user testing. 
  • Voice or audio support can effectively communicate large amounts of organized information to users with low literacy, especially when combined with appropriate graphics.
  • Prominent help functions can increase comfort and enthusiasm for participants, and provide reassurance when they get stuck or don’t understand a function.
  • Navigation should be relatively shallow and streamlined as much as possible to mitigate confusion and decrease complexity of the system for users.
  • An introductory video can increase the quality of a user’s experience. Explaining how a program can help a user directly, demonstrating how to navigate the system, and in some cases, describing what computers are capable of, can bolster enthusiasm for the product or service.
  • Users sometimes feel strongly about integrating social status into systems. For example, some people may feel that their high status in real life should be reflected in an open forum to give legitimacy to their answers or accurately reflect their position in society. This may or may not be appropriate depending on the goals of the project.
  • A human touch can be especially effective. Associating a help function with the picture of a familiar community leader or providing audio instructions with the voice of a well-known neighbor can make participants more at ease and boost their confidence in the system’s capabilities and their abilities to use it.

If nothing else, working with Digital Green reinforced my passion for acting as a strong user advocate. I got to put into practice many of the research methodologies I'm most comfortable with in a setting unlike any I'd encounter at home in the U.S.