The Next Billion Users

Roman Mars:
Every week, millions of people come online for the very first time. And everyone, no matter where they live, what language they speak, or their level of digital literacy, deserves an internet that was made for them. Google’s Next Billion Users Initiative conducts research and builds products for everyone, everywhere. Visit nextbillionusers.google to hear their stories.

Roman Mars:
What follows is a story I produced at the behest of Google’s Next Billion Users Initiative. They paid me to make it, but I still followed my own interests and talked to who I wanted to and produce the episode to be valuable and relevant to people interested in design. I actually really liked the result. But they did pay me, and I want you to know that, because it matters. This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
We started with a typewriter. A mechanical key was struck, the type lever was pushed down, the type bar that corresponded to the key that was pressed rose up and slammed onto the ink ribbon in front of a piece of paper. It was all very kinetic and satisfying. But there was a problem. With old typewriters, if you typed too fast, the typebars that were close together could crash into each other. So a man named Christopher Latham Sholes created a hack. Instead of all the letters being in an intuitive alphabetical order, he separated common pairs of keys and scattered them across the keyboard so their typebars wouldn’t jam. The first six letters across the top row of Shoals typewriter for Q-W-E-R-T-Y, QWERTY. Typists got so adept with this configuration that even when typewriter mechanics evolved way beyond the point of needing key separated, the layout stuck around. And then defying all adaptive logic completely, the layout stuck around on the computer keyboard as well.

Roman Mars:
Then we got so used to the QWERTY keyboard as an input device. It stuck around on smartphones too, even though using a tiny digital keyboard is nothing any user experience designer would design for smartphones if they were starting from scratch. But that’s how evolution is. Unless there’s overwhelming pressure to push us in a new direction, we stay on the same path. The QWERTY keyboard becomes less and less useful over time, but it hangs around until all of its drawbacks accumulate and it hits an obstacle so big, so powerful, that it cannot be steamrolled by history or habit. It hits… India.

Asif Baki:
For Indic languages, and those are languages from India and the Indian Subcontinent, there are so many diacritical marks and ascenders and descenders. Typing on a keyboard like that, I’m sure there have been numerous PhDs written on redesigning Indian keyboards. Because guess what, none of them work.

Roman Mars:
That is Asif Baki.

Asif Baki:
I’m a UX Director at Google with the Next Billion Users Team.

Roman Mars:
NBU initiative is on a mission.

Asif Baki:
The majority of the growth for the internet is actually going to happen around the world, places outside of the United States and outside of what we have known in the past as being the developed markets. Those are terms that I’m not personally fond of, but the idea of the growth being around the world, we have to understand people around the world. And so this team is really based on understanding people around the world and their needs as they come online and developing experiences specifically for them.

Roman Mars:
There is no one single NBU user. I mean, it’s right there in the name, there’s a billion of them. But they’re also spread across the globe and different technology has reached them at different rates, which creates a problem because just like the QWERTY keyboard, technology is built on the carcasses of older technology. And if the next billionth user has no experience with the last older technology, the leap to a new device involves getting across a wider and wider account.

Asif Baki:
One of the metaphors that we’re used to, are ones that are deeply ingrained from us in us because of what we’ve learned from the desktop experience. And I don’t think we realize how much of the desktop experience we’ve left on the mobile phone. I look at the internet and I look at browsers and I look at all the ways that we experience the internet on mobile phones today. And there’s so many things that I just take for granted. The idea of scrolling, right? It’s not the same as flipping a page.

Roman Mars:
Even actions that are thoughtfully considered specifically for a smartphone can be a challenge for a new user. Take as a hypothetical example, Claudia from Mexico City.

Asif Baki:
Or even a town outside of Mexico City.

Roman Mars:
Okay. Claudia from Toluca.

Asif Baki:
She’s new to the internet and she’s coming online for the first time. Or even just, has seen technology, it’s been around her. She’s had friends or relatives that have used that technology. And she’s always felt a little bit of anxiety of “this is not for me.”

Roman Mars:
And this is something that a company like Google doesn’t want. Because make no mistake, they want Claudia as a customer and making products and experiences that don’t stress her out is a key to this. If they lose her now, they may lose her forever.

Asif Baki:
But yet she pushes herself and she either starts using a friend’s phone or using her spouse’s phone or using maybe even her son’s phone, just to start experimenting. The types of problems that she runs into are numerous. She picks up the phone for the first time. What does it mean to unlock a phone? I mean, it doesn’t have a key.

Roman Mars:
She’s seen people swipe, so she tries swiping.

Asif Baki:
And so you start swiping in every direction because that’s just the way to exit phones. Swiping, tapping, it looks great, but it doesn’t mean anything, right? So these metaphors that you and I have come to appreciate and understand because of the fact that we’ve learned through trial and error, but still have that implicit confidence. She doesn’t have that confidence.

Roman Mars:
To complicate matters further, the ways she needs to use this phone may not be the ones anticipated by the people designing for the first billion users.

Asif Baki:
And so she swipes right, because she’s told to. It unlocks the phone or whatever it might be, right? Swipes up and it types in the password because many of these phones are actually locked because they’re multi-user devices, multiple people are using the same device.

Roman Mars:
And this is just to get to the point of getting the phone unlocked. After this, she has to contend with all the individual apps that may have been loaded on there by any one of the multiple users of the phone. And it just gets exponentially more complicated and unpredictable from there. That’s not to say that there aren’t some designs that just work no matter who was using them.

Asif Baki:
Let’s look at Google maps, right? And photos to a certain extent, pinching and zooming. It’s one of those things that you see two-year-olds doing on devices. And because of that, you realize the intuition is deep. The thing about it is that you’re grabbing onto something and you’re pulling out, right? Or you’re pushing on something and you’re pushing it away. That’s just a very thoughtful gesture, which I’m extremely appreciative of. I don’t know who came up with it.

Roman Mars:
But overall, there are very few user experiences on it like pinching and zooming that seemed to transcend age and cultural boundaries. So the work of Asif, in the NBU initiative, is to design things on a foundation of empirical research. It starts with talking, asking questions and living around the people they’re designing for. The key is to listen.

Asif Baki:
You are walking down the streets of Bangalore, doing small-medium business research for a payments product we were working on. And one of the product managers I was with looked at the general experience and was trying to summarize over the course of the interviews we had done for the day and said, “We need to digitize their ledger.” He noted rightfully, correctly, that at the end of the day, the merchant would sit down with his notebook and do some math and have to go through the entire inventory and make sure he understood or she understood, this is exactly how much has gone out of the store, this is how much I’ve made and so on. And for us, digitizing is such an easy way to think about how we can add value because we know how to digitize, we know how to create the UI for it, we know how to store that data and to bring it back. We know how to do all the computation.

Roman Mars:
But when they came back with the ideas to help these merchants with their business, they got an unexpected response.

Asif Baki:
They poo-pooed it. They said I have no problem with the way that I currently do things. It takes me five minutes at the end of the day.

Roman Mars:
In reality, this wasn’t a problem that needed solving, they said.

Asif Baki:
I’m a small enough business where two things go out and two things come in, I know when I need to order one and I should be good to go. It’s not to say that a ledger software, there are actually many in India and beyond where we’re studying small businesses that had succeeded. It’s not to say that a ledger a piece of software won’t succeed.

Roman Mars:
It’s just that the Google team’s common inclination towards making things computerized was not necessarily the right answer.

Asif Baki:
Because it removes the simplicity from the way that people actually approach their day-to-day tasks.

Roman Mars:
There’s more to the story after this.

———

Roman Mars:
The majority of people using the internet for the first time do so on mobile, not on a computer. They often share devices with family and friends and they prefer voice and visuals over typing and reading. It’s insights like these that help Google build more helpful and inclusive products. Visit nextbillionusers.google to explore the research.

———

Roman Mars:
The deplorable anti-Semite Henry Ford said, “If I asked people what they wanted, they would’ve said a faster horse.” It’s an anecdote to demonstrate Ford’s genius, and it does make some sense. If you ask people who have no concept of an automobile, they will tell you that they want a faster horse. But what they often don’t tell you is that they don’t want a horse at all. They do not want to be more productive. They want to play games, chat with friends and flirt.

Payal Arora:
They’re willing to give up their meals. They’re willing to work three shifts, work morning, noon, and night, just so they can get this extra data so they can chat some girl.

Roman Mars:
This Payal Arora.

Payal Arora:
I’m a Professor at Erasmus University of Rotterdam. I’m a digital anthropologist and I’ve authored a number of books. The recent one being, The Next Billion Users.

Roman Mars:
Even though her book and expertise is also about the next billion users. She does not work for Google. Over the 10 years of researching users coming online in India, Brazil and countries in Africa, Payal has had firsthand experience with companies and agencies, introducing technology with the notion that it will be adopted by people in poor countries to make themselves more productive, to get themselves out of poverty. In short, to make their lives better. But over and over again, people all over the globe have shown that the way that they want to make their lives better is through pleasure and leisure. The first project she was involved with was in Bangalore in the early 2000s.

Payal Arora:
So they were these stations like, it looks like an ATM, but it was really an ATM for information — for women to check healthcare information, for farmers to check crop prices so they can be more competitive. Children could learn and supplement their English skills because that was the pathway to mobility. And they were stationed in all these different places.

Roman Mars:
And in what was basically the only restaurant, they had a screen where information would just flow nonstop, a ticker tape of regional weather data and useful information.

Payal Arora:
And we had these little vans that we would take technologies to all these further corners of the villages and convince people that, “Hey, guess what? There is something called the internet and it’s amazing. And you’re going to love it and you should check it out. And there’s these community information centers, which you should go to, which is in the town.” Six months down the line, people started calling us, “Oh, great. There’s a movie van coming,” because the fact that we wanted to get villagers to get excited about something they had never heard of. So we promised to show them Pollywood, which is a Bollywood of the South movies. So they would get dressed up and they would all like, “Oh, evening show that some van that comes and shows us a movie and then interrupts us with some weird technology stuff,” right? And then we can go resume and watch the movie again. And it became extraordinarily popular. In fact, I would say that’s our legacy is that we were the movie vans. And whenever we show them the internet, they’re like, “Okay, toilet break, interval, off we go.” And it was extraordinarily boring for them.

Roman Mars:
It’s not that it was not useful information. It was actually very important information. A lot of it was centered on providing crop prices to farmers, but the farmers had no illusions that having this information would actually solve their problems.

Payal Arora:
This is something I have heard again and again, in many different contexts is that, “Listen, the system is fixed.” It’s like, “You can tell me what the prices are in the city. Firstly, I’m not an idiot. I know I’m selling it way below market price. I just don’t have a damn choice, okay? Because of the poor infrastructures and the delivery mechanisms, they know I can’t afford to go back to my farm. So the goods have to be sold and they there’s a fixed price and they know there’s far more supply and we have to sell, regardless of what you think is information deficit.” So we actually design an entire program based on a condescending worldview, that it was basically the information deficit of these farmers that led to their poverty. And if only we could introduce the right information, they would progress, right?

Roman Mars:
It was the same story for women’s health care information.

Payal Arora:
Here’s healthcare information about how you could have less children. And you’re like, “Sure, I can have less children, not that I don’t know that I can wear contraceptives. It’s a question, will my husband where it, and have I produced a son as yet? If not, I better keep producing those babies until I get a boy, right?”

Roman Mars:
So much of it was social, cultural and situational, but one thing was consistent.

Payal Arora:
What is completely resonant across demographics, across caste systems was their love for being entertained because it does get boring. You have a lot of downtime. If you’re not farming and you need some form of entertainment. And we became extremely popular because these ATMs of information became gaming kiosks. Kids just loved it, they were using it as a gaming station. And a lot of these community information centers became friendship cafes. Just the fact that they were reframed in the imagination of these users, showcase that these were what they believe. These were the real actual needs that were being met and not the ones we believe they needed.

Roman Mars:
These kinds of disastrous results that came from not understanding the needs of the users is what led to projects like the NBU initiative at Google, whose offices are embedded in the countries where they can spend time in the homes of the people they’re trying to serve and they can experience their needs and anxieties firsthand. And one of the benefits of this intense research focused on one group with specific needs is that when you design things for the most extreme use cases, you can end up making things better for everyone. Here’s Asif Baki again.

Asif Baki:
People in next billion user countries sometimes have phones that are not the latest models, they’re not the fastest processors. One of the problems that we found early on severely impacted their experience was a lack of storage on their device. And this is something that for us, it’s like, “Yeah, okay, fine, delete a few files.” Right? But in actuality for them, it was a lot more because that anxiety that’s produced by what is caused by a lack of storage on their device is untenable. Because of the lack of storage, which they don’t attribute to lack of storage and because they don’t have the deep knowledge of how these devices work, started freezing their phone, started slowing down applications, prevent them from receiving pictures of their loved ones, prevent them from sharing music that they care about. So many things are just not happening because of the storage on their device.

Roman Mars:
So if the devices are not designed in such a way that the user with limited experience can deal with their storage problem, they seek help elsewhere. And that help may not be on the level.

Asif Baki:
They go back to the mobile phone shop where they bought their phone and they ask for help. And we’ve seen instances where these mobile shop owners will take the phone and put it to the side, invite them back after an hour and say, “Here’s your phone back,” and charge them the 40 rupees or the cost to update their phone. We’ve seen instances where they’ll just force and reset the entire device. And people will lose their information, they’ll lose everything on it, but the devices obviously perform better again.

Roman Mars:
This loss can be particularly devastating when your relationship with your data on the cloud is different from how we’ve been trained in the last few years.

Payal Arora:
For example, if they want to have some photographs, they will even pay to have a professional photographer take the full family photograph, and then they keep that. So they use it as if they’re printing it out. So the weird thing is a digital copy on a mobile phone is really like a print for them. They formally dress up and they don’t look at it as disposable, transient. So they hold onto certain things which really give meaning.

Roman Mars:
This tension that the next billion users felt about managing storage on old phones led Google to launch a product called Files, to help people manage and free up space.

Asif Baki:
And some of the early countries where we saw immense uptake – Italy, the United States, right? – and so this is where a product that was built for India and Brazil in terms of the qualitative research having been done in those two countries, took off all over the world. But fundamentally at a human level, we all have problems. We want to optimize our devices. We want to be able to make our devices better so that we can enjoy ourselves more.

Roman Mars:
This is the same principle of universal design that is touted when we put in curb cuts for people in wheelchairs and notice that it also benefits able-bodied people pushing strollers or really anyone navigating the city. And this is a benefit to be sure designing for people with extreme use cases, creates products that can easier to use, more simple and have greater utility for everyone. However, designing for people with different needs and those already online has inherent moral value. Meeting people where they are and serving them is enough of a virtue in and of itself. But it is so valuable to have someone new come in, look at the way things are with fresh eyes and different challenges, and really question how we got to now? Just like the tiny digital QWERTY keyboard, we kept relying on for our smartphones. Many things probably already sucked for the first billion users, but like a frog being boiled as someone slowly turns up the heat, we just didn’t notice or got used to it. That is until the next billion users gets in the pot with us and asks, “Why is this water so hot?”

———

Roman Mars:
This special episode of 99% invisible was produced by me, Roman Mars, with music by Sean Real. You can find all kinds of other stories on our website, 99pi.org.

Roman Mars:
Building helpful and inclusive products is a global effort. Google is working to expand access to information and build products that help people unlock economic opportunity around the world. And they’re inviting tech builders to use their development and design tools to create more inclusive products. Visit nextbillionusers.google to explore the tools.

  1. Ria

    Thank you soooooo much for introducing Ford as a deplorable antisemite!!! I am so sick of how the design and Buisness world paint him to be some kind of saviour and completely ignore some of the horrible things he did to and said about the jewish community. I don’t want him ‘canceled’ i just want everyone to be honest about who he was!!

  2. Steve

    I had to laugh. I don’t think it was the intent, but did anyone else get the conclusion from that one segment to be: “We couldn’t use some of the world’s greatest transformative technology to make any real, meaningful change or improvement in their lives, so we just concentrated on using it to entertain them.” Take their minds off it. You know, bread and circuses, Silicon Valley edition.

  3. Bruce (anti-cancel-culture, listens to podcast, ...)

    I thought introducing Ford as a deplorable anti-Semite in the middle of this podcast was a poor choice. In fact when I heard it my mind went directly to asking why would Roman do that? So much so that within a couple of minutes I stopped listening. It’s not that I disagree with Ford’s anti-Semitism being deplorable. Instead I found myself dwelling on what so compelled Roman to call-out Ford on this at this time. And if Ford is so deplorable why tarnish the podcast with his quote? Maybe media personalities get points for cancel labeling people.

    Perhaps I just need to get used to this new call-out labeling that’s been introduced into our culture. Maybe Google can make their glasses display a person’s labels when you look at them or make Google Assistant pause podcasts and announce all the horrible things aforementioned person has done.

  4. Luke Longnecker

    I also wanted to comment on the Henry Ford reference, but my position differs from Ria.

    Adding in those unnecessary descriptors harmed whatever you said next – I mentally tripped over your commentary and got lost in my own thoughts for 30 seconds. It would be like starting a sentence: “The untruthful, unfaithful president, Bill Clinton, once addressed the United Nations…”

    Dredging up past sins that are unrelated to the issue at hand makes you look petty and it interferes with the message you’re actually trying to convey.

  5. Danny

    Excellent point re the creation of incomplete solutions which don’t mean much and the eg of the farm prices.. I have recently seen many apps being developed for various services (pikkol, urbanclap) which have good UI designed apps, but the funny thing is the backend services required to run these (porters, workers, customer service) is pathetic.. an app can’t always solve a problem.

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