Friday, 21 May 2010

Steampunk Mobile

The arrival of mass personal digital communications in previously remote areas might teach us a lot about enabling people everywhere to gain greater control of their lives - particularly as those scenarios have remained free of the top-down institutional constraints imposed by many of our retail brands to solve their own problems rather than ours.

You don't need to be literate or numerate in the true sense to communicate in the mobile world. Even the more literate amongst us need help in deciphering symbols used by young people when text messaging. So, while mobile phone-based literacy and learning programmes are important in themselves, it is more important to understand how mobile phones enable people of low literacy everywhere to seize control of their lives.

For example, a great Babbage post on how mobile numbers are identities for many in India provides a critical insight into how people left behind by government and other institutions actually use the latest technology - as do M-Pesa and the technology hubs used by Africa's 'cheetah generation'. And EduTech cites a valuable insight that emerged from a study by Matt Kam for MILLEE using gaming apps to enable Indian children to acquire literacy:
"The use of educational games on the mobile phones facilitated new ties between participants across gender, caste and village boundaries, and the new social relationships that developed transferred to real world, non-gaming settings."
In other words, certain online games may improve social mobility.

Meanwhile, Adaptive Path has studied the mobile phone usability and design needs of people in rural India. Those people cited the following features and functionality as the most important to them:
- Calling
- Texting (using voice to text or with assistance)
- Music
- Camera*
- Microphone
- Speaker
- Airtime
- Battery Level
*While most research participants did not have mobile phones with cameras, this was cited as a desired feature.

Saving contact information was the single most challenging task for non-literate users to perform.
To remove the complexity of entering and saving data, Adaptive Design borrowed from industrial tracking processes to suggest enabling users to photograph a QR Code or 'MobilGlyph' that contains the unique data required. Of course, the process of producing accurate and reliable MobilGlyphs would also need to be efficiently administered.

Adaptive Design's approach to the challenge of handset design is even more intriguing. They found "there is a strong culture of reselling, re-purposing, cobbling, and repair throughout India and this is especially true in rural villages". So Adaptive Design turned to Steampunk which, they point out, "...reflects the design and craftsmanship of the Victorian era...
"Similar to the exposed inner workings of a motorcycle, works of art created to reflect the Steampunk genre possess a look of craftsmanship and cobbling. It’s an aesthetic that invites the touch of the human hand and it encourages engagement and fosters curiosity and play.

[This of course echoes with the 'architecture of participation' at the heart of Web 2.0 trend.]

Taking cues from Steampunk’s “hack-able” aesthetic, we made the phone look like an object that can be opened and tinkered with by exaggerating seams and making the mechanisms to open the device obvious... vibrant sound is an important part of Indian culture and ... We chose to emphasize these elements by giving them a larger portion of the phone’s physical real estate .... Gauges are commonly used to convey quantitative information on cars and motorcycles in rural India. We echoed these familiar interface elements to communicate battery level and airtime minutes. Finally, we drastically reduced the feature set of the phone, allowing us to assign each function a single button. We borrowed “stop” and “start” buttons from stereos and placed them on the side of the device. Taking cues from a radio dial, our Steampunk phone contains a scroll wheel — creating a strong and intuitive relationship between the physical interface element, the gesture, and the UI inside the screen."
It seems to me that this design makes the device simple and usable without dumbing it down. As Adaptive Design point out:
"Empathic design is not about forcing conventions and models on users that feel foreign, it’s about empowering users with technology that feels appropriate and familiar. Designers and user experience professionals have a responsibility to avoid viewing illiteracy as a deficiency, but as an important design consideration for a large portion of the world."
This is consistent with the need for investment rather than donations in developing regions, "characterized by mutual dignity and respect", as Kiva puts it.

By taking that approach, we stand to learn how to meet similar challenges on our own doorsteps.

Images from Adaptive Path

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