Understand the users and their ecosystem

The first step to developing appropriate digital solutions is understanding as well as possible the target user or, especially in the case of low- skilled and low-literate people, the target users. Developing a sense of empathy for the needs of these users can be especially challenging since they might live in completely different worlds, literally and figuratively. However, given that low- skilled and low-literate people often experience many stressors and vulnerabilities, it becomes even more critical to try to develop empathy when designing with them.

Beyond general characteristics, to deeply understand the particular users of a digital solution, it is necessary to spend time to get to know them: their family, community and culture; their working contexts; their local leaders and community experts; their needs and pain points; and their motivations and aspirations. A better understanding of the end-users can lead to better- designed products. Asking the right questions will help to build a good picture of the users and their ecosystem, for example:

Guiding questions about the core target user(s)

  • Who is the core target user, the person whom the service and information is directly intended to benefit, and who interacts most with it? Across a digital platform with many touch points, this can be more than one person. For example, the same digital solution might send a mother a series of maternal health SMSs and allow a district health official to view an analysis of the number of messages sent and responded to over time.

  • For each target user, what are their demographics? For example, what are their education and literacy levels? What are their technology usage and digital competences (the focus of the next guideline)?

  • What are their particular needs and how are they currently being met, or not? What are their behaviours and daily routine with regard to the particular need being addressed? What or who are potential knowledge sources, and are there bottlenecks to accessing those sources?

  • What motivates the person to meet the need? What are their attitudes and aspirations? For example, a child may be focused on completing schooling, but his or her parents may aspire for the child to continue to study to postgraduate level. Understanding the bigger goal – a professional job as opposed to receiving a school completion certificate – can be very useful for the design of digital solutions and advocacy campaigns.

Take a design journey with the users

The Khushi Baby initiative uses mobile technology and a wearable digital necklace to provide effective tracking of maternal and child health-care data in India.

In addition to supporting mothers, the service supports the activities of community health workers (CHWs) – often low-literate and with low digital skills – and generates data for district-level decision-making related to health administration.

The team behind Khushi Baby were students at Yale University in the USA.
In order to understand the needs and local context for the solution, team members spent two months living in rural Udaipur, India, while accompanying CHWs from a local implementing partner.

The entire user-centred design journey has been documented, and includes key findings from the field studies, paper prototypes and wireframes, early solution designs, user testing feedback and ongoing solution iterations.


Actively involve users in developing the solution

MOPA is a citizen reporting and monitoring platform for waste collection in Maputo, Mozambique, created by UX Information Technologies and the Maputo Municipal Council.

Four types of workshops were held to gather user-oriented design insights, validate workflow systems, and collect ideas for improving the service.

Insight workshops helped unpack the complex system of solid waste management in the city and the roles of the various actors involved.

Collection workshops emphasized functioning sources of data and gaps that needed to be filled for service optimization. These workshops led to a campaign of mapping physical waste collection sites in Maputo.

Validation workshops tested design iterations of the platform with an emphasis on suitability for the skills of the intended user base.

Events workshops promoted the MOPA prototype across Maputo to attract local software developers to take an interest in enhancing the software design and features.



Guiding questions about the human circle

  • Who are the secondary, influencing users? In other words, what is the human circle around the target user? For low-skilled and low-literate users in particular, it is critical to establish these human connections, the set of complementary actors to the core users’ digital usage and skills development.

  • Since low-literate people often rely heavily on others around them for information and help using technology, it is useful to ask how they navigate technology and written text. With whom do they consume content – the infomediaries – and what role do these infomediaries play?

  • Who influences behaviour? For example, a woman’s husband might filter her information access or a community leader might support digital classes for all.

  • Who are the trusted people and agents in the community? In sum, who else around the target user(s) needs to be considered in the understanding and design of the solution?

Guiding questions about the influencing environment

  • What are the influencing factors that affect, for example, technology usage, information flows and daily activities? Factors include traditions and customs, culture, social norms, setting (urban or rural), technology infrastructure and economics.

Answering these questions involves significant research, some of which can be done virtually and some done in the field, as explored next.

Follow best practice user-centred design approaches

There are many tools and practices to help answer the questions above and to really design with users. A core principle across all resources is putting the user at the centre of the process. User-centred design is an approach to digital solution development that is driven by the needs, capabilities and context of users. In the research it is necessary to engage the broad human network around the target users, for example husbands or wives, caregivers, community leaders, or colleagues and superiors. Ultimately, all research should shed as much light as possible on the nature and extent of the need or problem being addressed. The following recommended activities, mostly undertaken with the end-users, are common in good user-centred design.

  • Conduct desk research to deepen the broad understanding of the users and their context. For example, note at a national level the literacy rates and mobile uptake statistics.

  • Create user personas, which are fictitious characterizations that capture, in a relatable way, the key attributes – such as demographics, knowledge, attitudes, practices and motivations – of the target users.

  • Draw a user journey map of the end-to-end activities and processes of the users to show the full set of steps and possible paths to achieve a particular outcome. A user journey map is useful for highlighting broad user pain points, barriers and opportunities. It informs not only what will become the digital solution, but also related issues, such as the user onboarding process.

  • Develop user scenarios for key moments in the user journey, which detail specific user needs in clear, action-oriented ‘stories’. User stories simply describe what users need to do and why. It is critical that the stories written by the solution development team are validated through user research to ensure they correctly capture reality.

  • Map the ecosystem to identify and understand all the stakeholders and factors that must be considered in the whole solution design. Community involvement is useful in creating the ecosystem map.

  • Design low-level, and later more detailed, prototypes of the digital solution. While low-level wireframes and paper prototypes may lack fine-grain details, they have the advantage that they are a very cheap and proven way to quickly test high-level concepts with users without distracting them with details about aesthetics. In particular, these low-fidelity artefacts allow developers to get preliminary feedback on the extent to which the overall UI, including its navigational flow and language, is consistent with the users’ mental models. At the very least, the artefacts support discussions with users to better understand the issues at hand.

  • Test content, a critical component of the design process – described in the next guideline.

A key principle of user-centred design is iteration. Based on initial understandings and research, prototypes are developed on which users try to give feedback. The design is adjusted accordingly and the process is repeated until the solution sufficiently meets the user needs. Such an incremental approach is key for keeping a short design–test–adjust validation loop.

Beware of challenges when designing with low-skilled and low-literate users

The process of understanding the users and their ecosystem, as well as ongoing user evaluations, involves research and much face-to-face contact with the target users. Interviews, observations and user testing are regular activities. In general, participants in user studies can be uncomfortable because they feel they are being tested instead of the digital solution.

For low-skilled and low-literate users, in particular, such activities can be intimidating. The result is that honest and regular feedback, critical for designing appropriate solutions, can be limited. Digital solution developers and development agencies usually do not come from the communities they are working with, which further complicates the experience. Below is a summary of common challenges that have been encountered over years of research, with some suggested techniques for addressing them (Thies, 2015).

  • Often researchers are perceived as having a raised social status by the people they investigate, and are seen as the creators of digital tools, including mobile phones, even when they are not. As a result, low-literate people are particularly prone to participant response bias. That is, when asked a question they respond with what they think the interviewer wants to hear, instead of providing their honest opinion.

  • Researchers often do not speak the same language as the users they are working with, and employ local interpreters and facilitators to assist. If these are not trained properly, however, much of the user responses may be lost in translation. Further, response bias towards the digital tool increases five times when the researcher is a foreigner using an interpreter (Dell et al., 2012).

  • In order to really get to know the target users and build trust with them, it is desirable to be deeply immersed in their community. Of course this is not easy, given the social distance between the researchers and the participants, and time and budget constraints may not allow such investment.

  • Low-literate and low-income people often live in densely populated areas, especially in cities, making it difficult to conduct distraction- free observations. Even within the home, the presence of certain family members may influence participants’ responses.

In order to overcome some of these challenges, researchers can:

  • Work through well-trusted intermediaries, such as local non-profit organizations embedded in the local community with staff who speak the language.

  • Provide sufficient training and briefing to local facilitators.

  • Where possible, conduct field studies in familiar but neutral and distraction-free spaces, where participants can feel freer to provide honest responses.