Thinking about the cellphone developed by Motorola for emerging markets made me look for any progress on the development of the interface. If indeed these phones are to truly penetrate where they are needed, a major hurdle to be overcome would be the literacy levels at the base of the pyramid. And even if they were literate, would they necessarily be literate in English or the Roman alphabet. I’ve heard that Motorola has a Hindi interface for some of their phones in India, but what about those that don’t read Hindi. What if the interface itself could move beyond the need for any one particular language or script altogether? What if it were universally icon driven?
So I decided to see what was out there and currently happening. This post from Small Surfaces, where the author cites a research study conducted by Nokia titled "Understanding non-literacy as a barrier to mobile phone communication". Interesting that the Nokia site has this study under "Blue Sky". And while the insights derived from contextual research are rich and deep, this little disclaimer places the work in context,
This article presents conclusions from a number of studies by
researchers in Nokia Research Centers in Tokyo, Beijing and
Helsinki in an effort to understand the communication habits of
non-literate people, and how we might improve their communication
experience. Please note that this research does not imply the
development of products and services proposed in this article by
Nokia or its partners.
Microsoft Research has this initiative to fund external research in the area of ‘digital inclusion’ which includes this,
Design appropriate user interfaces addressing challenges in literacy and for novice
users of technology.
This is obviously current and I don’t expect results since the date they announced the proposals selected to receive funding was the 10th of February 2006. Their Research lab in India is also doing some work in text free user interfaces.
MediaLab Asia has a list of projects here that cover the gamut of interfaces from multilingual to those for the mentally challenged. I also came across a lot of university sites and research work, but nothing that is either ready to be launched or already in the market. I could be wrong, not having done an extensive search, but while it looks promising that firms are exploring the area, such a functional interface would open opportunities beyond mobile communication into an entirely new arena of being able to provide access to the rest of the world. Hey, I can dream can’t I?