Practical Empathy for the Rest of the World

Mobile Matters

Designing for every screen

A column by Steven Hoober
January 4, 2016

It’s time to admit that most UX designers are designing and building products for a tiny, tiny segment of the world population. But there are billions of other people out there, who are using millions of devices, in not quite the same ways we use them and in environments that are entirely different from those to which we’re accustomed.

Almost all of the products I help design for giant, global companies get launched in North America. Often only in the US, but if we’re lucky, Canada, too. English Canada that is—not Quebec, because that would mean adding a language. Check the availability of the next cool startup’s product that you use. Does it work outside the US? Does it even work outside your home town?

As UX professionals, we often talk publicly about our being user centric or empathetic. But, among ourselves, we also talk about how we can improve the lives of the poor, the disenfranchised, or those in distant lands just by bringing our technology to them.

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If you want people’s business, empathy has to start with respecting your users and believing in their value as customers. It starts with believing that their environment and the way in which they live and work today is neither backward nor misguided. But this is hard to do if you have no basis for understanding them, nor any way in which to find out about them.

I hear and read far too much information that shows how vastly uninformed we are about the rest of the world. However, since I’ve built some products for use in India, China, the Middle East, North Africa, and, indeed, even for global use—and after experiencing some failures—I’ve broken through my own false assumptions through inquiry and experience.

Mobile Connectivity

Recently, I’ve worked on a number of products whose makers are really trying to be very open. They were discussing how to address the poor mobile networks in rural America or the third world by adding an airplane-mode feature. As I eventually discovered, they thought airplane mode meant when a phone is disconnected.

But dealing with the connectivity of mobile networks is not at all like selecting Airplane Mode on your phone. Network connectivity is not either on or off, but constantly varies in quality. If you live and work only in big, high-tech cities, the occasional loss of signal is a terrible source of irritation, and you might have to rely on some unknown Wi-Fi network or walk outside to get better signal. But if you live almost anywhere else, variable network quality is a way of life.

When you’re thinking about building products for much of the rest of the world, you’ll need to consider disconnected use and background syncing. In much of the world, apps trounce the Web because of this, but make sure your apps continue to work well when connectivity drifts in and out.

Though we like to think of everything—including networks, devices, languages, and cultures—as either on or off, good or bad, well known or foreign, almost nothing has such binary states. Things are much more nuanced than that.

Speed and Latency

These past few weeks, I’ve been driving a lot, visiting client sites around the country. That means lots of highway driving, where the mobile network is often better than FM radio. So I end up listening to lots of streaming talk and music radio, but it’s not perfect either. Lags and dropouts aren’t too bad, but why do I have to listen to the intro advertising every single time the stream restarts? That happens because the streaming services didn’t think about network connectivity outside their offices.

You might say you know this and often tell your team, “Remember, not everyone has good 4G LTE service.” (That’s 4th-Generation, Long-Term Evolution service.) However, when I talk to people in certain other countries, they might say, “Remember, not everyone has good 3G service.” In fact, although the prevalence of 2G is dropping, it’s still around half of all mobile service, while LTE covers maybe 10% of the 5 billion mobile-phone users.

Also, we tend to think in terms of speed, but that’s not as important a factor as you might think. Plus, the speeds of the various mobile services increase relatively slowly and overlap. However, latency is a critical factor. Latency is the time between requesting some data and receiving the response. Loading a single Web page can require dozens of requests and, because of the way mobile networks operate, each request can easily take a couple of seconds. Add these up and page-load times become intolerable.

Latency is worse when a region lacks a good phone network or the data center is on another continent. So be sure to build your Web sites and apps to use data efficiently. They’ll work better for everyone and will still be usable in emerging markets. To reduce latency, you can try to use a local data center or work with mobile-network operators to cache some of your data.

Feature Phones,  Smartphones, and Information Services

Perhaps the worst misconception is that there are smartphones and, well, dumbphones—the pejorative term for the phones poor, uneducated people carry, supposedly because they don’t know any better. However, in reality, most of these phones are feature phones, with cameras, browsers, location awareness, and much more. Some even have touchscreens.

In the US, we can now buy stuff at Starbucks and McDonald’s using our smartphones. But in Africa, there’s a mobile banking system that’s been around since before 2002. There are even mobile stores that let users trade goods or buy airline tickets using a mobile bank account. Providing services doesn’t require apps and high-resolution touchscreens that are over 5 inches; services just need to be usable and useful.

Either SMS (Short Message Service) or USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data), which is a sort of high-speed, secure SMS, powers many great, connected services. And not just customer service and dating, but things like up-to-the-minute crop reports. Why does this matter? This information lets farmers change the balance of power by negotiating from a position of knowledge, make informed choices about when to harvest, and decide how far to drive to get their crops to market.

After years in which the use of feature phones exceeded 90% worldwide, there are now other regions that lead the West in smartphone adoption. The Arabian peninsula, for example, has over 60% smartphone use. This on par with the US usage rate, but their usage is growing even faster. Expect 2016 to bring many third-world markets in which more people have a smartphone than in the West.

Are you ready to address these markets with your latest app?


A request I get surprisingly often is to make as much of a user interface as possible consist only of icons. Why? Because many software developers believe icons are universal, so they won’t have to translate text labels when offering a site or app to user groups who speak other languages or reside in other countries.

Of course, we know that icons are not universal—or even very well understood—so combining icons with text labels works best. But what many people forget is that language literacy is not binary either. Many who are considered literate cannot parse complex sentences, and many who are considered illiterate can understand single words and short phrases—such as those we use for icon labels or information labels. While labels in a person’s native language help most, labels in another language—especially English—hardly ever hurt.

Language varies by region and includes slang terms, colloquialisms, and vernacular that translation programs and even well-trained foreign speakers cannot approximate. Providing services like personal customer support over SMS doesn’t go well unless you hire locals who can speak the users’ language properly, using terms and syntax as the users in a particular region would.

Language can spark cultural awareness. Sometimes, just offering a language option that none of your competitors offers can help your product to dominate a marketplace. A browser I worked on some time back was the only one that worked with the Indic languages—Hindi and so forth—so, for a few years, it absolutely dominated the mobile-browser market in India. A friend of mine built a tool that lets people write in Urdu on the iPhone, thinking this was culturally important, but would not really get much use. He was wrong. It became so heavily used that his keyboard design is now integrated into iOS8.

Society and Culture

Don’t make assumptions about your users, their needs, or their cultural constraints. I am often surprised by the way people use digital products and how much usage trends buck what we all thought we knew to be true.

To give just one example: I was building a series of tools for selling push services that deliver daily information and entertainment to people in the Middle East and North Africa. When looking at the data, I observed some odd usage behavior, so I got a research project approved. The team visited people in their homes, looked at what they had installed so far, and asked them some questions.

Note—I didn’t go do the research myself. Language differences aside, cultural norms would have made it difficult for me to get the data—even if the company had wanted to fly me around the region. Local researchers, who followed my script, did a great job of gathering data. Then I parsed their data into a report. Use local researchers to get local knowledge.

Among the surprising information that research found was that housewives in the Middle East and North Africa are a huge market for news—especially news on politics. The conventional wisdom was that a loyal, devout, housewife in the region is busy, uninterested in the news, more likely to be illiterate, and perhaps would want entertainment or housekeeping tips if they wanted any information at all. In reality, these housewives have a lot of free time, are better educated than was generally understood, and perceive part of being a good wife as being able to keep up on affairs that concern or interest their husband, so they can talk with them about meaningful topics.

Changing how we marketed the services to that market segment and adding news products for specific groups such as this one worked great. Users were happier with the company’s offerings, and the carriers that used these products were happy with the additional recurring sales.

Users Are Not Like You

These are just a few of the more important things that I’ve encountered when working on global products. Depending on what types of products or services you work on, you might have to deal with any number of other factors—such as the variable social-media landscape. Facebook and Twitter are not dominant everywhere; other services are.

Empathy is a good place to start with any human-centered design or design-thinking process. But be sure you are designing from a position of knowledge. Design for your actual users and their environments, not for what you assume or wish they were. 


Azeemi, Mudassir. “From Urdu Writer to iOS8 Urdu Keyboard—Then Nastaleeq.” Medium, September 19, 2014. Retrieved December 22, 2015.

Baig, Hassan. “Peering into the Minds of the 4.3 Billion Unconnected.” TechCrunch, November 29, 2014. Retrieved December 22, 2015.

Baker, Meredith. “How Mobile Puts Business at the Tip of Africa’s Fingers.” BBC News, July 3, 2012. Retrieved December 22, 2015.

D’Souza, Shereen. “Smartphone Market in the GCC Way Ahead of the West.” BQ Magazine, March 2, 2015. Retrieved December 22, 2015.

Fitchard, Kevin. “As Fast Mobile Connections Surge, 2G Begins Its Long, Slow Global Decline.” GigaOm, February 5, 2014. Retrieved December 22, 2015.

Govindarajan, Vijay. “Developing Countries Are Revolutionizing Mobile Banking.” Harvard Business Review, April 30, 2012. Retrieved December 22, 2015.

Harish, Ritu. “India on the Map Again: 1 in 6 Bolt Users Is Indian!FoneArena, May 29, 2009. Retrieved December 22, 2015.

Jhangiani-Jashanmal, Narain. “The App Opportunity for Businesses in MENA.” Arabnet. June 17, 2015. Retrieved December 22, 2015.

Smith, Aaron. “US Smartphone Use in 2015.” Pew Research Center, April 1, 2015. Retrieved December 22, 2015.

Van Vark, Caspar. “Empowering Farmers Through SMS.” The Guardian, November 27, 2012. Retrieved December 22, 2015.

Young, Indi. “Practical Empathy.” UXmatters, April 6, 2015. Retrieved December 22, 2015.

President of 4ourth Mobile

Mission, Kansas, USA

Steven HooberFor all of his 15-year design career, Steven has been documenting design process. He started designing for mobile full time in 2007 when he joined Little Springs Design. Steven’s work includes Designing by Drawing: A Practical Guide to Creating Usable Interactive Design, the O’Reilly book Designing Mobile Interfaces, and an extensive Web site providing mobile design resources to support his book. Steven has led projects on security, account management, content distribution, and communications services for numerous products, in domains ranging from construction supplies to hospital record-keeping. His mobile work has included the design of browsers, ereaders, search, Near Field Communication (NFC), mobile banking, data communications, location services, and operating system overlays. Steven spent eight years with the US mobile operator Sprint and has also worked with AT&T, Qualcomm, Samsung, Skyfire, Bitstream, VivoTech, The Weather Channel, Bank Midwest, IGLTA, Lowe’s, and Hallmark Cards. He is currently User Experience Architect with diesel engine maker Cummins, in addition to running his own interactive design studio at 4ourth Mobile.  Read More

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