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.
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?