Tech @ State

Opening talk for the tech@state event hosted by the State Department in DC, sharing the stage with many of the pioneers and smart minds of the mobile money space. Video’s of all the talks can be found here.

Good morning and welcome.

I’m Director of Global Insights at Frog Design, previously spent ~10 years working for Nokia. During this time I spent a lot of time on the ground trying understand what people are doing and why, and scouting new opportunities. Today I’m going provide a broad overview of the mobile landscape from the perspective of many of the users we are thinking about here today, Carol (Realini, Obopay CEO) will then follow up with some of the thorny issues related to implementation.

With all the talk of services and outreach its easy to forget who we’re designing for – what are the lives of our users like? What are their current practices? What motivates them?

In a world of 8.6 billion people, there are approximately 5 billion active cellular subscriptions, and roughly 1.2 billion products sold per year. In pure weight of numbers when most of the world thinks about a mobile phone they’re thinking about a phone like this (hold up Nokia 1110) costs about $30, can survive the rigours everyday life – knocks, heat, sweat, dust – you can make calls, send text messages, access SIM card services and it has what is probably the world’s most played game – snake, and an alarm clock. If it breaks there’s typically someone in the neighbourhood who can fix it, often cannibalizing other devices.

It is important to recognise is that almost every adult on the planet as well as lot of children aspires to sole mobile phone ownership (sometimes of more than one) and that they will overcome considerable obstacles to owning one. The key differentiator of personal ownership of a mobile phone over alternatives such as the neighbourhood phone kiosk, or sharing a phone amongst a number of people is convenience (not needing to go through another person, being able to communicate when you want) and privacy.

Whilst cultural notions of privacy vary considerably – most people assume that transactions related to money and transactions should be kept secret – the details of a purchase; the balance on an account, that a bill has been paid. And whilst its certainly true for some transactions – there is a tendency to assume that privacy is necessary for *all* transactions. Whilst more research needs to be done in this space – I’d argue that only a few key transactions need to remain truly private, and the others could for example flow through less private channels.

This is important in part because many of your constituents are illiterate. Whilst this community recognizes that financial and textual literacy is an issue in the adoption of services, I prefer to reframe the illiteracy question in terms of *competency* – what does the user need to know in order to complete a task in any given context? For example if a users motivation is simply to be available to their social network – then all they need to learn is to keep the phone charged and press the green button when it rings. What is the absolute minimum knowledge required to appreciate the benefits of making regular deposits into a saving account? To withdraw money? To check a balance?

When I started researching this topic my hypothesis was that illiterate consumers would not be able to complete tasks on a mobile phone that included a textual interface but I was proved wrong on two counts: the first is that illiterate consumers are adept at rote-learning the steps to complete a task *assuming they are sufficiently motivated*; the second is that in many instances illiterate consumers can benefit from *proximate literacy* – where instead of completing a task themselves, they turn to someone more literate than them for help with some or all of it. What they lose in privacy they gain in efficiency. In this context an illiterate mobile phone user who wants privacy will either go to a trusted friend, or to a sufficiently-trusted agent outside their neighbourhood.
It may surprise you to know that many of the benefits of mobile telephony don’t actually require personal ownership of a mobile phone – it can be acceptable to insert your SIM into someone else’s phone.

Over the years I’ve learned that *ownership* is not the same as *use*, or at least not use in the way that we think of it. A price sensitive mobile phone owner will for example choose to use a phone kiosk where it is cheaper, or more socially acceptable. Don’t assume that because your customer owns a mobile phone that they will want to use it for outgoing communication, especially when there is a slightly more cost efficient channel available.
There’s quite a lot of buzz in the US at the moment around *app stores* – with the number and diversity of applications currently being seen as a key offering for the various platforms. Whilst the pace of innovation in this space is very promising – in many ways I consider them to be catching up with *the corner shop app and content stores* that can be found in pretty much any community in the emerging world – where all it takes is a laptop or netbook and a visit to an internet connected friend to be able to set-up in business in offering content.
These kiosks are interesting from a number of angles: they are content mediators for their customers and their communities; run by micro-entrepreneurs they have an acute understanding of their social and economic value to their clients; and they tend have a reasonable technical competency should something go wrong. Informal kiosks and formal agent networks are typically the most flexible and locally adaptable aspect of the services offering – something that is both positive and negative.

A key question for all our services is what motivates these agents in both their formal and informal product offerings?

I started this presentation with the figure of 5 billion cellular subscribers and ~1.2 billion mobile phones sold per year. Consider for a moment that the replacement cycle for these phones is 12 months to ‘a few years’ – some are lost, others are broken, many will sit in the back of drawers, and more still will be passed from hand to hand. Many of the people you are aiming to reach with your services are already on their 2nd, 3rd, 4th phone and with each new device there’s a small bump in consumer expectations and a small bump in literacy. We tend to think of what manufacturers refer to ‘entry consumers’ as being homogeneous – when in fact they are as diverse and segmentable as their wealthier counterparts. They span every conceivable life stage from identity forming teens; entrepreneurs; social-explorers to pragmatists.

When it comes to service use we talk about ‘user literacy’, but ultimately is our understanding of the users of our service?