Photo by Eirik Solheim on Unsplash

Understanding the African User Experience

Dilosen Naicker
Aug 13 · 6 min read

Mobile is a large component in the African Internet experience. We know this from the data that is collected by US-based internet firms, such as Facebook and Google, who allow marketers and analysts insight to user trends. These insights however do not paint a clear picture of the end-user, in comparison to developed markets which provide deeper insight on end-users and their experiences with the service.

Africa is a very interesting space and mobile is a sneaky tool.

The African mobile space is growing rapidly. Mobile penetration in South Africa stands at 133%. This means that majority of the population have more than one phone. A larger percentage of this has been feature phones (old Nokia devices especially) however in recent years smartphone penetration has increased exponentially.

With a large inclusion of smartphone devices entering the emerging market, access to mobile internet is on the rise. What hampers consumers from engaging easily with the digital space, is the high data costs and access of entry-level devices. This however does not stop eager Africans getting online.

High connection and data costs force African users to use free Wi-Fi at coffee shops or internet cafes or the such. Alternatively, users purchase cheaper tiered data packages to access websites like Facebook, Google and Twitter. Certain mobile networks have add-on data specials such as free connectivity or data as part of their value offerings to entice consumers.

Social platforms are big drivers of internet usage in Africa and many of these platforms have tailored their UX’s and UI’s to cater for mobile users in emergent markets. Facebook Lite for example, simplifies the functions of their full service mobile application and improves the experience for the low-data-conscience user. The application works brilliantly and the user numbers clearly show that. In 2015, Facebook boasted 120 million active users as their total user population base, a large percentage of which comes from North Africa and connect via mobile device(I would say relative to their population size and devices/connection).

African users ultimately want simplicity. They don’t need fancy design or heavy imagery. Applications that are content heavy or not optimised tend to capture fewer users and attention. Snapchat for instance has a slower uptake in the African market, whilst inversely, content heavy platform Instagram has a slightly higher uptake. Both of these hold a small user base in comparison to function driven platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

The African User experience needs to derive function over form.

The user experience needs to be simple, use the least amount of data (under 400kb/2 sec load sites) but maintain integrity and ultimately load quickly with poor internet connections. Facebook Lite aims to keep the service functional, even in areas with a bad internet connection (mobile most likely), and this helps them in achieving higher user markets in untapped emergent markets.

The economic term known as ‘leapfrogging’ enables the African market to skip past ‘outdated’ or inferior technology and jump into the ‘tech’ deep end. Device manufacturers have created entry-level devices (with latest OS versions) at lower pricing points to allow users easier access to smartphone devices and subsequently mobile internet. These devices don’t boast crazy specifications but allows users to ultimately learn very quickly how to use smartphone devices and their features.

The African consumer won’t engage with NFC tags at scale. They will opt for a Wi-Fi connection if it’s available and shy away from content heavy websites as mobile data is expensive. Bluetooth is a favoured connection, simply because it’s commonly used and there is no data cost. This is not to say that they aren’t fast adopters of new technology. Due to leapfrogging African users can easily bypass cumbersome technology and this means that businesses and brands will need to provide end-users with more tailored and functional technology, applications and digital services.

Understanding that by leapfrogging technology, it adversely hampers the rapid development of digital in Africa. User experiences are hampered by connection and device constraints, but more so the level of understanding. New internet users are not accustom to applications and functions, yet experienced users demand more improvements and better experiences. This disparity on scale is a challenge for defining the African user experience. Finding a middle ground means that new users will need to understand quickly and simply, whilst experienced users are not dulled by the experience and kept involved.

Takealot.com is a great site. I love their user experience journey and shopping feels like a real thing. For example, a user can browse the store and content is delivered in way that allows for the user to ‘dig deeper’. The store however, is also optimised for quick, simple use. This is great, it also works. The store is dynamic and all their digital contact points are well conceived.

Their mobile experience is also great. Their application is quick, straight-forward and everything can be accessed on the mobile device i.e. shopping, confirmation emails, one time pins (OTP’s) for security, delivery status and order tracking.

Their user experience breaks away from the actual application or website and takes on brick and mortar business principals. They take into consideration what the user may or may not be doing at the time of use, their mindset at that point in time as well as what other external interactions may take place such as connectivity, customer call-ins, tracking numbers and the overall customer relationship. It’s also how their digital product (the website/application) intertwines in the overall consumer experience with the business and it’s functions and improves Takealot’s brand equity and engagment.

What works for developed market users does not necessarily work for the African consumer.

I find that many brands follow developed market concepts, executions and ideals. With many factors affecting the user experience of the African consumer, designers need to isolate the function to the end-user whilst breaking away from the physical device and understanding the mindset in which the African user engages.

For example, if the internet connection to a website continually drops — formulating a way of taking the service ‘off-line’ with simple options that are clear and coherent to the end user should be implemented to improve the user experience. The user will also generally feel as though the service is not capable of achieving the desired end-result and the app or service is abandoned if they can not functionally use the application or service.

Capitec Bank, a retail banking solution, offers South African consumers a seamless banking experience. The experience when dealing with the bank is simplified and electronic. Banking is a breeze and often you leave the bank within 15 minutes due to the systems in place. The experience is self-regulating, automated and digital. Due to many African users being unable to read or write, signatures are done through fingerprint analysis. The bank card contains the relevant information to log a query (the entire process is almost paperless) and mobile banking through their application is one to be envied by other South African banks (and African app developers).

Internet banking, account balances, loans, transfers and statements can all be accessed via the application. Cellular data and talk time can be purchased through USSD or the application itself.

The only reason to go to the bank would be to set up an account or application — which is astonishing. Capitec bridges and intertwines the digital experience with their core brick and mortar values — and this translates well to the end-user experience.

African users need simplicity — not in the same sense as a ‘New York’ businessmen who yearns for simplicity to improve their efficiency, African users are dependent on simplicity so that they can understand what they are doing first and foremost and then by further removing the complicated processes allows African users to do what they need to without large data costs or broken connections to the service thereby capturing their attention and value.

Africa is set to rise in smartphone device usage and mobile internet. Marketers, developers and designers should look for simplicity in function and then executing accordingly whilst gathering insight from the mindsets of the African consumer, their predetermined end result of the functional service and then ultimately delivering it in a beautifully simple, seamless way.

Dilosen Naicker

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