More than half the world has a mobile phone. Let’s build for them.

Jan 31, 2015 · 3 min read

I love visiting my extended family in Colorado. I get to watch my cousins grow up, hug my grandparents, and hike a fourteener to work off the massive amount of home-cooked food consumption. On my last trip there I discovered another benefit — testing my products on three generations of users.

I could sit and watch my teenage cousins on their iPhones for hours. They have crazy high expectations for speed and efficiency, and I watched them abandon three apps in a row when they hit a loading spinner longer than a few seconds. And Marissa Mayer’s two tap rule? It’s a thing. If core functionality wasn’t immediately obvious or easy to access, they’d shake their heads and move on, usually to Snapchat.

Doing the same with grandparents is even more captivating. I heard a story from a friend recently about an elderly woman in her family who uses her iPad daily to go on Facebook, Skype with relatives, and send emails. But a totally foreign word to her is “Internet”. Yes, Internet. It sounds crazy, but when you stop and think, it makes total sense! In her own words, she “opens her iPad and presses the Facebook button”. The concept of the Internet and what powers that button is irrelevant to something that’s become just another part of her routine.

I bring all this up because those of us building products (designers, product managers, developers, UX designers, etc.) tend to optimize for an ideal user, and trust that the rest of our user base will follow the tech-savvy millenials, assuming it’s all learned behavior anyway. And in the US at least, that strategy has generally served us well.

But what happens when that methodology extends globally, to users who have adopted technology at an entirely different pace with different devices and different connectivity? Maybe it’s a strategy that scales regardless of surrounding factors, or maybe we’ll unearth an entirely different approach to meet global needs. Regardless, it’s a fascinating road ahead.

The immediate question a lot of global companies are facing is how best to optimize their products for users with poor connection or low-end phones. That beautiful, responsive, javascript-heavy site might look pretty wonky for someone accessing it in India on their Nokia 110. Or it might take sixty seconds to load for a user in Nigeria on a 2G network. Facebook and Google are leading the way with initiatives like, and some global sites have pared down experiences for feature phones. As more companies scale to emerging markets, it’ll be intriguing to see how these strategies evolve in parallel to improvements in connectivity and functionality.

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Mobile phones in Uganda’s capital, Kampala: 10 million people across the country own a phone. Photograph: Yousef Eldin

But even more interesting are the non-technological factors that could represent fundamental differences in the way people interact with digital products. Differences that can’t necessarily be overcome by simply providing faster connections or high-end devices. I can’t even begin to scratch the surface on all the possible factors, but these are some that come to mind:

  • Literacy — As products reach developing countries, the challenge of designing for illiterate users who may use voice commands, play music, take photos, etc. is a real one. Of course, there is also wonderful opportunity to increase literacy rates with educational apps.
  • Language — This is an obvious challenge when trying to scale, especially for news organizations. But product designers will also need to understands the nuances of various languages and how they affect the core interface.
  • Mobile Only — We hear a lot of “mobile first” strategies as usage dramatically shifts away from computers. Yet some markets are mobile only, which means the majority of users are interacting with digital products for the first time on mobile. The A16z podcast did a great episode on Myanmar’s 0–60 adoption of smartphones. Will we see any fundamental differences in behavior for these mobile only users?
  • Culture — Are there other cultural factors that might demand a localized product? This is a bit of a catch-all, but I’m curious to learn more about differences in user interaction that display uniqueness of cultures.

Ultimately product creators will face a lot of these challenges as they tap into emerging markets. As the world’s population comes online at an exponential pace, it’ll be fascinating to see how we evolve the way we build digital products.

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