Designing an app for a semi-literate rural audience

I am a firm believer in minimalistic yet aesthetic apps, hence why I love Google and Apple. I find them to be purveyors of these beliefs. I had quite a stunning eye-opener when we recently trained our AgroCenta agents. These agents are basically responsible for data collection/entry using tablets.

One basic rule in designing is to know the audience you’re designing for. I knew my audience — or so I thought. They were semi-literate, quite alien to touch devices and lived in rural communities that had unstable internet connectivity. With this in mind I developed an app super simple and usable enough. On training day we distributed the tablets, I demoed the app and now it was practice time. As I watched the agents try to use the app I noticed there was one thing I didn’t know about my audience. They had huge fingers. Very huge fingers. Don’t ask me how come. These folks double up as farmers.

They struggled to precisely tap into standard sized text boxes, they mistakenly hit the ‘Save’ button when they were aiming for the last text box on a form, they sometimes clicked the delete button when they meant to click edit because the buttons were next to each other. I observed other difficulties in generally handling the tablets. Two thing were clear.

  1. I was going to provide a lot of phone support since we lived 12 hours apart.
  2. I had to do something about these huge fingers — asap. Unfortunately, resizing the fingers was not an option.

I immediately got to work and decided on a few things.

Colors and big buttons

If I was going to be doing a lot of phone support, I figured it will be far easier to communicate in color. It will be much easier to say “click on the red button”, so I gave each menu item a unique color and ensured there were no similar colors (red and pink). Next, I made the buttons BIG, oh yes if only you had seen the fingers I saw. I also simplified the labels on the buttons and restricted them to just one word. “Farmers” used to be “Farmer Registrations”. “AgroTrade” used to be “Farmer Deals”.

In fact, Big everything

Why not! I made all text boxes big enough to ensure there was no way even an elephant will miss typing its details. Drop downs also got enlarged.

Less typing more selecting

Commodity selection that used to be checkboxes got changed to big selectable buttons. A lot of other text boxes were changed to drop downs. The save button got as far away from the last text box as possible. This way clicking the ‘Save’ button wouldn’t be a mistake.

More data validation

Over a one week span as we watched the data come in, I realised I had to enforce stricter data validations and also provide more feedback to the user. I now display an overlay on the page when saving data, when loading data, when there are fields that need to be filled with data, when you have requested to delete a record. I realised they focused more on messages displayed in an overlay than when it was displayed within the page.

The question that almost gave me a heart attack

Just before we closed the training session one of the agents raised his hands and asked. Well, before I tell you the question let me give you a prelude to why he asked. When an agent clicks on the “Farmers” button in the app, he sees a list of all farmers he has registered. This helps him to know that the farmer details he uploaded has actually been saved. If you didn’t see it in the list, it was not saved. So now the question. “Mr. Mike, so if I register farmers this week, at the beginning of next week do I delete all the farmers for last week before registering new ones?” My heart skipped a beat. I answered him but immediately took a mental note. Now, I actually don’t delete any data. By default every record has a status of one. I just set status from one to zero if deleted. In case the deleting was accidental (even after confirming you really wanted to delete), an admin can just ‘undo’ — the status is set from zero back to one. Of course this will mean there will be genuinely deleted data still sitting around in the database but that’s okay.

The results?

The agents confirmed they were much happier with the updated app. We have seen an increase in data entry and the speed in entering the data.


I hope these pointers will help you build something awesome for your own semi-literate rural audience.