Designing for the Next Billion

CC Dipanker Dutta

Over the past year, companies such as Google and Facebook have been encouraging developers and companies alike to build applications for “the next billion users”. And, as part of this outreach, companies have been highlighting the technical challenges that comes with building for this demographic and ways to overcome it.

While such technical guidance is extremely useful, one key aspect of developing products for the next billion users is often ignored: how should one design products for this demographic?

As of today, design patterns and languages that are advocated by companies behind the major platforms focus on primarily a Western audience, most of whom use (or have used) multiple devices. While localization is often highlighted in their guidelines, the fact remains that the guidelines simply don’t target the next billion users: users who simply haven’t experienced common design patterns from computer software and the web.

Defining The Next Billion

The “Next billion” terminology is one that isn’t completely clear to every person, and I think it’s important to define it (in our context) right at the start. To me, “The Next Billion” refers to the people who are starting to adopt the internet for the first time in their lives. These users are primarily from developing or under-developed countries, with a majority coming from countries like India, China and Indonesia.

These people have never truly used a computer before, and have the smartphone revolution (along with better and cheaper wireless connectivity) to thank for bringing them online. These users have skipped the personal computing age completely.

The Problem

Ultimately, if someone wants to develop products for this audience, it is critically important to have a better understanding of them: their social, economic and educational backgrounds, their daily routines and, ultimately, what do they use their smartphones for.

Problem is, very few people do truly understand their needs. Designers and researchers in other parts of the World are too distant to be able to, while those nearby tend to lack empathy. Most designers in India (me included) aim to be respected for our work by the Western and elite audience and aim to please them.

This means that very few people out there are truly connected with this demographic, and as a result the final products, for all their technical expertise, might not have the desired impact.

The Designing for the Next Billion Report

To better understand the needs of this particular demographic, I am conducting research in various places in India. The research includes testing out prototypes with these people that use various different design patterns that, ultimately, help them perform certain tasks. These tasks will vary from the mundane, such as opening applications and calling people, to a few “online” experiences, such as social networking and E-commerce.

The goal of the research is to compile and share the results — which design patterns worked and which didn’t — at the end with everyone. Every designer and product person around the World could benefit from understanding these people better. You may not necessarily be building for them now, but you might be soon.

The research is ongoing, and would probably take a fair amount of time — this is a very vast demographic, ultimately. However, I will keep sharing updates and learnings during its’ course. I will also be speaking on the subject at Droidcon New York City on September 29–30.